I recall in my youth thinking that the Civil War (1861-1865) was ancient history. As with most children, anything that occurred before my birth was “ancient.” In point of fact, the Civil War had ended just 72 years before I was born in 1937 and there were likely some men still alive who had fought in it or recalled it as youth.
I suspect that the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “will live in infamy” is ancient history to several recent generations of Americans, many of whom are the aging baby boomers, the children born after our troops returned home, married, and began to raise families after 1945, the year World War II ended.
What I fear most is that the children and grandchildren of those baby boomers may not even know what occurred on that Sunday morning 71 years ago.
The general ignorance of Americans about their own history comes with its own price. Forgetting or never knowing that a long Cold War was fought with the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until its collapse in 1991 has left this nation with a President whose ideology concerning capitalism and centralized government closely mirrors the communist empire America expended blood and treasure to defeat.
While younger generations may have a fleeting grasp of the 1970s Vietnam War, most probably do not even know that, shortly after World War II ended, many U.S. servicemen were called to duty to fight the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, 1950-1953, a communist satellite of China whose troops were involved. I have an older brother who served in the Tokyo-based Supreme Headquarters Far East Command during that war. You can bet he remembers it.
The Korean War ended in a stalemate. Technically, only a ceasefire agreement exists. South Korea went on to become an industrial success story while North Korea still cannot keep the lights on at night. It makes nuclear weapons and missiles to pay the bills these days, in addition to a variety of other criminal activities. The grandson of its first dictator is the new dictator and observers have dubbed North Korea “China’s hidden dagger” because nothing happens there without Chinese oversight and permission.
Pearl Harbor has a special place in American history because it marked the U.S. entry into World War II. The war had been raging in Europe since 1939 and, frankly, a lot of Americans did not want to get involved in a second European conflict since memories of World War I which had ended in 1918 were still relatively fresh in people’s minds. Pearl Harbor changed all that.
Men lined up to enlist to fight World War II. They volunteered in the thousands because they understood the threat to freedom the regimes of the Nazis and the Japanese Empire represented. Similarly, after 9/11 there was a surge of enlistments to fight the rising tide of Islamic aggression.
The Cold War was still active when President Lyndon Johnson decided to increase the numbers of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The war had begun in 1955 against the French for whom Vietnam was a colony. By 1975, after the U.S. had been involved from the 1960s, the death toll topped 58,000 when the U.S. negotiated its way out of what had become an ignominious defeat.
Why did LBJ escalate our participation? He had fought in WWII and spent much of his life in Congress during the Cold War. For him, WWII and the Korean War were still relatively fresh in mind. Like many others, he believed in the “domino theory” that postulated a loss in Vietnam would lead other Asian nations into the Communist orbit. Red China was still very much an enemy at the time. Ultimately, the war was so unpopular that he decided against running for a second term.
It was left to Richard Nixon to extricate us from Vietnam and then to open the doors to China. In doing so he transformed the future for both our nations. He will, however, be remembered for Watergate and for being the only President to resign the office.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are beginning to fade from public memory, despite the 9/11 attack on our homeland.
In 1986 I boarded a boat at Pearl Harbor to visit the Memorial over the USS Arizona, a sunken battleship. As I looked around me, I realized that the majority of other visitors were Japanese tourists! When we disembarked, one by one they would stand in front of the names of U.S. casualties on that day that filled one of the walls. Then they would bow deeply and say a prayer for their souls. We had all come a long way from December 7, 1941.
Do our present youth and perhaps even their parents remember Pearl Harbor? I doubt it.
© Alan Caruba, 2012