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The Lessons of Pearl Harbor: Fear Itself, Then and Now

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The Debate

The Lessons of Pearl Harbor: Fear Itself, Then and Now

Remembering the dual legacy of December 7, 1941.

The Lessons of Pearl Harbor: Fear Itself, Then and Now

The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii is a haunting reminder of the attack.

Credit: Catherine Putz

On December 7, 1941 Imperial Japan launched a sneak attack on the United States’ naval forces stationed in Hawaii. President Franklin Roosevelt, in urging the U.S. Congress to declare war, called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy.” (Audio and text of that speech.)

And it has. The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked Americans and prompted the country’s entry into World War II. It also prompted the rounding up of Japanese-Americans and their internment in camps throughout the western United States. Pearl Harbor sparked national unity but also triggered the disturbing manifestation of anti-Japanese racism and fear in America. Both legacies should be remembered together, especially in light of current trends in American political discourse that demonizes an entire population–this time based on religion rather than ethnicity.

It is remarkable how much has changed in the 74 years since Pearl Harbor–particularly between the United States and Japan. The two, once enemies, are now politically, militarily and economically intertwined. Even the general citizenry of each holds a positive view of the other. A 2015 Pew Poll found that 68 percent of Americans trust the Japanese a great deal or a fair amount and 75 percent of the Japanese trust the United States. This despite over 2,400 killed in the Pearl Harbor Attack and many thousands more on both sides in the war in the Pacific that followed, despite the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an occupation and forced political change. After the war relations were not guaranteed to be friendly, and indeed through the 1980s and early 1990s when Japan’s economy had recovered and was surging ahead Americans feared and derided Japanese-made cars the way some deride goods “Made in China” today.

How can opinions shift so quickly?

The case of Theodor Geisel is illustrative of the evolution of American opinion, especially with regard to Japan, from racism, anger and fear to compassion and partnership. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was a popular American cartoonist and author. In the 1940s he was an editorial cartoonist for PM Magazine, a newspaper in New York, where he wrote more than 400 political cartoons. The man, better known for Cat in the Hat, penned numerous starkly racist cartoons about Germans and Japanese in the early years of the war.

Two days before Pearl Harbor PM Magazine ran a Geisel cartoon which depicted Hitler as an organ grinder and Japan as a pet monkey. Hitler skulks around a corner and the monkey, on a string, holds a cup up to a bird with a spangled hat, ostensibly the United States (the bird resembles a sneetch). The monkey is turned back to Hitler, asking “Master! What do I do when they won’t come across?”

Geisel’s opinion of the Japanese, and Japanese-Americans, was vitriolic and disgusting. He supported the internment of Japanese-Americans and is quoted as saying:

But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes [a prominent pacifist] or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.

But after the war, Geisel changed his tune. In 1953 he visited post-occupation Japan and was inspired to write Horton Hears a Who, a children’s book about an elephant named Horton who discovers a whole community–Whoville–living on a speck of dust. The story’s moral, echoed repeatedly, is that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The book, published a year after Geisel’s visit to Japan is dedicated to a Japanese friend and widely seen as an allegory for the United States’ post-war occupation, through which Japan was remade. One of Geisel’s biographers, Thomas Fensch, contended that the Geisel made reference to Hiroshima as well through the words of the Mayor of Whoville, who says “When the black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped, We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.”

Geisel wasn’t the only one to have a change of heart after the war. It’s unclear if he ever addressed his strong support of the Japanese internment camps, but the United States eventually did. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter authorized an investigation to determine whether Roosevelt’s internment order–Executive Order 9066–had been justified. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) found very little evidence that the Japanese-Americans jailed in camps were disloyal and recommended in its final report that the U.S. government pay reparations.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan did just that. The Civil Liberties Act acknowledged the injustice of the internment program, apologized, and directed the government to both pay reparations and invest in educational programs to “inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event.” Further, the bill noted that the internment was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership threatens to lead the United States down a dark path once more.

In November the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia absurdly cited Roosevelt’s internment camps in his protest against the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his town. “I’m reminded that President Franklin D Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and it appears that threat of harm to America from [IS] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then,” David Bowers wrote, exhibiting a timeless brand of hysteria void of any awareness of reality.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor Day, President Barack Obama addressed the nation in remarks targeted at comforting Americans in the wake of the attack in San Bernardino, California which was seemingly motivated by ISIS ideology. Amid the remarks, Obama made a plea for Americans to not “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.” Talking heads and presidential candidates (including failed candidates) were quick to sling criticisms. Mike Huckabee said:

Could you imagine FDR going before Congress and saying, ‘We were attacked yesterday on Pearl Harbor. I really don’t want to talk about who did it, but you know, we just want to say that they were terrible people and they were thugs.’ Well who was it, Mr. President? Well, we don’t want to get into it, because I don’t want you to have any bad feelings toward the Japanese.”

They may critique Obama for refusing to blame Islam, for being too circumspect with his words, but it was Roosevelt’s lack of circumspection that led to desert internment camps filled with loyal American citizens. The very same fear that Roosevelt railed against in his first inauguration address (“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…“) pushed him to shameful ends in his third term.

I wonder, does the price of unity have to be fear?

Correction: Executive Order 9066 was issued in 1942, during Roosevelt’s third term in office, not his fourth.