Pearl Harbor

December 07, 1991

It was all so simple in the words of the old song: "Let's remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe; let's remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo." So simple to remember American boys dying, to remember a demonized foe, to remember the humiliation of defeat and the unifying vengeance that was in time to bring victory.

But like the Alamo and the Maine, the circumstances that led to war in 1941 were complicated by diplomatic maneuverings and deeply embedded American notions of superiority. If Pearl Harbor was more of a shock than any other instant in the nation's history, it was a product of racial stereotyping of the Japanese and isolationist assumptions that two mighty oceans would forever protect this country. As Mike Mansfield said in last Sunday's Perspective, we had "become pretty complacent and a little too self-satisfied."

Now, on this 50th anniversary of "a date which will live infamy," America is far from self-satisfied but still pretty complacent. We are told on every hand that we have won the Cold War and have emerged as the world's only remaining superpower. Our military prowess is unchallenged, unmatchable, vulnerable only to suicidal or fanatical strikes that could wound but not kill the nation.

Yet we are not self-satisfied, and for reasons that pierce deeply into our relationship with Japan. We might be the world's only remaining military superpower, but we are losing ground in the battle for economic superiority. Not only Japan but a German-led Europe threatens to outstrip us in the very qualities Americans once claimed as their own: entrepreneurship, technological adaptation, marketplace competitiveness.

All this does not lead to Pogo's conclusion that "the enemy is us." Japan remains much too protectionist. The leaders of the European Community cannot bring themselves to dismantle a farm subsidy system that severely penalizes U.S. agriculture. But competition is supposedly as American as apple pie. Now our task is to find the proper balance between military vigilance and domestic vigor.

The period from 1945 to the mid-70s was the glorious, prosperous legacy of World War II. The enemies we defeated were raised up by our own generosity; American living standards soared as never before; the eventual triumph of Western free enterprise over Communism was put in train. But since then, there has been a growing fear of national decline and a deterioration in the quality of life. Budget deficits, trade deficits, slow growth in productivity, drugs, crime, poverty and many other problems in American society should tell us that now is the time to regroup and redress.

There will be no Pearl Harbor to shock us into action. But memories of what this country could do when aroused should be used not to take refuge in protectionism and isolationism but to reclaim a sense of destiny and good purpose. This would be a fitting memorial to all those who died 50 years ago today and in all the battles that followed.

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