Things were moving quickly in the Capitol. The President of the United States was penciling in last-minute touches to a speech he would give to a joint session of Congress. Wires, microphones and speakers adorned the rostrum to ensure that his seven-minute address would reach the nation through the radio.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was choosing his words carefully. He was about to urge Congress to declare war and launch the country into the worldwide conflict we now know as World War II.
From the Japanese perspective, the Hawaiian Islands were the furthest point in the attack. While the destruction and death were catastrophic here, we were lucky it was only an attack. There would be no invasion.
On the other side of the dateline — on Dec. 8, 1941 — it was a different story. The phone rang for General Douglas MacArthur at his penthouse in the lavish Manila Hotel at 3:40 a.m. The Philippines had received word that the Japanese had attacked Hawaii.
He immediately went to headquarters. The general would go on to enjoy great fame, heroics and nearly unchecked power over a conquered Japan, but on that day, the great military tactician did nothing. American planes, ships and weaponry were left vulnerable as Japanese forces descended upon Manila 10 hours after Pearl Harbor. They didn’t let up. By March, they overpowered the Americans and took control of the country.
The same went for Guam. The Japanese attacked the island hours after Pearl Harbor, defeated the American defenders and occupied the island on the morning of Dec. 10.
Thousands of miles away in Washington, the president worked on his speech. Earlier drafts referred to the synchronized attacks in Hawaii and the Philippines together. But as he tinkered with it more and more, Roosevelt wanted to emphasize the fact that the United States itself had been attacked. And so began the most famous part of the speech:
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The president described the attack of Pearl Harbor as the “bombing in the American island of Oahu.” The Philippines and Guam were relegated to a list of other sites like Hong Kong, Wake Island and Malaya. Roosevelt did not refer to the Philippines and Guam as American territory. And the date which lives in infamy for him is Dec. 7 — not the invasions on the 8th.
History professor Daniel Immerwahr in his recent and highly readable book, “How to Hide an Empire” writes that the coordinated attacks and invasions by the Japanese on Dec. 7 and 8 served as a wake-up call for those living in the contiguous 48 states. The Mainlanders had forgotten that at the turn of the century, the United States was intoxicated with imperialism, acquiring land and warring with and eventually subjugating people around the world.
By the time the Japanese attacked and invaded in 1941, the United States of America included not only the 48 states, but vast territories including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and constellations of islands in the Pacific and Caribbean. The biggest colony of all was the Philippines — a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898 followed by an atrocious and genocidal guerrilla war that did not end until 1913.
The attacks and invasions prompted Americans on the Mainland to learn all over again that there were people — thousands of Puerto Ricans, Alaskans, Filipinos, Chamorros and, of course, Hawaiians — who lived, worked and died under the shadow of the American flag without representation in Congress and without real participation in their federal government.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor started a war that changed the way Americans look at the rest of the world and their own country. The massive mobilization of people of color — like African-Americans and Latinos on the Mainland and Japanese-Americans in the islands — to fight fascism in Europe and imperialism in Asia exposed the conflict between the ideals of American-style democracy and the reality of legalized racism and colonialism. Having colonies was inconsistent with the values of a republican form of government. When soldiers returned home or, in the case of the Philippines and Guam, when the American government came back, many refused to resort to the way things were.
The United States needed to shed its imperialist past. The Philippines for the first time since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century became an independent republic in 1945. The people of Guam were granted a modicum of self-governance in 1950. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1952. And Alaska and Hawaii were finally admitted into the union as states in 1959. Disavowing imperialist tendencies was only the beginning of the post-war change. The self-government in American colonies would later sow the seeds of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Death, violence and terror had come to the United States on Dec. 7 and 8 nearly eight decades ago. But with it brought an inspiration for generations to demand that the United States continue to reach toward its ideals and values. Indeed, Dec. 7 and 8 will live on, but perhaps not always in infamy.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”
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