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Pearl Harbor and 9/11: A fleeting day of infamy

On Dec. 7, 1951, the Pearl Harbor anniversary was barely noted. Americans were told it was time to forget about what happened because the U.S. needed Japan's help to fight communism in Asia.

September 09, 2011|By Jon Wiener

If you Google "Pearl Harbor and 9/11," you get more than 4 million hits. In George W. Bush's 9/11 interview on the National Geographic Channel last week, he said Sept. 11, 2001, eventually will be marked on calendars like Pearl Harbor Day: a day never to be forgotten by the people who lived through it. But on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it's instructive to consider the way Pearl Harbor Day was remembered on its 10th anniversary.

In fact, on Dec. 7, 1951, Pearl Harbor wasn't remembered, at least not prominently in the major newspapers and magazines. There was a reason why the Japanese attack in 1941 received so little commemoration on its 10th anniversary: In 1951, the U.S. was fighting a new war on the Korean peninsula, and had just signed a security treaty with Japan, which made it a crucial ally and staging base for the Korean War. Remembering Pearl Harbor could interfere with the nation's new mission.

The spirit of the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was best expressed by the Washington Post in its lead editorial that day, which discussed the importance of Japan as an ally in the struggle against communism in Asia. Because of that struggle, "the Japanese American alliance ought to be maintained in harmony," the editorial concluded. "It is to this future rather than to the past that thoughts should be directed on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day."

In other words, don't remember Pearl Harbor. Think about the communists in Korea instead.

The L.A. Times front page on Dec. 7, 1951, made no reference to the anniversary. The lead stories reported on new "atomic artillery" that could be used in the Korean War, and heavy snow on the ridge route. The second section did have a column on the Pearl Harbor anniversary, which opened, "This is the day on which innumerable Americans ... will be tempted to go about boring other Americans to death with their reminiscences of where they were and exactly how they heard the news" a decade earlier. Of course this form of boredom could be avoided — by not reminiscing about Pearl Harbor.

The New York Times had nothing about the anniversary on its front page on Dec. 7, 1951. The news there was of a possible truce in Korea, and street fighting in Tehran between thousands of communists and "anti-Red civilians." It did run an editorial. The meaning of Pearl Harbor, the editors wrote, was that, since Dec. 7, 1941, "it has not been possible for us to deny our historic mission in modern history" — resisting "aggression." In 1951, that meant fighting the communists: "Over vast areas where hundreds of millions of people live, the human spirit is still enslaved ... and the aggressors are as furious as ever Hitler was."

But of course Hitler didn't attack Pearl Harbor. The country that did attack is barely mentioned in the editorial.

As for 10th anniversary commemorations in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor itself, an Associated Press story was headlined "War Noises Again Mar Peace of Pearl Harbor" and reported that "the sprawling naval base supplies men, ships and ammunition to today's area of combat in Korea."

Life magazine's cover story that week was "Harry Truman's wardrobe," a nine-page photo essay. Time magazine's cover story was about the rise of the Reader's Digest. Life did not run a story on the anniversary, but Time did. It reported that "for the foreseeable future, Japan is solidly encamped with the free world," and "the U.S. must recognize that full and equal partnership is the only basis for mutual, long-term friendship in the face of a common enemy."

Thus on the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Americans were told it was time to forget about what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, because we needed Japan's help to fight communism in Asia.

As UC Irvine historian Emily Rosenberg explained it in her book "A Date Which Will Live," historical memory is not fixed. Lessons that seem crucial at one point can be ignored at another. Memory, even of the most unforgettable events, is unstable and can be transformed by new circumstances.

No doubt this is as true for Sept. 11, 2001 as it was for Dec. 7, 1941.

Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine and writes for the Nation magazine.

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