Friday marks the 77th anniversary of the event that propelled the United States into World War II. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,400 of our countrymen in a single morning and brought President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Capitol Hill the next day to request — and secure — a declaration of war.
The president promised Congress and the world on Dec. 8, 1941, that “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
Almost overnight, these words united what had hitherto been a bitterly divided and largely pacifistic country behind the greatest war effort in its history. And 44 months later, after the death of nearly 400,000 U.S. soldiers, that victory was accomplished.
Pearl Harbor defined the 'Greatest Generation'
The Pearl Harbor attack defined the American generation that has come to be remembered as our “greatest.” Not only did the whole populace — soldiers and civilians alike — shake off the shock from that Sunday surprise, but it also went on to defeat powerful enemies on three continents.
After the fighting stopped in May 1945, this same generation built the country into a superpower and guided it to victory in the Cold War. The resiliency, determination and patriotism of this particular collection of Americans deserve to be remembered not just on Dec. 7 but every day of the year.
This year, Pearl Harbor Day is made especially poignant by the death on Nov. 21 of Ray Chavez, the oldest of the survivors of what President Roosevelt called “the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan,” and the passing last Friday of former President George H.W. Bush, 94.
Chavez, 12 years Bush’s senior, was in the midst of the carnage from the start; the latter chose to join the Navy as soon as he turned 18.
The war that began at Pearl Harbor was no doubt the central event of both men’s lives. Their deaths remind us that the ranks of the World War II veterans diminish daily, and that at some point within the next two decades, they will all be gone.
An uncertain future lies ahead
The gradual disappearance of the living link with the Greatest Generation represents an especially bitter passage for a country that has become so fractious and divided. Some wonder how the generation of 2018, or 2028, would respond to a national emergency on the scale of another Pearl Harbor. Others point to the simple virtues of President Bush and his generation — love of country, devotion to family, toughness, enterprise, humility, service above self — and worry that this kind of leadership might never come again. Many doubt that the country, in its current state of mind and heart, can produce public men or women of such noble sort anymore.
It is impossible to know, of course, what the future holds. But as another Dec. 7 comes and goes, it is for all Americans to honor the legacy of the Pearl Harbor generation and to draw inspiration from the way they met and mastered the dangerous challenges of their day.
Thomas H. Conner, the William P. Harris Professor of Military History at Hillsdale College, is the author of "War and Remembrance: The Story of the American Battle Monuments Commission."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pearl Harbor created the 'Greatest Generation.' Out of it came men like George H.W. Bush