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Home > Special Topics > US Report Last Updated: 15:20 03/09/2007
US Report #5: December 15, 2003

How the U.S. Remembers Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)


Media reports indicate that fewer people in the U.S. remember Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Although memorial services were held throughout the country, organizers are saying that the number of people who attend is thinning each year. While the larger ceremonies boasted over 300 participants, the Pentagon's official commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack on 7 December had only three-dozen "onlookers", according to the Washington Post. Some attribute this to the dwindling number of survivors. There are approximately 6,500 still alive, however, most are ill and find it difficult to move. Michelle Bradley of Houston attempted to over-come this by organizing a videoconference between U.S. teenagers and Pearl Harbor survivors. She was concerned that the passing away of the World War II generation was causing people in America to "lose a vital link to that era". Her initiative aimed to fuel interest among youth towards World War II and preserve personal accounts of the battle. Indeed, the universal message evident in all U.S. newspapers regarding Pearl Harbor is "do not forget". Nevertheless, most veterans wonder what will happen in a few years time. The fear is that the kids will say, "What's December 7th?"

However, memory loss didn't seem to be too much of a problem two years ago. The largest services in recent history were recorded on December 7, 2001, three months after September 11th. There were several reasons for this. First, was because the U.S. had never experienced such a massive attack on its own territory since Pearl Harbor. The second connection related to the fact that until 9/11, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor represented the worst intelligence failure in American history.

While the first comparison dominated the headlines in 2001, today, more reports and commentaries are stressing the second link. Frank Karas, an Army Air Corps Private at the time of the attack, emphasized the latter. He unequivocally stated that, "we (the U.S.) had cracked the code. Washington knew about it. Its been said for the last 62 years that Roosevelt knew about it, the only way to (get the U.S. to enter the war) was to let the Japanese attack us first When we get intelligence, we've got to use it. Now they're saying September 11, we had plenty of knowledge but nobody did nothing about it. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. We get these people in office and they don't know what the hell they are doing." (San Francisco Chronicle, 8 December 2003).

Despite these two similarities, there are some who insist that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 should not be compared to Pearl Harbor. Bernard "Sandy" Santamoor, who was a Private, First Class, with the 27th Infantry Regiment stationed in Pearl Harbor at the time of the strike, argues this very point. In his interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he insisted that, "one was a terrorist attack. There is no defense against a terrorist attack The other was a military strike."

There are of course others in the U.S. such as the famous radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who completely miss the mark. His views on Pearl Harbor remembrance was as follows: "Here we have an event that happened in 1941 that's now the second worst attack on America, Pearl Harbor, and the whole country is unified in honoring the people who fought and died there. The worst attack, obviously, was September 11, 2001, and the people who are dying and fighting to avenge that have half the country complaining about them, and complaining about the policy. Isn't it interesting how we can all come together for December 7th, 1941, but when it comes to 9/11, 2001, why, we are divided?"

Concern that a nation will forget those who died prematurely as a result of war is a legitimate one, however, views such as those voiced by Limbaugh are irresponsible and reckless to say the least. Most who remember Pearl Harbor do not stress feelings of anger and the desire for revenge rather they voice regret and bitterness over the loss of a friend, parent or grandparent. Most who remember World War II will speak to the horrors of war and express their deepest desire to prevent it from ever happening again. However, people like Rush Limbaugh, who incidentally has the largest radio audience in America, breed hatred and promote violence and retribution as the solution. This contrast may be a remarkable portrait of America today. Most ordinary people would tell you that they do not promote violent revenge, yet their hawkish leaders offer no alternative.

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