the past but not be imprisoned by it. You need to take
counsel of history but never be imprisoned by it.”
Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke
Perhaps no better words than those above can sum up the lessons learned from any great moment in history. This week, as the nation commemorates Pearl Harbor’s 75th anniversary, should serve as a time of reflection. This is a time to step back and consider what happened on that fateful day 75 years ago, to consider the climate in the country leading up to the attack, and put those times into context that makes sense for things that are happening today in our country.
In 1941 much of the world was at war. The United States, as Jim Dassatti points out in this week’s edition, had been divided between isolationists who wanted to stay out of the conflicts in Europe and the Far East and hawks who saw the country’s entrance into the war as inevitable. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to walk a fine line, preparing the country for war and assisting the Allies, especially Great Britain, while trying to appease those who wanted to stay out of the conflicts.
When viewed through the lens of history, efforts to keep the United States out of World War II merely forestalled the inevitable, much as with World War I 25 years earlier.
History certainly can be seen as continuous, as Holbrooke claimed, and there are things in the past that can inform actions in the present, and even into the future.
In some ways, there are parallels between the period leading up to Pearl Harbor and current times. We have a country divided, as the recent presidential elections clearly point out. No, we don’t necessarily have an imminent threat of global war. But lines are clearly drawn on a number of issues: politics, the wars in the Middle East, the role of government, and even what is true and what is false.
As history has shown time and again, a nation divided can be a nation at war with itself. We very well may on the brink of such a time. Seventy-five years ago, Pearl Harbor became a defining moment that eventually brought the country together, much as 9/11 did 15 years ago.
But there are other lessons from history that show how much the country can fracture. Think about the anti-communist crusades, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in the 1950s. Or the split between North and South over slavery and states’ rights prior to the Civil War. Or the 1960s, when the country fractured not only over the Vietnam war but also over civil rights.
All of those eras, and certainly others not named here, led the country into dark corners that were difficult times. In many of those times, people became polarized on one side of an issue or the other, and that polarization led to infighting among different groups. Infighting, in so many ways, can lead to more problems than any outside threat. Infighting can also be a distraction that may allow an outside threat an advantage.
Perhaps the greatest threat faced by the country today is not an attack by extremist groups. That’s not to say those threats aren’t real. They certainly are, and we should be vigilant against them.
Perhaps the greatest threat facing the citizens of the United States comes from within, from the lack of empathy, from the lack of understanding, from the lack of realization that others may differ in opinion. Regardless of where people might fall on the political spectrum, left, right, blue or red, we need to understand each other and understand that the United States works best when working together. We also need to understand that a big part of working together means finding common ground. In today’s hyper media world, where news travels at the speed of light and false news can often be taken for real news, that is sometimes difficult to find.
If there are any lessons to taken away from Pearl Harbor, one of the most important could be that when we fail to recognize other interests at home or abroad, we leave ourselves vulnerable as individuals and as a nation.
Finding common ground and working toward a common goal despite differences may be our biggest challenge. If not, we indeed may be imprisoned by our own fears and intractable beliefs.