Today marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attack which dragged the United States into World War II. If there’s anything we’ve come to understand, it’s that geo-political events have far-reaching consequences that ultimately impact all of us, no matter where we are on the planet.
In Europe, World War II is perceived as having its roots in the aftermath of the Great War, World War I. The Treaty of Versailles and the rise of fascism – extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice – sparked the rise of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. In Asia, the roots of Japan’s aggression was 90 years in the making when Japan was forced to confront their isolationism and, in order to avoid the fate of China succumbing to Western imperialism, embarked on a systematic path of industrialization, militarization, and imperialism.
War, and the events leading up to war, bring out the best and worst in humanity. What can we draw from the lessons of Pearl Harbor that might have meaning for us in this second week of Advent?
First, isolationism comes at a price. Japan thought isolationism would protect them from the fate of China. But when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy ignored Japan’s directives, Japan was confronted with the fact they were technologically outmatched and not perceived to be equal to the United States. On the other hand, the United States took an isolationist stance while Japan was conquering Asia and Germany was conquering Europe. By 1941, both the Nazis and Japan had occupied nations and people, subjugating millions to horrible atrocities.
Imagine the unimaginable. The cultural orientation of the United States could not fathom the mindset the the Japanese fighter pilots who would embark on a one-way suicide mission to destroy a United States military base. Denial precludes decent human beings from imagining the unimaginable as what happened in the Nazi concentration camps, Nanking, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
It is immoral to single out any specific ethnic, religious, or social group. Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese ancestry to relocation camps. What is not as well known, is that smaller numbers of Italian Americans and German Americans were also interned. The Nazis not only systematically targeted the Jewish people, but also every other minority or dissident not considered Aryan: Slavs, Romanis, LGBT people, the disabled, Freemasons, people of color, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, leftists, and a host of other groups.
If the Unites States had accepted more refugees, hundreds of thousands of Jews, gays, and others would have been saved from the Holocaust. Roosevelt was convinced that a large influx of refugees would pose a security threat and place a burden on the American economy that was recovering from the Great Depression. A European Jewish refugee ship was even sent back to Germany. They were all exterminated. Hundreds of thousands could have been saved if they had been allowed temporary sanctuary.
The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is an opportunity for us to repent for our attitudes and actions that lead to persecution and destruction of our shared humanity. The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is an opportunity to turn from division, alienation, and fear. The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is that we can put the worst of humanity behind us and not allow the sins that brought us to Pearl Harbor and World War II take root. Ever. Again.