The 75th anniversary commemorations of the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seem to be a great gift to the Alt-Right’s xenophobic nationalists. That Day of Infamy – December 7, 1941 – seemingly confirms fears of treacherous foreigners while evoking nostalgia for the Greatest Generation’s war-winning whitebread America. But history demands we Shift Center, remembering that in World War II democratic decency defeated dictatorial demagoguery.
In fact, using America’s involvement in the Second World War to rationalize bigotry betrays the memory of the 416,800 who died fighting Nazi and Japanese racism, including Pearl Harbor’s 2,403 martyrs. In that spirit, just as most tourists visiting Pearl Harbor today end by visiting the decommissioned battleship the USS Missouri, this year’s anniversary ceremonies should end by honoring the values Missouri, its captain William McCombe Callaghan, and America represent – epitomized by Callaghan’s gracious, unexpected gesture, of honorably burying at sea the kamikaze pilot who tried killing Callaghan and his crew on April 11, 1945.
Decades later, many discount just how much Americans hated the Japanese – and how justified the hatred was. Japanese warplanes starting bombing Pearl Harbor just minutes after Japanese diplomats entered the State Department, pretending to negotiate. Japanese soldiers butchered 300,000 Chinese in the 1937 Rape of Nanking, ultimately murdering as many as eight million people, following what scholars call the “Three Alls Strategy” Sankō Sakusen: kill all, burn all, loot all. Japanese officers reputedly ate the flesh of captured American pilots. Japanese soldiers tortured Americans in Prisoner of War camps and on the brutal Bataan death march of 1942. American war posters warned against “THE JAP BEAST AND HIS PLOT TO RAPE THE WORLD.” That American hatred and distrust did have a darker side—racist incitement and imagery that culminated in the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans.