Pearl Harbor: Will today’s Americans step up to their own ‘greatest generation’ moment?

Written by Derek Monson

December 7, 2020

Seventy-nine years ago, Christmas was approaching as normal on the island of Oahu. On the morning of December 7, 1941 – a day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy” – civilian and military personnel in Pearl Harbor went about their normal Sunday morning activities.

Just before 8 a.m. that day, Pearl Harbor was attacked by hundreds of Japanese warplanes seeking to cripple or destroy the U.S. Pacific naval fleet. The attack came as a surprise to naval forces stationed in Hawaii, and 2,400 Americans (including civilians) lost their lives, with another 1,000 wounded. Additionally, 20 naval ships and 300 planes were destroyed or damaged, with multiple battleships sunk and unsalvageable. As a result, the people of the United States supported a declaration of war against Japan (and eventually Germany) and marshaled themselves and their economic might to help free millions of people on two continents from subjugation to centralized tyranny and oppression.

Why reflect on a day that seems so far away in the rearview mirror? Because there are some parallels that force us to confront difficult questions, which in turn can teach us important lessons for the problems we face today.

Just as in 1941, the United States is facing foreign governments with significant military, intelligence and technological capabilities who are ideologically opposed to and seeking to undermine American values of freedom and equality around the world (China, Russia). The tough question is: If the United States experienced a comparable attack from one of these foreign foes – a military strike, or even a comparable cyber or biological attack – would the American people respond as they did in 1941, with a unifying willingness to defend freedom and equality and a prolonged determination to be victorious in that potentially global conflict?

An important note here is that a comparable response may not require an actual declaration of war – the Cold War approach toward the Soviet Union offers an alternative, for instance. But our question concerns the deeper commitments to what America means and what is required for America to not only survive, but thrive.

There is evidence to suggest that the American people would be up to the task, and there is evidence to suggest otherwise. 

In the former category of evidence, we have lived experience. Not quite 20 years ago, the American people responded with 1941-style unity and determination when the World Trade Center in New York was attacked by terrorists. The overwhelming majority of Americans alive today watched, experienced and were changed by 9/11 in ways that continue to impact them today. This would suggest that Americans might respond similarly to comparable Chinese or Russian aggression.

In the latter category, we have more recent developments. There has been a major push from some influential quarters of the U.S. to define America not by its aspirational struggle to achieve both freedom and equality, but by slavery and racial oppression. The full impacts of this effort – which is gaining traction in the public schools and universities of various regions of the country – may not be truly known for years, or even perhaps generations. But it seems reasonable to wonder whether Americans will be willing to “rally around the flag” if the American people are broadly encouraged to abandon the idea of the flag as a symbol of hope and pride in expanding freedom and equality, and instead see the flag as a symbol of racism and inequality. 

How we teach our nation’s civic and historical story to each other and to future generations matters. We should be thoughtful in how we approach it.

So as we reflect upon and respect the courage, commitment and sacrifice shown by the “greatest generation” after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we should ask ourselves: Are we doing what must be done to ensure that current and future generations could step up to their own “greatest generation” moment if called upon to do so? Are parents inspiring children with important conversations and examples of their passionate commitment to what America stands for? Are the standards, resources and curriculum for American civics and history in our taxpayer-funded schools adequate for the task? Are we adequately preparing teachers to pass on the story of America to students, and are school administrators sufficiently committed to seeing that the institution they shepherd fulfills the civic vision of the American founders?

These are the difficult questions that we must not only consider, but properly answer. Doing so may be the best – perhaps only – way to make sure that infamous days like December 7, 1941, remain as infrequent as they have in the last 79 years.

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