On December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into the conflagration of World War II. On this date, famously described by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt as a “date which will live in infamy,” the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard on Oahu, Hawaii. The base was home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet — nearly 100 naval vessels, including 8 battleships. Early that Sunday morning, the fleet was hit by a wave of nearly 200 enemy aircraft, including torpedo planes, bombers, and fighters. All told, the United States suffered massive casualties — 2,403 service members were killed and 1,178 more were wounded. The attack destroyed six U.S. warships, most famously the U.S.S. Arizona, which alone saw 1,100 of its crew killed. Ultimately, the Japanese attack failed in its objective to completely cripple the U.S. naval presence in the Pacific. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States officially declared war on Japan, and Japan’s allies Germany and Italy soon followed with retaliatory declarations of war against the U.S.
Today is not only a day to remember Pearl Harbor, but also a day to reflect on our history. While Pearl Harbor symbolizes the resilience of the American spirit to some, it came with a price beyond those lost in the attack. In direct response to Pearl Harbor, Pres. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps around the United States. The Order was challenged on Fifth Amendment grounds by Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American citizen living in California, in the case Korematsu v. United States. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction for violating the Order. In 1989, the U.S. government formally apologized to the victims of Japanese internment, but the scars remain.
Civil rights activist Fred Korematsu.
The United States has officially marked the anniversary of the attack as Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day since 1994, when Pres. Bill Clinton signed into law Pub. L. 103-308 and issued the first presidential proclamation of the observance. In it, he recognized the ultimate sacrifice given by over 400,000 Americans in World War II, and quoted Pres. John Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Pres. John Kennedy lays a wreath at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
Although not an official observance until 1994, many U.S. presidents have acknowledged the legacy of Pearl Harbor. Allied Commander and later President Dwight Eisenhower, looking back on Pearl Harbor 20 years later, remarked, “History is not so ancient as to describe for us the beginnings of men’s efforts to work together to perform a piece of work appearing worthwhile to the entire group. But if we come at once to the circumstances of our own time, we have no difficulty in recognizing the strength that is the product of unity among ourselves. Whatever the resources and strength of a nation, it is inevitably made greater and stronger by unity—cooperation among themselves—of its people.”
Pres. George H.W. Bush was 17 years old on Dec. 7, 1941. After he heard the news of Pearl Harbor, he immediately tried to enlist but was turned away and was told to come back when he was 18. He did, and became an aviation hero in the Pacific theater during the war. Pres. Bush visited Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attack. During his speech at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, his voice thick with emotion, Pres. Bush stated, “The men of Pearl Harbor … knew the things worth living for were also worth dying for: principle, decency, fidelity, honor. So look behind me at Battleship Row – the gun turret still visible and flag flying proudly from a truly blessed shrine. … Look into your hearts and minds: You will see boys who this day became men and men who became heroes. Look at the water here, clear and quiet, bidding us to sum up and remember. One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have – and carried them to a better world.”
Pres. George H. W. Bush at Pearl Harbor’s 50th Anniversary.
Pres. Barack Obama in 2011 highlighted not only the bravery of the soldiers who volunteered in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but all of the Americans who made up the greater war effort. “On the home front, dedicated civilians supported the war effort by repairing wrecked battleships, working in factories, and joining civilian defense organizations to help with salvage programs and plant Victory gardens. At this time of great strife, we reminded the world there is no challenge we cannot meet; there is no challenge we cannot overcome.”
In 2016, Pres. Obama visited Pearl Harbor alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Both nation’s leaders spoke of remembrance and reconciliation. Pres. Obama said, “Wars can end. The most bitter of adversaries can become the strongest of allies. The fruits of peace always outweigh the plunder of war. This is the enduring truth of this hallowed harbor.” P.M. Abe said, “It has now been 75 years since that Pearl Harbor. Japan and the United States, which fought a fierce war that will go down in the annals of human history, have become allies, with deep and strong ties rarely found anywhere in history. We are allies that will tackle together to an even greater degree than ever before the many challenges covering the globe. Ours is an alliance of hope that will lead us to the future.” Earlier that year, Pres. Obama had visited the city of Hiroshima, which was destroyed by a U.S. atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, where he also struck the cord of reconciliation: “And since that fateful day, we have made choices that give us hope. The United States and Japan forged not only an alliance, but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.”
Pres. Obama and P.M. Abe at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
In 2019, Pres. Donald Trump told the story of Pearl Harbor hero Doris “Dorie” Miller, “a steward aboard the USS West Virginia, [who] manned a machine gun and successfully shot down multiple Japanese aircraft despite not having been trained to use the weapon. For his valor, Miller was awarded the Navy Cross and was the first African-American recognized with this honor.”
And in 2021, 80 years after the devastating attack, Pres. Joe Biden told his personal story of his visit to the U.S.S. Arizona memorial. “A decade ago, I paid my respects at the USS Arizona Memorial — where 1,177 crewmen lost their lives on that terrible December day. To this day, beads of oil still rise to the surface of the water — metaphorical “Black Tears” shed for those lost in the attack. Reading those names etched in marble was a mournful reminder of the sacrifices and the human cost of protecting our Nation and the ideals this great country represents.”
On this Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day 80 years after the attack, let us remember the many sacrifices Americans made during World War II at home and abroad. Let us remember the high costs of liberty. And let us remember that in paying those costs we must never turn our backs to the values we cherish as Americans.