[December 7th marks National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so this week I’ve remembered and AmericanStudied some histories related to the 1941 attack. Leading up to this special post on how we remember such infamous days.]
On the complex, challenging, and crucial question of how we remember our infamous days.
Few presidential statements have been proven as accurate by the subsequent decades as Franklin Roosevelt’s description of December 7th, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy.” We have a fair number of national memory days of one kind or another, of course, but I can’t think of another that remembers anything that’s anywhere near as explicitly negative and destructive as does National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (although of course Columbus Day would qualify from the counter-argument side). The only potential equivalent would be September 11th, which doesn’t currently have an official remembrance day but likely will get there—and for that reason, along with many others, it’s worth considering how we remember an event like Pearl Harbor, and what the stakes are.
In the Atlantic essay that I hyperlinked under “likely will get there,” historian, educator, and public scholar Kevin Levin argues that, as the essay’s synopsis puts it, “Over time, our memory of national catastrophes becomes less personal and more nuanced.” But Levin’s comparison for September 11th is to our national memories of the Civil War, and I would argue that there’s an overt and key difference between that horrific event and either 9/11 or Pearl Harbor: everyone involved in the Civil War was an American (whether they wanted to admit it at the time or not), and so after the event it became and has continued for the next 150 years to be important (for better and for worse reasons) for us to find ways to produce more nuanced and less divisive memories of it. Obviously there are American communities of which we could say the same when it comes to Pearl Harbor (ie, Japanese Internment) and 9/11 (the anti-Muslim backlash), but the fact remains that those infamous events were caused by nations and entities outside of America, and so it’s entirely possible for us to continue to define them through a more explicitly divided, us vs. them frame.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, or at least not absolutely—Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were both, in their definitely distinct ways, attacks on the United States by such external forces, and there’s no way we can or should try to remember them outside of such a frame. While I would certainly emphasize remembering those who were lost in the attacks, rather than focusing our attention on the attackers, that shift wouldn’t change the fundamental frame so much as (potentially) produce different emotional responses to it (mourning rather than anger, for example). This 2016 Obama White House statement on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day illustrates this kind of emphasis and emotion nicely, I’d say. But to come back to Levin’s argument, I would agree with him that more nuance—more understanding of the multiple perspectives and histories contained in an event, and the various and often competing causes and elements that lead up to it, and the equally varied and in many cases still unfolding results—should always be part of our goal for such remembrance as well. That it’s far more difficult to reach for such nuance when it comes to these external attacks (compared to the Civil War) only makes the effort that much more valuable.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?