History's repetition can occur on several levels. Viewing the HBO biographical film "The Gathering Storm" on a flight last week from London to Washington and contemplating the parallels between Winston's Churchill's role in preparing Britain for World War II and our current war against a less embodied entity called "terrorism," I recalled some lessons from that earlier war which we would do well to learn in this one.
Then, many people wanted to avoid war at all costs. An opinion poll conducted by the League of Nations in the late 1930s found over 90 percent of the British people favored international disarmament. Churchill, brilliantly portrayed in the film by Albert Finney, responded: "To urge preparation of defense is not to assert the imminence of war. On the contrary, if war were imminent, preparations for defense would be too late."
To those arguing for "evidence" that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, or that we wait until he strikes first before attacking him, this seems a fitting retort from the past to the present.
Leaders in Churchill's own party promoted pacifism, as well as continued commerce with Hitler's Germany. Churchill charged, "England is lost in a pacifist's dream. If people are dreaming, it means they're asleep." In response to the commerce-first crowd, he added this indictment: "We have succumbed to the financial pleasure of the time."
There were those in Churchill's time, as there are in our own, who proposed striking a deal with evil. Otherwise, they predicted, hundreds of thousands might die. Churchill would have none of it, noting that failure to act guaranteed far more deaths.
Just as Pearl Harbor launched America's involvement in World War II, so did the events of one year ago begin another war. The parallels between the observance of the first anniversary of Dec. 7, 1941 and the first anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, are striking.
An editorial in The New York Times on Dec. 7, 1942, saluted the unity the country was experiencing but also celebrated the diversity of opinions, which continued to flourish. The same is true today.
The newspaper criticized the government for not telling the truth about the damage done to American ships at Pearl Harbor. A Dec. 6, 1942 Times editorial accused the Roosevelt administration of lying about the results of the attack, which it said gave "birth to needlessly disturbing rumors and (threw) doubt on the candor of subsequent Navy announcements." The media continue to question the veracity of government officials, which is not a bad thing.
Writing on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Times' Arthur Krock observed, "Atop many public buildings are anti-aircraft gun installations, manned by troops in plain sight of the crowds." 9/11 has produced similar scenes.
Krock noted that in the months following the attack, politics continued under the façade of unity: "A discouraging amount of politics as usual entered the sum of congressional action...Quarrels over jurisdiction among administrators, which should have been killed in their infancy and could have been by a better executive organization of the war, arose and were allowed to reach acute stages before they were taken up for settlement..."
Still, freedom won then and freedom will win again.
The clergy on that first Pearl Harbor anniversary were united in focus and in their faith in the government and armed forces. Rabbis and ministers of different theological and political stripes preached powerful sermons about repentance, dedication to freedom and the need to pray for the protection and success of America's military. At a Central Synagogue service in New York City, former New York governor Herbert Lehman said, "Pearl Harbor destroyed our differences, unified our nation and consecrated our sacrifices."
A Los Angeles Times editorial on Dec. 7, 1942, echoes down to our present anniversary of Sept. 11 with some strong resolve (though it used language that now would be considered racist): "In future years when the last Jap has been driven from invaded territory and the last bit of Jap warmaking material has been destroyed or surrendered, Pearl Harbor Day may be otherwise commemorated and it may be it will be remembered less as a day when so many brave Americans were slain in an attack without warning than as a day when the nation was awakened to its peril and began to understand fully that the existence of a free people isolated in a slave world was impossible. It was then made clear to Americans that a static defense against aggressors could not possibly succeed and that it was necessary to meet them on a battleground, not of their, but of our choosing."
That seems to be a lesson worth re-learning on this first anniversary of our current war.