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DATE that was going to live in infamy is now fading into history. Those who can remember where they were when they heard the news on the family radio become fewer each year. The generation that survived the Great Depression and won the Second World War is fast receding into the past. The distant past. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor must sound like ancient history to the kids in school nowadays.

After all, the Japanese are our friends now, which is a good thing. We buy their cars, they buy our food. They come here on vacation, and we go there on maneuvers. We're not only friends but allies. What's all this talk about a war with Japan?

Well, kids, it was called World War II. Read your history books. There was a time when the term "Japanese" struck fear in an American. So much so that We the People gathered up Americans with Japanese backgrounds and put them in camps--right here in Arkansas. As if our fellow Americans were sworn enemies just because they had exotic last names and dark hair.

Those were different times. But oddly familiar.

Europe and Asia had been embroiled in the conflict for some time by 1941. But we were assured that the world's troubles need not be ours. (Sound familiar?) After all, there were oceans to protect us from the bad guys. (Sound familiar?) It all sounded assuring enough, but what were we to do when the world's problems came to America? They did Sunday morning, Dec. 7.

In a few hours, more than 2,300 Americans were lost and a good part of the American fleet wiped out at Pearl Harbor. But even before then we were involved in an undeclared naval war against German U-boats in the North Atlantic. We shouldn't have been surprised. But of course we were. Here beginneth the lesson, a familiar one:

Be prepared. The best way to preserve the peace, we had been duly warned, is to prepare for war. But the giant named the United States drowsed off. And our betters called it idealism. That kind of sloth is almost part of our national psyche. After all, we didn't settle a new world in order to stay involved in the blood and turmoil of the old. It was all too easy to forget that there is but one world, and it grows smaller every day, what with one innovation following another in technology, commerce, communications; you name it.

Actually, we've never been isolated. Even our war for independence, lest we forget, was part of a world war in which we sought foreign aid at the court of the French sovereign--and received it in time to triumph at Yorktown with the arrival of Admiral de Grasse's fleet. Our splendid isolation is a myth and always has been.

Yet the myth persists. It even becomes political philosophy. Back in 1821, eloquent John Quincy Adams explained why threats from abroad should and could be safely ignored: America could best serve the course of freedom by providing a good example, he said, by shining a light for other nations rather than fighting evil abroad.

As he put it: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

Even now, it's hard not to rise up and cheer Mr. Adams' words. How appealing they are. And how convenient. Why waste our blood and treasure abroad when all we have to do is set a good example and wish others well? It all sounds so fine. Especially that line about not going abroad in search of monsters. But such a theory does dance around one question: What happens when the monster comes in search of us?

As it did on Dec. 7, 1941.

As it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

But we forget, and tell ourselves all will be well if we just withdraw from foreign entanglements. It sounds so simple. Or as a wise man once commented, to every complex question there is always a simple answer--and the wrong one.

Remember Pearl Harbor.

And learn from it.

Editorial on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Remembering Pearl Harbor

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