In conversation: Beverly Gage on seeing history as a ‘contingent human drama’

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An aerial view of the USS Arizona Memorial with the U.S. Navy (USN) tour boat, the USS Arizona Memorial Detachment, moored at the pier as visitors disembark to pay their respects to the sailors and marines who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Photo by: PH3(AW/SW) Jayme Pastoric, USN

This year, the United States commemorates the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a surprise military strike by the Japanese at the United States naval base in Hawaii. The attack, which took place on the morning of Dec. 7, led to the United States joining World War II after more than two years of avoiding entry into the war.

YaleNews recently sat down with Beverly Gage, professor of 20th-century American history, who teaches classes on politics and government, to discuss the lasting impact the attack on Pearl Harbor had on America, what lessons today’s leaders can learn from this historic conflict, and why it is important for students to study disciplines in the humanities such as history.

As an historian, what is especially meaningful to you about commemorating the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?

Pearl Harbor was the biggest foreign attacks on American soil to this day. It precipitated U.S. involvement in what remains the greatest global conflagration that humanity has ever seen. It is important to put ourselves back in the mindset and moment of people who experienced Pearl Harbor. From our point of view today we know how the war turned out, and we know that there were no further attacks on U.S. soil, but the people who were living in the United States during that time did not know what was coming, and so I think it is important to remember the level of uncertainty, fear, and concern that this event inspired.

What impact did Pearl Harbor have on Americans at the time?

The most obvious impact is that it forced the United States into the Second World War. We tend to forget about is how long it took the United States to get involved in the war. If we date the formal beginning of the Second World War to September of 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, that is almost two and half years that the United States stood watching from the sidelines and giving some level of assistance, but really trying to hold back from entering the conflict. That is one piece of Pearl Harbor’s significance. Another thing that is important to remember is that because of Pearl Harbor many Americans considered the Pacific War to be the much more important war, and considered the Japanese the big enemy of the United States. There is some possibility that after Pearl Harbor if Hitler had not declared war on the United States, the United States would have simply engaged in the Pacific War and would not have gotten as involved in Europe. There was a very powerful feeling at the time that World War II was just another European war that the United States did not need to get involved in. Many Americans at the time would have said that the Pacific War was the important war to win.

What was FDR’s biggest challenge after Pearl Harbor?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed real leadership in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Think of what that moment meant to America. It meant that the United States was going to be drawn into not one, but both of the major wars existing throughout the world at the same time. The United States had to mobilize an army and a military structure from the ground up. The United States had mobilized for WWI, and then it demobilized. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the United States basically had no standing army and had a small navy, and so Roosevelt was faced with the idea that he was going to have to create all of this almost from scratch. One of the consequences of the Second World War was that the United States decided that it was going to maintain a permanent and very extensive military infrastructure.

The president’s message after the attack on Pearl Harbor conveyed both the gravity of the situation and also a sense of calm. His speech is a brilliant piece of rhetoric, especially because it had to be written very quickly. It is also interesting to study that process of mobilization, which was far from perfect, but which did pretty remarkable things in a very short period of time.

What lessons from the attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath are translatable to the present-day?

We tend to think of Pearl Harbor as the event that brought us into World War II, which is accurate, but it was also a surprise attack, and when we think about national responses to situations like terrorism, it is particularly interesting to look at the response to Pearl Harbor. One of the things that happened within 24 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor was a roundup by the FBI of non-citizens who they considered to be potentially disloyal and a threat to the nation. For several years, the FBI had been identifying who they were going to round up in the event of a national emergency and had created extensive lists of Japanese, German, and Italian non-citizens in the United States. Several thousand people were rounded up and sent to internment camps. We are all familiar with the mass Japanese internment that came later, which was aimed at Japanese Americans as well as non-citizens, but this earlier phase that was a much more targeted FBI program is not terribly well known. There are issues of civil liberties as a result of this that are of use to us today. There are also questions about how Americans respond culturally to a moment like Pearl Harbor. There is very little question that many Americans understood that this not only as a war between nations but also a war between races and that ended up shaping how the Pacific War was carried out.

Why is it important for students to study historic events, such as this one?

Pearl Harbor and the United States’ role in the Second World War that Pearl Harbor helped to precipitate transformed the United States domestically, and transformed the United States’ role in the world, and these developments are still shaping the world that we live in today. If you want to know how U.S. military bases ended up all over the world, or if you want to know to some degree how post-war civil rights began, or how domestic social politics evolved, you have to know what happened during these moments.

I think the other thing that is often useful for students to remember is although history is sometimes taught as a progression of names and dates, an event like Pearl Harbor reminds us about the contingencies of history and how particular events and disasters can radically change the direction of history. People in moments like these are living with a great deal of fear and uncertainty and are forced to forge ahead and make decisions about the world as best they can. I teach history as a sort of contingent human drama, and that I think that opens up the idea and helps us to see that we too live in a moment of uncertainty and we have imperfect information about what lays ahead, but we have to nonetheless move forth and try to make it the world that we want it to be.

Were there other moments in history where the United States was caught off guard as it was with Pearl Harbor?

The event that comes to mind is 9/11, which was a truly large-scale surprise attack that caused a major transformation of U.S. geopolitics as well as domestic security policy. Even though it was not a foreign state that attacked us, I think 9/11 is our best recent parallel. There was a sense that things were going to be radically different after 9/11, which people also felt very acutely after Pearl Harbor.

Why is important for students to study the humanities?

The humanities give students a set of qualitative tools that are not available in other disciplines. The study of history is at least in part a set of tools for answering questions about the world we live in today. For instance, we are sitting here in this office, and there are thousands of historical questions we could ask about how it is that we got into this situation. We could ask questions about why this building exists, where it came from, and why it was built. We could ask where the idea for a modern university came from, and we could ask questions about how two women came to be sitting in Yale University having this kind of conversation, or about when it was that universities decided that newsletters and public relations were an important part of their enterprise. Almost any situation you find yourself in today, there are a whole set of questions that can only be answered through the tools of history.

What is also particularly useful about history is that the study of history and the humanities means that you do not have to make it all up yourself. For thousands of years people have been thinking about certain fundamental questions about the human condition — how to run a government, how to conduct a war, or how to write a book — and you may as well take advantage of all of that knowledge and human experimentation that has come before you. The study of history opens up a whole world of knowledge and possibilities.

What do you hope students will take away from your classes?

I hope my students come away from my classes with a sense of history as a story of people making imperfect decisions in difficult circumstances. I hope they will learn to look at the world around them and understand and interpret some of the political language that they are hearing, and maybe to see some danger signs in what is going on in the present that can come from the past. I also hope they come away better equipped to shape the world that they are living in today.

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