Seventy-five years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced to Congress that “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” In asking for a Declaration of War, FDR said that December 7, 1941, would forever be “a date which will live in infamy.”
The America that was attacked that morning at Pearl Harbor was different in many ways from the America of today. Our army was weak and barely capable of responding if an enemy invaded our shores. Our navy was built around massive battleships, soon to be made obsolete by the growing power of the airplane. Internally we were characterized by great regional differences, made all the greater by slow transportation and expensive communications. But perhaps the greatest difference from today’s America lay in our expectations, our assumptions about how our society fit together and related to the rest of the world.
Our political expectations were remarkably different on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Government reflected not the collective will of individual voters but the jostling of competing interest groups, urban and rural, labor and business, Northern and Southern. Voter participation was low, as low as 9 percent in Virginia. We assumed that the political leadership would take care of our interests for us, balancing them against the interests of competing groups.
Our religious expectations were also remarkably different. Claims that America was a Christian nation would have elicited no dissent. Indeed, we assumed that America was a white Protestant nation, and that other groups would have to assimilate to white Protestant ways. Even government reflected the dominant Protestant ethos. Franklin Roosevelt once purportedly told the economist and Roman Catholic Leo Crowley, “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and the Jews are here on sufferance. It is up to both of you to go along with anything that I want at this time.” Certainly today’s Supreme Court, with four Roman Catholics, three Jews, and no White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, would have been utterly unthinkable.
Our social expectations were also thoroughly different in 1941. Family patterns were highly traditional. The husband was employed and the wife stayed at home and took care of the house and family. Few occupations were easily open to women apart from teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. While it was possible for a woman to become a doctor or a lawyer, we expected that a woman who made one of those career choices was giving up any prospect of marriage. A wife would manage the kind of socializing that would advance her husband’s career; but social activities seldom crossed class boundaries, crossed major religious boundaries only when they would benefit the family’s position, and never ever crossed racial boundaries.
Educational assumptions, too, were markedly different. A young man who had completed high school was ready to begin his career. College was for those who, like aspiring lawyers or doctors, had a particular need for higher education. Technical education was acquired through apprenticeships or on-the-job training.
The war experiences into which we were thrust by the attack on Pearl Harbor transformed more than our county’s place in the world order. They also initiated a transformation in our expectations. Now people expected that soldiers who were risking their lives for their country should, as individuals, be able to vote in national elections. For the first time Congress intervened to insure that military personnel would have access to absentee ballots. The participation of African-Americans in the war effort advanced the perception that they, too, should be able to participate in the political process and not have to entrust the fate of their interest group to white politicians. Soldiers’ graves with the Star of David made a mute but eloquent statement that this country was not just for the ruling Protestant elite. And while the men were away at war, thousands of women proved that they were perfectly capable of handling difficult jobs and exercising leadership whenever they were given the chance. When the war ended, the G. I. Bill transformed the educational landscape forever.
There are still voices expressing nostalgia for the world of seventy-five years ago, before Pearl Harbor. Occasionally those voices can slow the pace of change, but they cannot turn back the clock. The America of 1941 is very much worth studying, both to mark how far we have come in our changing expectations and assumptions, and to see how persistent some deep-seated attitudes can be.
– William M. Christie, Author
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