Changing American attitudes: Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

In a ceremony held weeks after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. sailors honor men killed that day. U.S. Navy photo.

In a ceremony held weeks after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. sailors honor men killed that day. U.S. Navy photo.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 7: This is a relatively new holiday in the United States, even though the tragedy occurred on December 7, 1941, and its long-delayed enactment by the U.S. Congress, in 1994, is in keeping with Americans’ long process of coming to terms with the traumatic violence.

Pearl Harbor remembrance is a fascinating insight into how dramatically media has changed the nature of global conflict. Now, history-making protests across the Arab world and even supposedly secretive military attacks are blasted around the world via digital messages, photos and video—often in “real time.” But in 1941, Hawaii was not yet a state and most Americans were not even aware of where the islands were situated. When the first news reports of “the day that will live in infamy” reached American newspapers and radio stations, the news came with only sketchy details of the devastating Japanese attack.

Very few photos and almost no film footage of the Pearl Harbor attack were released that December. Even LIFE, and other influential news magazines, were unable to get photos past U.S. censors who barred use of all but a small number of photos as a matter of national security. Many of the iconic photos Americans now recognize from Pearl Harbor were only shown to Americans one year later. Major metropolitan newspapers ran December 7, 1942, anniversary issues in which advertisers competed to buy the most anti-Japanese advertisements they could envision. Splashed across newspaper front pages that day were huge, shocking photographs of the attack.

While the slow release of the photos and film footage might be seen as calming war hysteria, the opposite was true. Canadian Japanese internment began in January 1942. The American Japanese process began a month later with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s  Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, which eventually was interpreted as excluding all people of Japanese ancestry from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Eventually, in 1988, Congress passed—with the support of President Ronald Reagan—legislation that apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Today, there are many instances of men and women from both sides of the Pacific conflict coming together to jointly remember the past and encourage a more peaceful future. One place that occurs is at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where survivors of the interment often are side by side with military veterans. Of course, such opportunities are rapidly fading. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day stories in regional newspapers across the U.S., this year, tend to be mentioning each local area’s “last surviving Pearl Harbor vet,” like this story from Cincinnati.

CARE TO LEARN MORE? National Geographic has one of the best interactive, multi-media overviews of the Pearl Harbor attack. From this landing page, you can watch video, read further stories, listen to audio clips—and come away with a good understanding of what unfolded that day. Scholastic also provides educational materials and lesson plans for various age groups.

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