What made America great on Pearl Harbor Day

Do lessons from Dec. 7, 1941 still echo 75 years later?

Then, war suddenly was thrust upon the nation. So, too, was a feeling of unity as a disparate population of 133 million “others” forged a sense of common purpose to face America’s greatest challenge since the Civil War.

During the past few weeks I’ve dipped into audio archives, listening to dozens of weekly programs of CBS World News Today from the World War Two years. Listening to those old radio broadcasts, I cast myself into the place of the contemporary audience, whose security suddenly was thrown into doubt. As the reporters checked in from hotspots around the globe, I felt the immediacy of their well-honed words, and found comfort in their controlled cadences. The medium of radio produced in me a feeling of complete empathy with the listeners of that day. Along with them, I wondered what the future might hold, and wished those same measured radio voices could frame and assuage my present uncertainty.

Anyone aware of history knows the broad outlines of what happened so many years ago. We know how the story ended, how it set the stage for the Cold War, and how it shaped the future place of the United States.

Was that the time America became “great” in the sense that some imagine it can be made great again?

At the close of 1941 America was great not because of its military might. The incredible industrial engine of war production had yet to be jump started. Had the Japanese not attacked, and if the “America First” isolationists had prevailed, the country would have continued to sit out the conflict that already had raged for two years.

To me, what made America great at that time was its resilience—a quality you actually can hear in the voices of the commentators and reporters, who sought to project real news, not fake news, and who saw their own integrity as key to buttressing the values of truth, fairness, and openness that were under withering, wholesale assault from the fascist and imperial merchants of conquest and hate.

At that time, America was no utopia; there were social and political problems aplenty: Jim Crow segregation laws, limits on Jewish and other refugees, domestic hate groups including Nazi sympathizers and the KKK, labor strife, gender inequality, to name a few. Reverting to the America of the 1940s would be a great leap backward, a leap some, alarmingly, would like to take.

On this 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it seems to me, America will be hard pressed to preserve its hard won progress, let alone leap forward, unless more voices of integrity come to the fore to cast words of truth, fairness, and openness, such as could be heard every Sunday over CBS during World War Two.

The airwaves are vastly more crowded now, and the internet has done more than its share to dilute the sound of reason that cut through the turmoil back in the day. So I find comfort in listening to the old broadcasts from that distant time. They set a standard to strive for now, and a benchmark for what “great” might mean in an age turning as mean as the one in which our resilient parents and grandparents came of age.

About the Author
Aaron is Vice President at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.