Wednesday, January 08, 2014

History: Pause, think and remember

By Callie Vandewiele '08 

Almost three quarters of a century ago, 72 years on December 7th to be exact, the course of the history of the United States of America dramatically shifted and forever changed.  

At 7:48am, Hawaiian time, Japanese planes flying low over the US naval base on Oahu.  The ensuing attack, which took the men below by complete surprise, would result in 8 ships being sunk, with nearly a dozen more damaged, over 300 aircraft lost, and the deaths of 2,402 Americans.  Most of them military personnel. 

For a nation burned by World War I, and dedicated to leaving the world’s problems, to the world, the bombing of Pearl Harbour was a rude awakening.  An unwanted and costly notice that sometimes the world’s problems belonged to the whole world, and not just to one nation or region.  In bombing Pearl Harbour, the Japanese central command hoped to permanently cripple the United States military in the Pacific--and by doing so to limit US involvement in the escalating war.

In a world before twitter, instant updates, death tolls reported in online news sources, or even common color photography, the US government and population had put it’s whole might behind the war effort before all the families of the killed servicemen had even been properly notified.  A behemoth of an economic engine, shifted overnight, and with it the destiny of the United States.  The next five years would cost the nation dearly in both money and blood.  And yet at the end of the war, in 1946, the United States stood at the edge of the world stage as both the strongest military and economic force in the world.

It’s easy to take a minute to pause and think about soldiers on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and there was a time when WWII veterans were common.  Most men that most of us knew.  Not anymore.  As each year rolls by those surviving veterans get a little older and little fewer in number.  The people whose sons and brothers and fathers and husbands were on the USS Arizona or the USS California aren’t all around to light candles each year anymore. 

December 7th is bit by bit turning into just another day.  Just another point in history that we’re supposed to memorize to pass an exam sometime in the 10th grade.  Just another war that the United States fought and won. 

But December 7th is not just another day.  And the war that it launched pushed the United States into a position of world dominance (wanted or not at the time).  Our history, we learned, will be marked with moments when we as a nation get to choose our response, and in choosing our response, choosing our future.

The greatest generation woke up to newspaper headlines about ships sinking in the Pacific.  The millennials awoke to live news coverage of buildings falling down in Manhattan.  We cannot say which crises our grandchildren will face---or whether they will come in the sickening thud of sudden attacks, or the slow rise of global temperatures.  What we can ask of ourselves and of them, is to always remember.  To pause and reflect on the anniversaries of the days that the world shifted and changed.  To read the stories of the heros and the families.

To know the heavy burden of what choices we as a people make when faced with tragedies beyond comprehension.  To know that when we define the cost of an American life, we are valuing it in comparison to the cost of other, non-American, lives, and that the decisions we make can alter the world in good, bad and unknown ways.

So when December 7th rolls around, take a pause.  Think, and remember.

Sources include the US Navy Museum Website ( and USHistory.Org

Vandewiele '08 originally wrote this piece for the Beaverton-Valley Times in December 2013. 

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