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81 years of remembrance
On FDR's oratory, global military spending, and the two things about Pearl Harbor Day that should remain top-of-mind to Americans today
81 years after the event, Americans still mark the memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The anniversary is still observed with solemnity, despite the fact that only a handful of survivors are still alive and the United States long ago entered a fruitful and peaceful alliance with Japan.
■ It is possible that the date still looms large in part because of Franklin Roosevelt's famous declaration that it would "live in infamy". But it it also illustrates an important pair of characteristics about America's sense of self-identity.
■ First, even the memory of the attack still offends our sense of fairness. When Roosevelt advised that "America was suddenly and deliberately attacked" in "a surprise offensive" amounting to an "unprovoked and dastardly attack", he called to mind the sense that such a blow was contrary to our notion of decent conduct. He was saying, implicitly, that it was beneath America to engage in an unprovoked first strike against another country.
■ But the second characteristic it illustrates is the fanatical determination to deliver a crushing retaliation. Roosevelt didn't ask for a proportionate response; he promised "righteous might", "absolute victory", and certainty "that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us."
■ People sometimes blanch at the notion that the United States outspends the rest of the world's top ten military budgets combined. If a dollar, euro, yen, riyal, or ruble is spent on military purposes anywhere in the world, odds are 1 in 3 that it was spent by the USA.
■ Yet even though the United States maintains an awesome offensive arsenal, the real value of that incredible spending lies within its reinforcement of those two principles illustrated in 1941: That we find it offensive to initiate a fight, and impermissible to walk away from a provocation without crushing the aggressor.
■ More than eight decades after a sneak attack against a generation of Americans who came before us, we should continue to mark that event (and its terrible death toll) with solemnity. But we should also insist that it speak to our national character today, and a consistent unwillingness to be unjust with force paired closely to a determination not to back away from a righteous fight to bend the world back towards peace.