December 7th Seventy-Nine Years Ago – A Nation in Peril
“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt addresses Congress and the Nation on December 8th, 1941
So ends the famous speech given by FDR the morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was 79 years ago today. Americans huddled around their radio sets, like this one, a Philco that has been in our family since around 1941. Americans gathered around radios to hear the news of the day and then discuss it as a family and with their friends and neighbors. We had a common set of facts about what was occurring.
Those familiar with history will know that there was heated debate in the US prior to the attack. Many were opposed to a war with Germany and there were even prominent sympathizers in the US with the cause of Nazism. After the attack, America declared war on both Germany and Japan and we unified behind the effort. As Winston Churchill so famously observed - Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else. History is clear eyed. We did the right thing.
During the war, everyone lost someone and from those who lived through it, we know that there was a sense of common cause as a people. Every American sacrificed. The great machinery of production shifted to the war effort. By the end of the war, America was producing half of everything made in the world.
While there are other notes in the symphony of history, we became known as the champion of freedom and openness even though it is also true we struggled with adhering to these values at home. Following the war, we did the unthinkable, instead of taking over the world as an empire, we helped rebuild other countries and helped set up the United Nations. We gave away power and helped other nations regain their autonomy. Unthinkable in the course of world history to take that action, but it is what we did.
Reflecting this morning 79 years later on how we are in no less challenging times. Things looked grim for us in December 1941. We had a small military and war on both of our shores. We can look back and see that one reason we were able to persevere is that we agreed on what was happening and rallied together in common purpose against those formidable challenges.
We showed our very best side back then. Sacrifice and protecting our common cause must have been the theme of those family discussions back on that December day long ago. We listened to the news together and realized we were a nation in peril. We are no less in peril today on a host of fronts. Yet, we do not agree on what is happening and sadly our hate for each other in many respects is greater than our sense of being one nation.
We known now how the greatest generation responded – the question is what do we do and what legacy we leave for the next generation to reflect on?
How do we want to be remembered?
Do we find common cause in our challenges and rise above them to reinvent the great American experiment or do we fall into division and chaos?
These are the questions of our moment in history.