It is hard to look at today’s date and not think of 1941.
Historians often highlight decisive moments in history. We talk about watershed events that transformed societies, countries, and the world. But, I fear that traditional history often fails us. We can read about moments in time, but can we ever really recover the feeling that accompanied such events?
I often use the example of 9-11 when talking about such events. It was the most significant moment in American history during my lifetime. My students remember where they were when they heard the news. The images are forever burned in our minds. Few of us can claim that the event did not change us, either on a personal or a national level. Perhaps feeling by proxy is as close as we can get to capturing a moment in time.
Earlier generations have had their version of 9-11. The Revolutionary generation called the opening volley of the war for independence “the shot heard ‘round the world.” The phrase connotes some of the shock and fear they felt when they realized they were now at war with the most powerful empire in the world.
A few generations later, news of the fall of Fort Sumter rocked the nation, both North and South. Some were overjoyed, others were horrified; yet somehow, everyone knew that life would never be the same.
Today is the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. American casualties were staggering: 2,333 killed and another 1,139 wounded. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history. He told the American people that December 7 was “a date which will live in infamy” and he asked Congress to declare war on the Japanese empire. The event brought the United States into the most destructive war in human history.
But December 7 is not simply a “watershed event in American history,” nor does it simply evoke black-and-white memories of burning battleships in Pearl Harbor. December 7 is even more powerful.
When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans that they were forever united by a common history, which he called “the mystic chords of memory,” he was not simply talking about people, places, and events outlined in standard history textbooks. He was talking about shared experience that connected not only the North and South, but also the present with the past.
While we were not alive in 1775, 1861, or 1941, we lived through 9-11. We certainly know what it is like to be shocked as a nation, just as we know what it is like to grieve as one.