A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Book Review)

Reviewed by Carol Reardon
By Emily S. Rosenberg
Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2003

Emily S. Rosenberg argues that, even in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, the popular rallying cry to remember what happened on December 7, 1941, had different meaning for different constituencies. Indeed, she asserts that "Pearl Harbor `lives’ less as a specific occurrence in the past than as a highly emotive and spectacularized icon" that served the cultural and social needs of the wartime generation and continues to touch Americans today.

Rosenberg’s book is a welcome addition to recent studies that explore the social and cultural struggle between objective "history" and subjective personal or public memory to preserve, reconstruct, analyze or use the past. She first examines how, between 1941 and 1991, Pearl Harbor evolved into a recognizable cultural shorthand that supported at least four specific meanings. One interrelated pair of meanings emerged soon after the attack. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the bombing to invoke an "infamy framework" to rally public approval for swift punishment of those guilty of "treachery," while the president’s critics just as quickly pointed to the inevitable consequences of a lack of military preparedness. In time, Cold Warriors blended both notions to use Pearl Harbor to push for a strong national defense that might forestall potential Communist treachery.

The Japanese attack also fueled the propagation of accusations and full-blown conspiracy theories by journalists and other shapers of public memory who accused Roosevelt or other national leaders of deliberately inviting Japan’s attack. The surprise and sophistication of the Japanese attack led to the use of Pearl Harbor as an underpinning for popular wartime descriptions of the enemy, ranging from racially inspired demonizations to depictions of an industrious and worthy foe forced to accept great risk by flawed American diplomatic and economic policy.

Finally, Rosenberg explores the ability of the iconic power of December 7, 1941, to shape postwar commemorative efforts, especially those leading up to the golden anniversary in 1991. Monument designers and organizers of memorial ceremonies felt the pull of the event’s multiple meanings: While many Americans continued to view Pearl Harbor as sacred ground saluting the valor of their countrymen who defeated Japanese aggression, others argued for joint American–Japanese ceremonies as a gesture of reconciliation between the two nations. Pearl Harbor at 50 years remained a cultural battlefield capable of generating both pride and acrimony.

The second portion of Rosenberg’s study, drawing more heavily upon the intellectual foundations crafted by memory scholars from a variety of disciplines, examines a number of new efforts to utilize the iconic status of Pearl Harbor since the golden anniversary. The attack has been called up to support specific and often quite different contemporary political or cultural causes, such as efforts to link a Japanese apology for December 7 to a similar action from the United States for dropping the atomic bomb, the rehabilitation of Admiral Husband Kimmel from scapegoat to dedicated commander during the "history wars" of the 1990s, or the drive to make reparation payments to loyal Japanese-American citizens for the wartime disruption of their lives in relocation centers.

But Pearl Harbor has reached a far broader audience with no specific agenda to advance. Since the post-Vietnam transformation of World War II into the "good war" and the labeling of its veterans as the "greatest generation," the growing interest of younger Americans was fed by a "memory boom." It spawned a retelling of the stirring events of 1941-1945, based heavily upon exciting but uncontextualized personal experiences. Popular books such as those offered up by Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose, chatroom debates, World War II relic dealers, reenactment groups and high budget documentaries — including a variety of well-received Pearl Harbor film projects — all, according to Rosenberg, ultimately helped to erase "the boundaries between entertainment and education and between memory and history." The success of 2001’s blockbuster Pearl Harbor rested on its total embrace of greatest generation imagery, its willingness to downplay or ignore historical controversies, and its marketing campaign that reinvigorated interest in the good war in ways that continue to blur
the demarcation between history and memory even today.

Finally, rightly or not, the iconic imagery of Pearl Harbor shows signs of becoming symbolically connected to that of September 11. Rosenberg concludes with an entirely appropriate prediction: Based on the successful manipulation of Pearl Harbor over the years, history and memory will continue to clash on other cultural battlefields, confronting Americans with multiple meanings of 9/11.

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