Mystic Chords of Memory

Rick Moran
"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
(Abraham Lincoln, from his first inaugural address)

I often reflect on The Great Emancipator's words on days like today. The attack on Pearl Harbor has dwindled to insignificance for a large majority of Americans, most of whom were not alive that horrible day. The survivors who recall where they were and what they were doing 68 years ago are now in their 70's and 80's. Their numbers are falling with every passing remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day while those left behind have made it their cause to remind us of what it was really like to live in an America when our comfortable illusions about our safety and security were smashed so totally, and with a shocking finality.

The white hot anger that took a nation still in the depths of a deep depression and lifted them up in their "righteous might" to smite the Nazis and Japanese militarists is not felt by most of us, although remnants of it still live on in the breasts of those who remember first hand the gigantic betrayal of the Japanese and the evil of Hitler and his henchmen.

December 7, 1941 is one of those "hinges of history" that marks a divide between two eras in our historical consciousness. Before that date, America saw itself as too good to sully its hands by getting involved in the grubby power politics of Europe, or the endless colonial conflicts that afflicted much of Asia. Afterward, we realized that our security depended on building strong alliances and being prepared for war even in peace time.

Our isolationism was tied to traditionalism, in that the experiment of intervening in World War I was almost universally seen as a big mistake. Wilson's efforts to re-order the world via the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations was viewed as an aberration by many Americans who took comfort in George Washington's plea to steer clear of foreign entanglements. Some historians - Page Smith comes to mind - have argued that America wasn't psychologically ready to assume a leadership role in the world following WW1 and that the rejection by the senate of Versailles as well as our snub of the League of Nations reflected that reality.

In truth, America was not very adept at this imperialist business. Our few colonial possessions served as little more than coaling stations for our merchant marine and navy (the Philippines being one of the only exceptions). And while as early as 1919, the navy developed "War Plan Orange" to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, the prospect of involving ourselves in trying to deflect Japanese imperialist ambitions in Asia were not taken seriously until the mid-1930's.

Even in 1941, the thought was that war with Germany was much more likely. This was due to the "undeclared war" we were already fighting in the Atlantic. Our destroyers who were convoying supplies to Britain and Russia came under attack several times prior to December 7 - including the attack of October 31 on the USS Reuben James, sunk by a U-boat with the loss of 115 men.

The shock of December 7 wasn't that we were at war so much as it was the towering betrayal of the Japanese, who were negotiating with us right to the end. The historical record reveals that the Japanese had every intention of issuing an ultimatum - an hour before the attack. But snafus in decoding and translating the last message meant that the Japanese negotiators weren't received by Secretary of State Cordell Hull until the attack was well underway.

Read the rest of the essay at my blog Rightwing Nuthouse.


"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
(Abraham Lincoln, from his first inaugural address)

I often reflect on The Great Emancipator's words on days like today. The attack on Pearl Harbor has dwindled to insignificance for a large majority of Americans, most of whom were not alive that horrible day. The survivors who recall where they were and what they were doing 68 years ago are now in their 70's and 80's. Their numbers are falling with every passing remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day while those left behind have made it their cause to remind us of what it was really like to live in an America when our comfortable illusions about our safety and security were smashed so totally, and with a shocking finality.

The white hot anger that took a nation still in the depths of a deep depression and lifted them up in their "righteous might" to smite the Nazis and Japanese militarists is not felt by most of us, although remnants of it still live on in the breasts of those who remember first hand the gigantic betrayal of the Japanese and the evil of Hitler and his henchmen.

December 7, 1941 is one of those "hinges of history" that marks a divide between two eras in our historical consciousness. Before that date, America saw itself as too good to sully its hands by getting involved in the grubby power politics of Europe, or the endless colonial conflicts that afflicted much of Asia. Afterward, we realized that our security depended on building strong alliances and being prepared for war even in peace time.

Our isolationism was tied to traditionalism, in that the experiment of intervening in World War I was almost universally seen as a big mistake. Wilson's efforts to re-order the world via the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations was viewed as an aberration by many Americans who took comfort in George Washington's plea to steer clear of foreign entanglements. Some historians - Page Smith comes to mind - have argued that America wasn't psychologically ready to assume a leadership role in the world following WW1 and that the rejection by the senate of Versailles as well as our snub of the League of Nations reflected that reality.

In truth, America was not very adept at this imperialist business. Our few colonial possessions served as little more than coaling stations for our merchant marine and navy (the Philippines being one of the only exceptions). And while as early as 1919, the navy developed "War Plan Orange" to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, the prospect of involving ourselves in trying to deflect Japanese imperialist ambitions in Asia were not taken seriously until the mid-1930's.

Even in 1941, the thought was that war with Germany was much more likely. This was due to the "undeclared war" we were already fighting in the Atlantic. Our destroyers who were convoying supplies to Britain and Russia came under attack several times prior to December 7 - including the attack of October 31 on the USS Reuben James, sunk by a U-boat with the loss of 115 men.

The shock of December 7 wasn't that we were at war so much as it was the towering betrayal of the Japanese, who were negotiating with us right to the end. The historical record reveals that the Japanese had every intention of issuing an ultimatum - an hour before the attack. But snafus in decoding and translating the last message meant that the Japanese negotiators weren't received by Secretary of State Cordell Hull until the attack was well underway.

Read the rest of the essay at my blog Rightwing Nuthouse.