Here’s wishing a very pleasant Sunday morning after Thanksgiving to all. I’m hopeful this finds you in peaceful repose, that you and yours have rejoiced in fellowship together and that those who must be on the highways and byways arrive safely home. Of course, there’s special hope for the safety of our men and women in America’s armed forces, wherever they may be.
Those of you who’ve read me for a while know of my affinity for history, and my absolute belief in Santayana’s admonition that "those who ignore history are doomed to relive it." If you’ve looked at how the calendar falls this year, you’ve noted that next Sunday is Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U. S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Knowing my predilection, you can almost expect a column revisiting the date which, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt so eloquently proclaimed, continues to live in infamy.
But that’ll be next week. This week various news sources have advised that more Americans than normal would stay home for Thanksgiving this year. Financial pressures exacerbated by layoffs, the Wall Street debacle and the sudden collapse of the housing market have all allegedly contributed to a feeling of uneasiness helping keep folks from traveling.
That got me to thinking a little bit about what Thanksgiving in 1941 must have been like. Pearl Harbor was a week away, but the only people who knew it were the Japanese, whose strike force sailed the day before Thanksgiving and was en route to Hawaii behind a storm front in the north central Pacific Ocean.
So, I asked my mother if she could recall what Thanksgiving 1941 was like in Georgia. My dad had presented her with his Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pin not long before, and although that did not constitute an official engagement, Thanksgiving was especially meaningful for them. Other than that, the family gathered for a normal, traditional dinner at their modest home on East Paces Ferry in Atlanta.
One difference the ever feisty 93-year-old did recall was that in 1941 President Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday in November as America’s official Thanksgiving Day, ending confusion from past interpretations.
So, despite the war which raged in Europe as Hitler tried to conquer that continent, despite grave concerns in our War Department as to Japanese intentions in the Pacific, most Americans enjoyed a normal Thanksgiving in 1941.
I got to thinking about the similarities which faced our nation 67 years ago and today, and decided to look at other significant occurrences which happened on this date through the years. Two wars were raging at Thanksgiving 1941 and we’re currently fighting two wars in 2008, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unemployment was high in America then, as it is now. Many young men – like the ill-fated "Bedford boys" from the little town in Virginia which lost more men, per capita than any other village during the 1944 Normandy D-Day invasion – joined the armed forces if they could, just to have work, food, clothing and shelter. America’s armed forces today are all-volunteer, and though folks join for a multiplicity of reasons, unemployment surely plays a part.
The threat of terrorism was high leading up to Thanksgiving 1941. In Hawaii, to better guard against sabotage, American aircrafts were moved from revetments and aligned wingtip-to-wingtip in clear view of sentries. In 2008, continuing and blatant acts of piracy on the high seas by pirates from Somalia, along with horrific violence perpetrated against India just this week, remind us that the war on terror still rages.
I reckon, given humanity’s proliferation over the eons, that some significant event, arrival or passage has been recorded for virtually every date in the year. 1941 found America squarely on the fence, with the vast majority of citizens wondering what course should be charted in order to best deal with the crucial issues of the day. Our nation’s "Lend-Lease Act" allowed for sending war material to beleaguered Great Britain as Churchill and his countrymen tried to hold out against the Nazi onslaught, even as Secretary of State Cordell Hull strongly urged the Japanese to cease the slaughter in China and to end their imperialist expansion policies.
2008 finds America on the fence. Commitments abroad, formed with near-total agreement from our Congress and supported by a worldwide coalition of nations, are suddenly hanging in the breeze as a liberal majority in Congress and a new President-elect send vague messages to our allies. Our State Department, as well as our Department of Defense, founders in doldrums created by the sea change of major policy shift.
So it should not be surprising that terrorist activity has picked up, as terrorists around the world move to test the resolve of America’s newly elected leaders to do what’s right.
In 1941, the Japanese figured that by knocking out the Pacific Fleet and laying open America’s west coast to the threat of invasion, they could cause the citizenry to buckle and put pressure on Washington to let Japan keep their ill-gotten gains.
In 2008, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that terrorists around the world will be scrutinizing the actions of America’s newly elected watch. All they need detect is one little bit of waffling, just a little indecisiveness, a hint of reneging on our commitments to our allies, to signal carte blanche for the unleashing of another terrorist storm.
As America celebrated Thanksgiving in 1941, the Japanese were convinced that after Pearl Harbor our national resolve would buckle, that we’d strike the tent and call it a day.
They were wrong.
At the close of Thanksgiving 2008, the whole world watches, breathlessly awaiting the new American resolve.
Our only hope is for it not to differ from 1941.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.