History is not a record of facts and just the facts, but rather a collection of significant tidbits plucked from among the accessible data and then arranged and interpreted. Historians do this plucking, arranging and interpreting for a living: They publish their arrangements and interpretations as articles and books.
But we all do the same — all of the time. So prevalent is this mediation of history that it has itself become an object of study, and Emily S. Rosenberg’s “A Date Which Will Live” is an example of this sort of scholarship. It is an examination, not of what happened at Pearl Harbor on that infamous day, but rather, as the book’s subtitle says, of Pearl Harbor in American memory.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor, Rosenberg suggests, has never been just an event in the history of World War II. It is, in addition, “an icon — a site suggesting a cluster of meanings — [which] has offered ‘rhetorical resources’ to support many different narratives, drawing a multitude of lessons.” These different narratives, this multitude of lessons, are the focus of her book.
Research suggests that we do not structure our memories randomly or just as we please. Rather, we possess “already familiar patterns and narrative structures” that impose their shapes on the raw facts we retain from an event or experience. Thus national leaders and others interested in influencing people are able, more or less wittingly, to invoke deeply embedded narratives that will mold memories of the past into shapes that support the world views they favor.
For example, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in urging Americans on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor to “avenge ‘infamy,’ ‘treachery’ and ‘an unprovoked and dastardly attack,’ ” inevitably called to American minds “America’s most celebrated frontier legends: Custer’s Last Stand and the Alamo . . . terrible defeats that provided rallying cries for overwhelming military counterforce leading to total victory.” These old American tales, it is clear, structured the first stories told about Pearl Harbor.
The “infamy narrative” is perhaps the most influential and deeply entrenched of all the ways of remembering Pearl Harbor, but it is far from being the only one. Rosenberg guides us through several more in the course of her study. We encounter, for example, what she calls “the sleeping theme,” the notion (not necessarily incompatible with the infamy narrative) that America was unable to foresee and forestall the attack on Pearl Harbor because, in its flabby innocence, it was not awake to the danger it was in. It hardly needs to be added that this way of remembering Pearl Harbor would be useful to politicians eager to throw more tax dollars at America’s military and intelligence establishments.
Central to the infamy narrative and those related to it was casting the Japanese as racial others who were, because of their differences, particularly dangerous. So powerful was this aspect of the narrative — which no doubt drew on the legend of Custer’s defeat by dark-skinned opponents — that “in 1945 a . . . poll showed that 73 percent of Americans selected the word ‘treacherous’ to describe Japanese character.” It was not until World War II had been replaced by the Cold War that Japan had to be re-envisioned as a reliable ally rather than a treacherous foe. “American historians,” Rosenberg notes, “began to write of Pearl Harbor less as an expression of treacherous [Japanese] ‘character’ than as a failure of American diplomacy.”
The geopolitical background allowed and encouraged memories to adjust to the extent that “the treacherous Japanese of World War II morphed into the exacting and honor-bound allies who co-anchored the cold war system in Asia.” A story that can change once, though, can change again. In the 1980s, the Japanese “morphed once again into devious rivals who threatened to buy what they had not won in battle,” a state of affairs often referred to as “an economic Pearl Harbor.”
The initial section of “A Day Which Will Live” is devoted to the first 50 years after the attack; in it, Rosenberg sticks closely to memories and narratives directly related to Pearl Harbor. Using pertinent examples, she provides ample evidence that applying psychology of memory to a historical event can be fruitful.
The second half of the book, “Reviving Pearl Harbor After 1991,” is filled with stimulating insights but is less focused. Pearl Harbor, for example, is only tenuously related to the 1993 controversy over how or whether the Enola Gay, the airplane used to drop the first atomic bomb, should be exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum.
The most engaging portions of the latter half of the book are those that deal with Pearl Harbor’s ever-increasing prominence in American memory. Rosenberg convinces us, for example, that “Pearl Harbor memories had become so prominent and ubiquitous by the summer of 2001 that a stranger to the planet might have imagined that the bombs had just been dropped.”
Then on Sept. 11, 2001, the bombs — in the form of airplanes this time — were dropped again. Just as the Custer’s last stand narrative had once served to organize American memories of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Pearl Harbor attack is now called upon to structure American memories of 9/11. One can only hope that this cycle will be broken — that 9/11 will not, in turn, be called up from the American subconscious to explain some future outrage.