Pearl Harbor’s 75th anniversary illustrates how the nation has changed

Published 10:52 am Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Can it be that 75 years have passed since the “Greatest Generation” of Americans had to endure and respond to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese empire launched a sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — sinking or crippling all eight American battleships in port and destroying all the U.S. and British aircraft in the Pacific, killing over 2,400 military personnel and injuring 1,178.

The bombing raid afforded Japan control of one-quarter of the Earth’s surface for a time. The Pearl Harbor attack was a sobering tragedy that quickly galvanized America into a united nation willing and ready to suffer and sacrifice to avenge those whose lives were taken with such utter disregard for human suffering.

To suggest that Americans were angry after Pearl Harbor is an understatement. Memories of the inferno that was the USS Arizona and the 1,177 men who died and were entombed in the battleship led the U.S. government to eventually exact a nuclear punishment on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese mainland to force an end to the conflict begun on the date that Franklin Roosevelt told our nation would “live in infamy.”

In 2016, we live in a very different world than did my parents and their parents in 1941. Even for Roosevelt and his War Department in 1941, information that properly conveyed the scope of the damage and the devastating losses inflicted on the U.S. by Japan that day was slow and hard to access.

The American public, most of whom received immediate news by commercial radio, was even more in the dark. There was no CNN, no satellite phone streaming, no drone camera footage, not smart phones in the hands of virtually everyone to afford “crowd sourcing” of news with attached videos.

Americans like my mom and her parents waited, agonized and prayed. Days later, she would learn that her U.S. Marine brother stationed at Pearl Harbor had survived. But from Pearl Harbor forward to the end of World War II, U.S. citizens were in great measure days or weeks behind in information about the progress of the war and the fate of their loves ones who were fighting it.

By era of the Vietnam Conflict, news from that war zone became more immediate and disturbing. Gone was the media’s WWII-era concern for the national morale (After Pearl Harbor, FDR was rarely photographed in his wheelchair and there was virtually no coverage of U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in combat throughout the war).

Vietnam brought us “the living room war” and the nightly TV newscasts brought the true horrors of war into U.S. homes in living color. What the citizens saw wasn’t like the John Wayne movies.

Fast-forward to the 9-11 attacks and the subsequent military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 9-11 attacks were essentially played out in real time on live television all over the world. The media sanitized — to a degree — some of the worst of the sights of the falling bodies around the World Trade Center, but unlike Pearl Harbor the 9-11 attacks left Americans immediately convinced that the world had changed forever.

Pearl Harbor tipped the scales and plunged the U.S. into WWII in much the same way that the 9-11 attacks erased the false sense of security that many Americans previously felt that terrorism was a malady reserved only for the Middle East and Europe.

But technology has made the world smaller and the news instantly immediate in the 75 years since 353 Japanese planes rained bombs down on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Patriotism and service to country were rarely challenged or debated in that era.

Today, those debates are likewise instantaneous and often bitter. As we saw after 9-11, Americans still know how to unite and appreciate the freedoms we have. Some, many, were still willing to take up arms to defend those freedoms — and did.

But as we saw in the presidential election, divisions remain deep in the country. It shouldn’t take cataclysms like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 to quiet those angry divisions, but the fact it that still does. I wonder what the brave men entombed in the USS Arizona 75 years ago would make of that?

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.