Sept. 11, Like Pearl Harbor, Is Subject to Multiple Meanings





Emily S. Rosenberg, professor of history at Macalester College, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Dec. 3, 2003):

The images and references to Pearl Harbor seem to be all around us as the anniversary of the attack looms. They are instantly recognizable. But what do they mean?

The analogies came easily after September 11, 2001, when newspaper headlines picked up the cry of"Infamy!" and President Bush reportedly wrote in his diary that"the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today."...

"Infamy" framed the first representations of September 11. That word, which since 1941 had become a virtual synonym for the Pearl Harbor attack, was culturally legible to almost everyone. It invoked a familiar, even comforting, narrative: a sleeping nation, a treacherous attack, and the need to rally patriotism and"manly" virtues on behalf of retribution. Structured by the Pearl Harbor story, September 11 seemed the prelude to another struggle between good and evil; to the testing of yet another"greatest generation"; and to an inevitable, righteous victory. The Bush administration and other politicians embraced that Pearl Harbor metaphor as they prepared to strike the Taliban in Afghanistan, and journalists seemed unable to resist reacting to Al Qaeda's assaults within the rhetorical conventions of Pearl Harbor. It was a ready, and easy, metaphor. Experts who flooded the airwaves more often addressed World War II parallels than the complexities of, say, Middle Eastern politics....

Once Pearl Harbor and September 11 became rhetorically intertwined, however, the spread of disparate meanings could not be easily contained. The attack on Pearl Harbor had never represented only one story, one"lesson," or one set of rhetorical conventions. If the framework of"infamy" initially marshaled remembrance of a deadly surprise attack by"evil" racial others, the story of Pearl Harbor could easily evoke other contexts as well.

One of those was the"sleeping" metaphor. American films, cartoons, comedians, and commentators during World War II commonly depicted"Uncle Sam" as having been"asleep" during the 1930s. One of the most widely read books on Pearl Harbor after the war was Gordon W. Prange's At Dawn We Slept (1981), and nearly every rendition of the attack since the film Tora! Tora! Tora! has invoked the quote, attributed to the Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, about the dangers of"awakening a sleeping giant."...

Slowly but steadily, yet another Pearl Harbor analogy emerged. Just after December 7, Roosevelt's most embittered critics charged him with manipulating a"back door to war" -- provoking a Japanese attack and opening a"back door" to American involvement in the war that had already engulfed Europe. The more extreme view suggested a dark conspiracy: The Roosevelt administration knew the attack was coming, failed to send clear and urgent messages of an imminent assault to the Pacific commanders, and then covered up its misdeeds....

Politicians, in particular, often claim that the study of history teaches certain clear, and singular,"lessons." An examination of the uses of Pearl Harbor, however, suggests that history offers an arena for a diversity of narratives and for continuing debate about their possible meanings. Pearl Harbor stories have long been generating diverse debates, especially over the conduct of foreign policy, the global expansion of American power, and executive-branch responsibility. It is hardly surprising that September 11, so embedded within Pearl Harbor's metaphorical structures, has already sparked controversy over similar concerns. The politics of memory are no less complex than any other form of politics.


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