Dec. 7, 1941 – 79 years ago today – may indeed be a date that lives in infamy, even if barely remembered. A total of 2,403 died that day from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Our then polarized country immediately united and went to war. By the end of it , there were 291,557 U.S. combat deaths. With 281,000 deaths from Covid-19 in under 10 months, we are fast approaching the total from World War II. Last week, on Wednesday, 2,885 Americans died from Covid-19, compared to 2,977 who perished on Sept. 11, 2011 from the Al Qaida terrorist attacks here.
Shortly after the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, I noted a nation deeply polarized, as it had been before Pearl Harbor, and I saw some parallels but also reasons for hope. Today, there are parallels, too, with 1860 – with a sharply divided America on the cusp of civil war. The nation now remains in two opposing camps and sorely challenged by the invisible coronavirus that causes Corvic-19 and a largely unchecked pandemic. But, finally, there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, in both a new administration and a promised vaccine to end these twin plagues.
The coronavirus has not yet brought us together as one nation fighting an intractable foe. Presidential leadership has been AWOL, at best, more Herbert Hoover than FDR. Which may be unfair to Hoover who, having been held responsible for the Great Depression, hued to a conservative philosophy but remained committed to public service and was named coordinator of food supply for world famine in 1946, making humanitarian aid a personal priority.
But looking beyond this precarious lame duck period we are in, let us hope for the best, so that, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “this nation, of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” With that in mind, I’m reposting my blog from November 23, 2016, a Thanksgiving message recalling another time when the nation faced a challenging, even existential threat posed by an event that would instantly change everything. Some of it, I believe, still applies.
Pearl Harbor, 1941, and 75 Years On
Three score and 15 years ago, our country was deeply divided. There were the isolationists and the interventionists, the former insisting on an America First that turned its back on the rest of the world, the latter deeply concerned about the rise of totalitarian regimes abroad and their threat to democracy at home.
That was our country on Thanksgiving 1941. Less than three weeks later, in an instant, everything changed, and nothing, it seemed, would ever be the same again. Sometimes, it takes a cataclysmic event to bring us together. Remember the Maine? Of course not. Remember Pearl Harbor? Perhaps. Remember 9/11? Most certainly.
It is the calm before the storm that we also recall in retrospect. That beautiful clear morning with the bluest of blue skies over Manhattan—and at the Pentagon. The Sunday of December 7, 1941, when Washington’s professional football team was defeating the Philadelphia Eagles at old Griffith Stadium by a score of 20 to 14, a victory soon overshadowed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy,” but infamy doesn’t always last. Unless, perhaps, an artifact suddenly appears to remind us. It was the rarest of finds: a Thanksgiving napkin menu from Signal Company, Aircraft Warning, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The date: Nov. 20, 1941. Seventeen days later, Schofield was strafed by Japanese aircraft headed for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
This 13 1/2-inch square napkin was folded inside a loose-leaf binder of paper ephemera in a Western Maryland antique shop when I acquired it for $2 (reduced from $5). But, of course, it is priceless. And here we are, 75 years on.
It was that same day, Nov. 26, 1941, when FDR signed a bill officially designating the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.
The United States was celebrating its last peacetime Thanksgiving for four years. One can only surmise what it must have been like as the Signal Company, Aircraft Warning chowed down at Schofield Barracks. Before them was a veritable feast, a last supper.
The diamond-shaped napkin includes idyllic if dated images: a woman in a grass skirt and lei, the smaller figure of a male surfer in the background, both under palm trees and sun; a ukulele, a pineapple, turkeys. Then an all-American menu with everything from soup (oyster) to nuts (mixed), plus roast young turkey, chestnut dressing, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, Virginia baked ham, shrimp salad, creamed whipped potatoes, marshmallow yams, Parker house rolls, mince pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate layer cake, fruit cake, ice cream, assorted candies, oranges, apples, grapes, bananas, cigars, cigarettes, and, to wash it all down, fruit punch.
The squadron would be Pearl’s initial line of defense. Its job would be to sound the first alarm of any imminent attack, and that Thanksgiving was more than turkey day at Schofield. It was also when the Aircraft Warning squadron moved radar equipment to the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific. At 7:02 a.m. on Dec. 7, radar spotted more than 50 planes. The operator who phoned in a report was told it was likely a fleet of B-17 Flying Fortresses from San Francisco. The Japanese went on to Pearl Harbor, which became a watery grave for 3,000 Americans, as the Al Qaida attacks would take nearly 3,000 lives three generations later.
As pre-Pearl America was emerging from the shadow of the Great Depression and barely paying attention to world events, pre-9/11 America was poised to continue as the world’s remaining superpower on the optimistic path of peace and prosperity. In the near future, the optimism would be shattered by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, more frequent extreme weather events linked to climate change, an unprecedented refugee crisis.
In both eras, a great nation was oblivious to dangers it should have foreseen. Now, all we can do is memorialize the dead. Sept. 11, 2011 was a national day of sadness, as so should be Dec. 7. But let today be a day of thanksgiving, and a day to reaffirm our country’s core principles, enunciated by FDR, a month after attack, as the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear. They, too, are worth remembering, and fighting for, and not just overseas.