Our View: Days of infamy too soon fade away
"Do you know anything special about this day?"
A pair of News Tribune reporters fanned out into downtown Duluth 66 years ago today and repeatedly posed that question. A waitress recalled a first date, a Canadian visitor recounted his treacherous drive over icy highways to reach Duluth, and a mother of three apparently felt the query was a gag.
"She held her arms over her progeny, and the brood retreated up the street — sans answer," the newspaper reported the following morning.
The reporters pressed on.
"Two fellows, a young man and an older gentleman, were enjoying beverages in a hotel," they wrote. "The older man, when asked the question, said the date held no particular significance. The young man smiled brightly."
Finally. Someone was able to correctly identify the significance of the day, which was that it was the 10th anniversary of Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the event that drew the U.S. into World War II, shattering our sense of invincibility. It was the day that would "live in infamy," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously declared.
But just 10 years later, "infamy" already was being lost. Only eight of the 25 people personally polled by the News Tribune were able to accurately recall it as Pearl Harbor Day. And half of them were military members or veterans.
Imagine if such polling was conducted today. How long before anyone at all would correctly recall and provide an accurate response?
Oh, Duluth still holds an annual Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony. Today's is at 11 a.m. in Paulucci Hall at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Mayor Emily Larson is scheduled to be there. Few others will be.
Busy lives roll on. New moments of significance occur. Those who lived through and were affected by the horribleness of a significant event start dying off. And then keep dying off. And we forget. Or choose not to recall.
The attack on Pearl Harbor is far from alone in its unfortunate fade into history.
"Remember the Maine" was a rallying cry after the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898, helping to spark the Spanish-American war. Nobody remembers the Maine anymore.
Even the significance of Sept. 11, the Pearl Harbor of a new generation, is slipping away. Hundreds of us used to flock to Bayfront Festival Park and elsewhere during those first few anniversaries. No commemoration was even held last year in Duluth.
So why remember Pearl Harbor, especially now, more than three quarters of a century later?
Because the day continues to impact U.S. foreign policy, for one reason. For more than 70 years, that policy, at its core, has had as a goal preventing another Pearl Harbor, as the Gaston Gazette of Gaston County, N.C., argued in 2012. "Life would be forever different as a result" of Pearl Harbor, the paper said in an editorial.
Our global standing and how it shifted suddenly that Sunday morning in Hawaii, for another reason. "The attack," the Gazette stated, "sealed America's fate to be a global leader during World War II and beyond — a role this nation still plays."
The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, S.C., went as far as to argue that Pearl Harbor made the U.S. the nation it is today — clearly another reason to never forget.
"Older people lament that younger generations do not and will not remember what happened that day," Orangeburg's 2010 editorial read. "But veterans expect media not to forget. ... So many Americans were lost that day and in the years after. They made possible the nation we take so for granted."
Only a few days had passed in December 1941 when "remember Pearl Harbor" first appeared in the New York Times, it reported in 2011. Barely a week passed before Hollywood registered the words as a movie title.
"There was something paradoxical in that instant call to remember," the Times opined. "It wasn't as if any American then living could forget. Certainly not those who were there, who smelled the blazing oil on the water, heard the shriek of sirens and planes, the frantic tapping of men trapped in the capsized Oklahoma. Certainly not those who heard the news that day of the lives lost and of world war.
"'Remember Pearl Harbor' was first a call to do battle, of course, to keep fresh the shock and rage and to summon the unity needed to win a long, exhausting war. Today, Japan is a democracy and a close ally — proof that extremism and historic grievances can be overcome," the editorial continued. "Remembering in this way — nurturing a flame, not a grudge — elevates both the memory and the rememberer."
So we can remember, too, that there's something special about this day. Just as the young man did while enjoying a beverage in a downtown Duluth hotel, his smile bright, 66 years ago today.
"I was at Pearl Harbor," he told the reporter.
We don't need to have been there to resist the fade into history of today's anniversary, to delay, for as long as possible, its status as just another historical footnote.