No moment in the history of the United States casts a longer shadow than Pearl Harbor. “Remembering” it has become a national imperative, a patriotic duty for the American people, and reminding us of that duty has become a ritual of media and political discourse—repeated so often and in so many ways that it’s become part of the routine of our communal life. You might say, even 80 years after the fact, Pearl Harbor is still a national obsession.
And no wonder! The drama of the event justifies every bit of the attention it has received. Those Japanese Zeros and Kates and Vals swooping out of the sky were carrying out the first armed attack on US territory since the British burned Washington in August 1814—a long time ago, even in 1941. A sudden and surprise attack (we used to call it a “sneak attack” when I was a boy, though that phrase seems to have dropped out of our vocabulary); a US fleet utterly unprepared for what was transpiring and barely able to defend itself; battleships sunk; mass casualties?: Pearl Harbor was a national trauma, the kind of grisly event that would be hard to forget even if we tried.
In 1941, the United States went to war, quite literally, with “Remember Pearl Harbor!” as its battle cry, and even today, it seems entirely fitting that our war with Japan began at one anchorage and ended at another. Stretching from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, the Pacific War was an almost perfect example of historical symmetry.
Will Americans ever forget? Today, certainly, there seems little chance of that happening. Indeed, we hear the words “Pearl Harbor” all the time. Whenever something surprising, shocking, or disastrous happens, someone, somewhere calls it “a new Pearl Harbor.”
Here’s a partial list:
From the 1990s to the present time, digital analysts in and out of government have been warning the country of the dangers of a terrorist attack on our essential computer systems. They paint a dire picture: critical infrastructure wrecked, the electrical grid taken down, hospitals and other essential services shuttered for months. And when they describe these catastrophic scenarios of doom, they invariably accompany them with a key descriptive phrase, warning us of “a cyber Pearl Harbor.”
Likewise, no one alive in 2001 can possibly forget the number of times that opinion leaders and politicians likened the horrible events of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, often describing the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center as “this generation’s Pearl Harbor.” Once again, the country went to war—a pair of wars, in fact—with Pearl Harbor on our lips, or at least a metaphorical version of it. Indeed, a backlash soon arose, with just as many pundits arguing that 9/11 was not particularly similar to Pearl Harbor, and that the continued use of the comparison could be harmful, since we weren’t fighting a war against an identifiable country as we were in 1941. One way or the other, however, Pearl Harbor was much in the news that year.
In 2008, with global markets tanking, banks closing, and real estate values plummeting—all early warning signs of what was about to become the Great Recession—industrialist and financial guru Warren Buffett argued that it was time for a government bailout. Why? Because according to the “sage of Omaha,” the country was facing an “economic Pearl Harbor.”
In April 2020, with COVID-19 just then getting untracked in the United States and the infection and death toll beginning to rise, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned Americans that the country was in trouble and that they had better get ready to hear more bad news. Why? Because “this is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment…,” he said, “and I want America to understand that.”
Unlike much of US political life today, the obsession with Pearl Harbor is widely shared and bipartisan. Republicans used it to discuss President Donald Trump’s impeachment (described by one Republican congressman as a moment of “infamy”); the other side of the aisle has used it to characterize the Capitol Riot of January 2021 (with a Democratic congressman arguing that, as in 1941, “our democracy was at stake.”)
And sometimes it’s just absurd. Consider that unforgettable moment in December 2020 when Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn invoked Pearl Harbor to describe his team’s mood after getting hammered by the New England Patriots 45-0. How did he feel? It was “a Pearl Harbor day,” he said, “one of the biggest defeats this country’s had.” The game was actually played on December 6, but the coach’s meaning was clear enough.
The point is not to make fun of anyone or to be overly critical of the metaphors people use. We invoke Pearl Harbor whenever things are bad, really bad, when it’s time to respond to a threat, or when we need an exhortation to get up, dust ourselves off, and do something.
While we should never reduce Pearl Harbor to a cliché, our continued use of the metaphor is proof positive that our history matters, that shared memories are essential to tying Americans together as a people. Every time we remember Pearl Harbor, we recall the events of that day, and the brave men who died there. But perhaps we remember something about who we are, too.