New York. -- Remember Pearl Harbor! The American battle cry of World War II has become a question in the 1990s: Remember Pearl Harbor? And the correct answer is: Not me.
''A date which will live in infamy!'' said President Franklin D. Roosevelt of December 7, 1941, 50 years ago. There are many now who would prefer that the 50th anniversary of the sneak attack on Hawaii be a day that lives in anonymity.
There is trouble right here in Media City about the anniversary. Publishers and television executives have got a problem they can only whisper about, first looking around to make sure no one will overhear them: The Japanese did it.
It was the Japanese, our friends and co-owners, whose planes came roaring out of the sunrise that Sunday morning to sink a major portion of the Pacific fleet of the U.S. Navy. It was a perfect surprise attack. There was no war, the United States was totally unprepared, and Japanese negotiators were in Washington, going through the diplomatic motions of finding a formula to maintain peace in the Pacific. Nineteen ships were sunk, 150 planes destroyed on the ground; 2,335 soldiers and sailors were killed and more than 1,200 civilians were killed or wounded.
It is one of the most important events in U.S. history -- the end of American innocence, the end of the idea that no hostile force could reach any part of the United States. It was, for us, the beginning of World War II. ''No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory,'' said Roosevelt before a joint session of Congress. ''So help us God.''
Now it is an important embarrassment in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, the megaphones of America. Television specials, books and magazine covers, and spreads on the anniversary have been in the works for a while, but they are in trouble. The television projects are having difficulties getting commercials, because so many U.S. companies have Japanese owners or investors or customers. Why take the chance of upsetting them?
On the print side, Japanese and Japanese-dependent advertisers have been discreetly inquiring about the editorial plans of various publications' issues nearest December 7; if there is going to be Pearl Harbor coverage, please cancel our advertising for that issue.
''Obviously it's easier to just forget about the whole thing,'' said one publisher, who is doing just that. It's a terrible year for advertising already, so who needs this kind of trouble? (I am not using any names here, because that would simply make more trouble for people who are my friends.)
I realized what was happening the other day when I was consulted about a Pearl Harbor film already in production. I asked, innocently, who were the Japanese consultants for their half of the story. There were none, I was told after some hesitation. I began to get the idea that someone was trying to do a piece without villains or villainy. In fact, I had the distinct impression that the idea was to suggest that the invaders came from Mars, rather than from the aircraft carriers of the imperial Japanese navy.
Perhaps all this is as it should be. Both the United States and Japan are determined and assertive societies and, all things considered, we are working relatively well together these days. Besides that, we have to remember that we are also coming upon the 50th anniversary, in the summer of 1995, of the two days on which the U.S. Air Force, on orders from President Truman, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- indiscriminately killing more than 150,000 Japanese.
Why should history and other unpleasantness disturb commercial relationships? In these times, it is only appropriate that history, too, should meet the tests of free markets. If history is not good for business, then we should forget about it -- until it is time to repeat it. Forget Pearl Harbor!
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.