More than a half-century ago, in the dark November days after the Kennedy assassination, White House officials set the date for members of Lyndon B. Johnson’s family to move from their home in Washington’s Spring Valley into the executive mansion: Dec. 7, 1963. Lady Bird Johnson was aghast.
“I wished it could have been the 6th or the 8th or the 9th,” she told me almost 16 years ago. She thought that moving into the White House on Dec. 7 was, as she put it in that long-ago conversation, “a day of ill omen.”
Hardly anyone alive this week — in the days before the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — would react as viscerally as Mrs. Johnson did. Only 4 percent of Americans who served in World War II remain alive today. Only about 2.3 percent of Americans alive now have real-life memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Those stunning demographic figures, combined with this year’s landmark anniversary of the day that Franklin Roosevelt vowed would “live in infamy,” raise questions about how vivid Pearl Harbor will remain in American life as it slips from American memory. In the years since Lyndon Johnson’s wife prepared her family to move into the White House, the date Dec. 7, 1941, has lost some of its punch — perhaps the victim of time, maybe because it has been replaced by Sept. 11, 2001, in infamy.
But the lessons and meaning of Pearl Harbor are as fresh today as they were 75 years ago — “a reminder,” as former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who was wounded seriously in Italy in the last days of World War II, put it in an interview the other day, “of the price paid, of the suffering and sacrifice not only by Americans but also by people around the world — for freedom.”
And yet, the attack on Pearl Harbor is as far removed from today as Reconstruction was from Pearl Harbor. And just as the congressional override of President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had ripple effects that extended into American life in 1941, Pearl Harbor has ripple effects that shape the way we live in 2016.
“There are certain events so transformative, so crucial, so important, that their imprint is so deep that they will not disappear,” said Edward Linenthal, an Indiana University historian. “Years and years from now, Pearl Harbor will still have enormous resonance given how it helped change the world.”
And so, even though Pearl Harbor soon will be firmly rooted in history and removed from current memory, the events that it set in motion affect us still.
They shape our outlooks and our daily lives, they give context to our crises, they provide explanations for our problems. The battles at Lexington and Concord, and the fights at Bull Run and Antietam, and the attack on Pearl Harbor and their aftermaths, shaped our country and our identity. Just as oil from the wrecked ship USS Arizona still bubbles to the surface in Pearl Harbor, the transformations that grew out of the Japanese attack still are visible on the surface of American life.
This fall, the historian Michael Birkner is teaching a Gettysburg College seminar on World War II, and throughout the semester he has been reminded how far from the lives of college students is the world of 1941. “This is a world students today can imagine only by reading or seeing films, for it is not part of their world — and, in fact, Vietnam is not a part of their world either,” Mr. Birkner said. “Today’s college students don’t even have any meaningful memory of Sept. 11.”
And yet their world was carved out of World War II, which brought to the end three dictatorial empires, reduced the power of Britain and France, and marked the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as surpassing military and industrial powers. The conflict transformed gender roles at home and caused stirrings of political independence in Asia and Africa. It began the Atomic Age and the Cold War, took radar and computers into the center of modern life, and made crimes against humanity a new genre of international law.
It also provided a burst of good will toward America that survives even today. “People around the world remember the liberation and who did it,” said Mr. Dole, who is to gather with former President George H.W. Bush, who was shot down over the Pacific in World War II, for a Pearl Harbor commemoration in Texas Wednesday. “They love this country because they know what we did and the heavy casualties we took. As bad as the war was, it kept millions from virtual slavery.”
In all, 4 percent of the world’s population died in World War II, and the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were born of it. A new age of open international trade began — a disputed notion at the center of our politics today. The war set in motion massive movements of populations — and caused mass postwar hunger in Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and divided Germany. For the first time, civilians were on the front line — a frightful change that bedevils us in the age of terrorism. The Pittsburgh Courier, the leading black newspaper in the nation, proclaimed the “Double V” campaign, hoping to win freedom for the oppressed both overseas and, pointedly, at home — a struggle that continues today.
Not all wars have this significant an effect. The legacy of the Franco-Prussian War, for example, has largely disappeared. The mechanism of killing set in motion in World War I, brutal and remorseless as it was, has dimmed, now more a matter of movies and memoir than memory.
Here in Pittsburgh, a World War I memorial in Lawrenceville — darkened with age, with the names of those who died, as the tribute says, “that freedom may live,” now difficult to read — has lost its prominence. That’s even though World War I brought to an end four monarchies, installed communism in Russia, prompted the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, established the United States as the world’s leading creditor nation, replaced horses with tanks and aircraft in military conflict, and caused an influenza epidemic that killed as many as 40 million people.
“The people who were kin to the World War I soldiers lived in [Lawrenceville], and then they dispersed and the conflict was forgotten,” said Kirk Savage, who teaches the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. “War memorials like that one often go obsolete when the main constituency — the veterans of that war and their families — starts to disappear.”
But World War II endures in American consciousness, in large measure for the same reasons the Civil War endures — “because,” said David Blight, a Yale historian, “its great issues have always been with us …” In the case of the Civil War, those include “the legacies of slavery, the transformation of the Constitution, the emergence of Jim Crow and the attempt to overthrow Jim Crow.”
In public memory, great events like Pearl Harbor stay with us not because they are memorialized but because the vital questions they illuminate endure — and because we are not beyond the issues that World War II put at the center of American life. Our children’s children will commemorate the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, as we do, they will live with its consequences.