This Thursday, December 7th, marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled America into World War II. Commentator Vic Henningsen recalls how he learned what “remembering Pearl Harbor” was really about.
(HENNINGSEN) I grew up acutely conscious of Pearl Harbor Day. Every December 7th my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, would reminisce about precisely where they were and what they’d been doing the Sunday afternoon they learned of the attack. My siblings and I got pretty tired of it: when that December evening rolled around we could pretty much predict the conversation around the family table – word-for-word. Who was standing on a dormitory doorstep when he heard it; who’d been listening to the philharmonic when the news came over the radio; who got off a train in Grand Central to find groups of total strangers talking like family. If we wanted a variation on the theme, we could go next door or down the road, because those conversations were happening at family tables all over town – all over the country.
Pearl Harbor was one of those events that violently re-organize reality. They destroy our comfortable assumptions and force us to confront a radically new and disturbing future. They are so shocking that people old enough to understand what’s happening never forget where they were or what they were doing when they heard the news. They are moments, someone said, that history sets its watch by.
But the tales we tell of those days become worn in the telling, burnished by age, and – to a child – almost comfortable. This was the past, I thought, it’s over, they lived through it, it can’t scare us. It can’t hurt us.
On November 22nd 1963, I changed my mind. John Kennedy’s assassination was my generation’s Pearl Harbor, jolting us out of our fabulous fifties suburban complacency and ushering in the confusion and violence of the sixties. I remember my middle school classmates weeping while our teacher wondered aloud what would become of us. Two weeks later, on Pearl Harbor Day, I listened again to the old stories and understood something I’d always missed, because I’d never shared it. Those people were remembering fear.
The novelist Philip Roth once observed that the science of history hides an elemental fact of the past, the terror of the unforeseen. He’s right. History tells us what happened, but rarely tells us how it felt and it was a feeling that seared every detail of those moments into our minds forever — a feeling of dread. Listeners too young to remember Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination need only recall their first, visceral, reaction to 9/11 to get the point.
So this December 7th I’ll call the young man who was standing on that dormitory doorstep sixty-five years ago. I’ll hear again of the moment he suddenly knew that his life and the lives of those with him would change utterly – for some, finally. I’ll think again of those mealtime conversations every December 7th, conversations that commemorated emotions as much as they did events. And I’ll reflect, that those horrifying days that history sets its watch by, just keep coming.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.