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Remembering Pearl Harbor ... Depending on the Decade

February 16, 2020

This week in history class we read A Date Which Will Live by current University of California (Irvine) Professor Emily S. Rosenberg.

The book explores Pearl Harbor (Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941) in American memory. The book then branches out to explore Pearl Harbor through multiple context such as the resurgence of interest in WWII decades later; the interest in the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack in 1991; and then to the historical framework that Pearl Harbor provided in regard to the surprise attacks of 9/11 in September 2001.

The title, A Date Which Will Live, comes from President Roosevelt’s speech 24 hours after the attack, when he said, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

 

Professor Rosenberg explored how memory shifts and wanes and how any major historical event is viewed differently through different generations, decades, and countries depending on political climate, cultural interest, media portrayal (especially films), and many other factors. Rosenberg argues that interest and collective American memory of Pearl Harbor was essentially lost until the 50th anniversary in 1991.

“My research is especially attentive to issues of cultural construction and contestation,” states Rosenberg’s current website. “… I also study processes of historical memory; one of my books examined various constructions of the most prominent foreign policy symbol in our history: the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor and American Memory, which has been translated into Japanese, examines the ways in which Pearl Harbor, as historical memory, anchors diverse narratives and ‘lessons’ about the past.”

Rosenberg argues that in these narratives and lessons, particularly about Pearl Harbor, the attack becomes a ‘turning point’ illustrated with heroes and villains. These narratives then project an event-centered history that becomes nation-centric, diluting more serious scholarship and downplaying true cause and effect that includes more intricate economic trends, geopolitical movements, and cultural changes. “This book … seeks to uncover the ‘reality’ of the past and to stabilize historical meaning,” concludes Rosenberg.

My thoughts: I enjoyed reading the book, to a point, but found myself frustrated by what I feel is an ongoing problem in today’s analyses of past conflict, which is the neutralizing of information in an effort to be politically correct, of trying to create false balance. Often the benefit of this “greying out” is a concerted effort to make money of a now-international marketplace. A film has to succeed, particularly in the most populous regions of the world like Asia. Money talks very loudly.

While I don’t agree with cult-like films promoting American nationalism either, surely there is place in the middle where film can represent truth as the people living the events felt it to be.

An example of this is when I viewed the film Midway before Christmas last year. The Battle of Midway began six months after Pearl Harbor. The 2019 film Midway attempted to depict the battle in the Pacific in WWII as the Japanese navy again tries to strike American ships and there is a resulting three-day fight on water and in air. The film was poorly done, being careful to respect both countries in an almost comical way. The closing credits featured a nod to both sides of the conflict and ended with a closing tribute “to all those who fought in the battle in the Pacific.”

 

I felt the result was a film that flopped, causing critics to leave reviews like this one: “Midway is a bloated, confusing, cliché-laden World War II movie that isn't worthy of the actual events it is trying to recreate” by Australian Broadcast Corporation critic Matthew Toomey.

There are dozens more reviews that echo this, including famous film critic Roger Ebert’s: “I admire screenwriter Wes Tooke’s attempt to stick to scenes of military strategy and process… but the combined effect of a dull script and repetitive battle sequences lulled me into a state of boredom, so much so that at times I had my eyes open yet my consciousness had drifted elsewhere. I wasn’t asleep; I was just missing. You know what would have guaranteed my undying attention? A better movie.”

I feel the same way about this book, A Date Which Will Live, as I did about Midway: they both fall short of a deeper examination.