... But who gets remembered?

P. Scott Corbett

December 04, 1991|By P. Scott Corbett

THE 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is occasion for much nostalgia and historical reflection. But before we go off the deep end with memorial ceremonies and righteous indignation over Japan's past sins or present challenge to America's position in the world, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves which America we are going to remember Saturday -- and whom we'll invite to the celebration.

Will we remember the America of the 1940s and bemoan its passing? To many, that era now is cast in roseate glow. Surely the America of the '40s was preferable to the America of the '90s. Wasn't it a simpler time? People trusted one another and their government. People worked hard then and kept their word. We didn't have so many problems: sex, drugs, violence. When the Japanese attacked, we all banded together and fought to preserve freedom, democracy and the American way of life. These will be the words and phrases heard Saturday.

But how accurate are they?

In 1941 America was still not out of the Depression and thousands of homeless Americans -- they were called "hobos" -- rode the rails in search of jobs and elusive opportunities. In 1941 hundreds of thousands of black Americans were languishing in the slums and in rural poverty -- their lot in life because of the color of their skin. Paid less, hired for the lowest positions (if they were hired at all), first to be laid off and buffeted by a majority population that rarely considered them equal partners in the noble democratic experiment, African-Americans were hardly living in a golden age.

If there was not exactly peace, harmony and mutual trust between and among all Americans in 1941, then certainly the relations between the people and their government were more harmonious and more honest.

But most Americans didn't know a half century ago that various naval units had already been engaged in a secret war for several months. President Roosevelt had, by executive action (and without informing the public or soliciting authorization from Congress), authorized the use of deadly force against German submarines.

In fact, as early as Dec. 18, 1941 (and still today) people accused President Roosevelt of callously manipulating the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. His purpose, it was said, was to get the U.S. into the war so it could save Britain from defeat at the hands of those same Germans.

America in 1941 was still a nation that tolerated lynchings as quick and effective forms of "frontier justice." Such violence was part and parcel of social and political life in parts of the country. The rights of individuals were constitutionally guaranteed but not as broadly defined as today and certainly not as consistently protected in the case of minorities or women.

And who has been invited to our commemorative events? Undoubtedly the survivors of the disaster at Pearl Harbor will be present. There will be an effort to remember those who died there, or in the other battles of World War II, or in other battles of the several wars America has waged since. Heroes will be gladly welcomed, but will all the heroes be included? If the picture in our mind's eye is of American seamen valiantly trying to mount some defense as the Japanese planes circle the harbor, what will they look like?

Will they look like white middle-class Americans, or will they resemble Doris "Dorie" Miller, an African-American who served as mess attendant on the West Virginia? During the first Japanese assault, the captain of the West Virginia was badly wounded and lay abandoned on the ship's deck, exposed to further harm. Miller dragged him to safety. Then he relieved a wounded shipmate at one of the machine gun emplacements, and with no previous training on how to operate the weapon, he shot down four Japanese planes.

Miller conducted himself heroically and honorably. Still, it took the Navy a year to grudgingly award him the Navy Cross for heroism in battle. A year later he went down with his ship.

Which America we remember this year and who gets invited to our ceremonies depends in part on what sort of country we envision for the future. Perhaps because we cannot really control the days ahead, we fashion what we think was reality in the days past. Sometimes it's a reality of wishful thinking.

P. Scott Corbett is a professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb.

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