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Grace Liu, 11th Grade, High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ

The Axle of History: Pearl Harbor in Retrospect

Almost seventy years after Japanese bomber planes descended on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, we are still mesmerized by the dawn attack that prompted open American involvement in World War II. Nonfiction shelves sag under the weight of doorstopper analyses, each determined to outdo the others in page count and plaintive hypotheticals: What systemic failure of the American intelligence corps allowed the attack to slip through the cracks? How could we have prevented it? What would have happened if America had nabbed the culprits in time? Pearl Harbor’s enduring resonance, however, is not just a product of its historical importance. Though it changed the path of World War II and re-carved political maps around the world, its influence reaches far beyond the end of the Second World War. As the representative moment that turned the people of its decade into the “Greatest Generation” and created an era of unprecedented (and as-yet unequaled) national unity, Pearl Harbor is the symbol of a so-called national Golden Age which, whether or not it existed, still has a solid hold on the imaginations of the American people.

The Pearl Harbor mania reflects nostalgia for a simpler time. For the Greatest Generation, the enemy was limned in red and broadcast its intentions with humming motors and Japanese-flag circles on the wings of its planes. Its crimes were easy to quantify: 18 ships sunk, 2400 Americans killed, hundreds of planes ruined. The early terrorists who attacked the naval base were an organized national group, emissaries of Japan’s totalitarian government, fighting alongside Fascist dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. For those who lived through Pearl Harbor, the world was painted in black and white, and Pearl Harbor set the morally explicit conflict lines that would be used to define World War II—it was good against evil, the light of the West against the dictators of Europe and the Far East.

Today’s world is not so obliging when it comes to lack of ambiguity. From the Korean War onwards, the United States has failed to find the stark moral lines that so characterized the Second World War. American involvement in the Asian Communist struggles during the Cold War proved divisive and controversial because they were not instigated by an overt existential threat. There was no unprovoked attack to galvanize the American people; for Vietnam, Gulf of Tonkin was hardly as inspiring or convincing a cause as Pearl Harbor. To complicate matters, as the media has become less censored, the United States has become less convinced of its position on the side of the right. After the televised pictures of the war dead brought home the full scope of Vietnam, public support for the war dropped precipitously. In the aftermath, America became a veritable poster child for national disunity: protest marches, the confrontation at Kent State, counterculture in a traditionally conservative America. Accounts of the wars from non-American perspectives compounded matters by casting America in a negative light; its meddling in Eastern Asia could be construed as that of an arrogant superpower, full of hubris and imperialist aims. In the midst of this turmoil, the Second World War became a Golden Age, and “the day that [would] live in infamy” transformed into the vehicle that allowed it to develop and flourish.

The United States’ more recent adventures in the Middle East show a similar trajectory. The Gulf War is an ethical morass—it is not inconceivable to call it a war for oil, as opposed to the higher principles that so captivated Pearl-Harbor era Americans. The later invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are sloppy conflicts that lack popular support because they are cast in shades of gray. While the terrorist bombings on September 11, 2001 is often considered the Pearl Harbor of the east coast, the culprit cannot be pinned to a particular national group. There were no “Japs” to whip; the United States’ war on terror is against Muslim extremists, but Al-Qaeda is a multinational network that defies the easy categorization offered by a nation-state like Japan. As a result, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan do not afford the easy moral judgments of World War II. Social divisions have turned Congress into a legislative gridlock; essays and books routinely speculate on the dissociation of the American consciousness. Just as we are now re-hailing the days of white picket fences and neighborhood barbecues, so Americans have come to see the years following Pearl Harbor as the high water mark in our nation’s history. We hark back to our Golden Age, wondering how we transformed from the “above average” people of Lake Wobegon and searching for a road back to the way we were.

This, perhaps, is why we continue to be so enthralled by the spectacle of Pearl Harbor: it served as the catalyst for a clearer, kinder era, a truly united America composed of Rosie the Riveters and G.I. Joes, full of blind, righteous faith in the American cause. We look back to a time before the enormous protest marches of Vietnam, before the fractured consciousness of today’s America and yearn for the days when the American cause was invariably the right one, the moral one. Pearl Harbor, at least in the golden haze of nostalgia, represents the high point of American patriotism and unity, a sort of pre/post-partisan moment when America put aside its differences and fought for dignity and freedom. For the grasp it still has on the American consciousness, for its enduring influence on American social and political scene, we cannot forget Pearl Harbor. To make sense of the present, to begin to plan for the future, we must first understand the past. Pearl Harbor is the axle on which the history of the past seventy years has turned; it is the touchstone for all debates of America’s role in the world. Without comprehending Pearl Harbor and its impact, we cannot identify the key forces shaping policy today; without remembering it, we cannot make sense of the world.


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Student Travel – WWII Educational Tours
High school and college students, learn the leadership principles that helped win WWII on a trip to France or during a weeklong residential program in New Orleans. College credit is available, and space is limited.

See You Next Year! HS Yearbooks from WWII
Collected from across the United States, the words and pictures of these yearbooks present a new opportunity to experience the many challenges, setbacks and triumphs of the war through the eyes of America’s youth.

The Victory Gardens of WWII
Visit the Classroom Victory Garden Project website to learn about food production during WWII, find lesson plans and activities for elementary students, get tips for starting your own garden and try out simple Victory Garden recipes!

The Science and Technology of WWII
Visit our new interactive website to learn about wartime technical and scientific advances that forever changed our world. Incorporates STEM principles to use in the classroom.

Kids Corner: Fun and Games!
Make your own propaganda posters, test your memory, solve puzzles and more! Learn about World War II and have fun at the same time.

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