Thinking about history 80 years ago

US Navy Photo of Pearl Harbor

By Ande Jacobson

“December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy….” That happened 80 years ago today. I’m way too young to have heard that speech live the day after the attack, but my parents lived through it. I was pretty young when my father died, so I don’t know much about his personal experiences growing up, but my mother told me many stories from her childhood including her recollections of their lives during the war. Although she was pretty young, she remembers the terror it created around her. She talked about the measures that the country took to support the war effort and how everyone pulled together in a way that seemed impossible even half a century later, although even as a young child she was also painfully aware of the limits of who was considered American even then. My grandfather worked for the U.S. Postal Service and was considered a critical worker. He was also just a hair too old to join the military and worked two jobs during the war to support the many dependents of the multigenerational extended family living under their roof. It was a difficult time and success wasn’t guaranteed, but they survived. Sometime later when my mother and my aunt were a little bit older, my grandmother also started working for the post office.

Now some 80 years later, the type of unity the country saw then seems unimaginable. It’s a very different thing examining historical events from a distance and living through them. Even then, as the country largely united to support the war effort, there were horrific actions taken putting another blot on our nation’s history. Irrational fear of “others” drove officials to intern U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into detention camps, many whose families had lived here for generations. Being on the west coast, my mother was painfully aware of this as well. The same wasn’t done to those of German or Italian descent, so it wasn’t just that they originally emigrated from countries who were then our enemies. It was something else more insidious and pathological. These were the ugly stains of racism and other-ism that are so prevalent in today’s culture wars.

Although I can only look at that period through the lens of history, not personal experience, I can’t think about WWII and not recognize the tribalism that it stirred. With few exceptions, the nations of the world lined up behind one of two sides, the fascists who started it, or the more liberal nations who fought against them and ultimately won, at least for a time. Sadly, the threat of authoritarianism in its various forms has remained ever present.

Today, we are living through what seems like a worldwide conflict against the authoritarian threat again. Since WWII, there have been countless smaller scale conflicts and some larger, amorphous ones that defy national boundaries, yet they all spark intense tribalism just the same. Some are religious, some are economic, some are territorial, and all spawn new versions of “us” and “them.” People are so quick to draw those lines, yet the reality is that those distinctions are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The world is so interconnected that aggression in one part of the world sends ripples across the globe, and as humans, we are all “us” and need one another.

Thinking about Pearl Harbor Day reminds me of the great sacrifices that the people alive at that time made so that future generations could thrive, or at least have the chance to do so. Today, we really should be doing more to help each other thrive rather than continuing to draw so many lines and taking shots at one another.

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