Days of infamy

History: The attacks of Pearl Harbor and September 11th shocked and changed America, but the parallels may end there.

December 07, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, University of Pennsylvania history professor Thomas Childers was talking to a group of students about dates that would always be remembered.

"When I mentioned Dec. 7, 1941, I got blank stares. They had no idea what I was talking about."

Childers discovered that his students' ignorance was not limited to the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that occurred 62 years ago today, a date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "would live in infamy."

"I discovered they did not really know anything about World War II. There was not a single course devoted to it." So Childers started one. It now attracts more than 300 students.

In the years after Childers discovered younger generations' ignorance of this titanic struggle that left 60 million dead and reshaped the map of the world, remembering World War II became something of a cottage industry. When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, there was a fertile field for comparisons to Dec. 7, 1941.

Starting in 1993, Stephen Ambrose's series of books on World War II proved immensely popular.

In 1998, Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation praised those who fought and won World War II. That same year, Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan brought home the brutality and heroism of the Allied invasion of France.

The big movie of the summer of 2001 was supposed to be the expensive, highly promoted film Pearl Harbor. Band of Brothers, a miniseries based on Ambrose's 1993 book, premiered on the HBO cable channel on Sept. 9 of that year.

Two days later, America watched the World Trade Centers fall and the Pentagon be attacked.

"Pearl Harbor had a greater visibility that year than it had since 1941," says Emily Rosenberg, a historian at MacAlester College.

"It was a frame for September 11th," says Rosenberg, author of a new book, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor and American Memory. "It was a frame that had been constructed over the previous decade, but it appeared to come so naturally that it seemed to tell us everything we needed to know about September 11th."

As Rosenberg notes, the day after the 2001 attack, many headlines screamed "Infamy," Roosevelt's word for Dec 7, 1941. Three months later, at ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Bush said of the new enemy, "We've seen their kind before. The terrorists are the heirs to fascism."

"There is no question," says Robert W. Maddox, an emeritus professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, "that President Bush, in many speeches, has attempted to draw parallels between World War II and the present circumstances. He has made many analogies, both in terms of the conflict and the reconstruction in Iraq."

The basic analogy is obvious - a sudden, unexpected attack on American soil that must be avenged. The deeper comparison is comforting as the attack on Pearl Harbor is remembered as the beginning of a noble struggle that defeated the forces of evil. Rosenberg ties it to a longer American tradition, saying Pearl Harbor itself was framed by the stories of the Alamo and Custer's Last Stand.

"Pearl Harbor updated the older legend for a new generation, but it uses the same structure," she says. "Now in a sense, September 11th has updated that same structure."

She describes that structure as "an attack by racial - or racialized - others that is personal, that is on our soil, and that demands overwhelming retribution and use of force, but with the assurance of victory in the end because of the goodness of our cause.

"It is a very reassuring narrative in that regard. It is important to people that they are embarked on a good and noble undertaking, that there is nothing ambiguous about it," she says.

The question is if Pearl Harbor provides an apt analogy, an appropriate narrative for the struggle against terrorism.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the world war was raging. Germany had invaded Poland two years before. Japan had moved brutally into China and then French Indochina. Roosevelt had stopped shipments of scrap metal and oil to Japan, and its leaders were seething. Many thought Japan would strike the Philippines or American interests in Indonesia. The main shock of Pearl Harbor was the target - a huge U.S. naval base on American territory.

"The tension with Japan was building up and up," says John Jeffries, a historian at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Pearl Harbor came as a dreadful surprise in one sense but not the same kind of surprise that the September 11th attacks were."

"In some ways the attack on Pearl Harbor resolved things," he says. "The question was, would we go war or not? What was going to happen? The nation was teetering. Pearl Harbor resolved all of that. I don't know what September 11th resolved. It really opened up a whole bunch of questions. Who is the enemy? Who do we go after? The Taliban? Iraq?"

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