For Most Americans, Pearl Harbor Is 'All in the Past'

By Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center Connecticut. | The Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 1991 | Go to article overview

For Most Americans, Pearl Harbor Is 'All in the Past'


Everett Carll Ladd. Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center Connecticut., The Christian Science Monitor


DEC. 7 is the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans and Japanese alike are already looking to this date not only as they remember the past but perhaps even more as they take stock of the present. Although the two countries are now allies and trading partners, their relations are not always smooth. Some worry that this year's commemoration, certain to receive much attention, may rekindle in the US feelings of mistrust, if not outright hostility, toward Japan.

Given present-day economic tensions, these concerns might seem well-founded. In fact, though, the idea that remembering Pearl Harbor might damage United States-Japanese ties is largely unsupported. Rank-and-file Americans display a general lack of ill will toward the Pacific nation whose attack a half century ago plunged us into the costliest foreign war in our history.

It is indeed true that at the time of Pearl Harbor and throughout World War II, American distrust and hostility toward Japan surpassed that toward any other of our wartime enemies, including Germany. The internment of Japanese Americans was a direct result of this. Polling done by the Gallup Organization near the end of the war also makes clear that many Americans viewed the Japanese people with a special antipathy.

For example, 63 percent of those surveyed in May 1945 said they thought the Japanese "approved entirely" of killing and starving prisoners; only 31 percent made this charge of the Germans. Asked "Which people do you think are more cruel at heart - the Japanese or the Germans," four out of five said the former.

Yet whatever the combination of factors - from the nature of the Japanese attack on US forces in Hawaii, to racial feelings in which ordinary Germans were more "us" and Japanese "them that produced the special wartime animus, the latter feelings dissipated rapidly after the war ended. In a survey taken in August 1951, just six years after Japan's surrender, 51 percent described their feelings toward the Japanese as friendly, 18 percent as neutral, and only 25 percent as unfriendly.

American leaders' decisions to aid heavily in the rebuilding of both Japan and Germany involved an intelligent assessment of long-term US interests, but they could not have been sustained were it not for this rapid disappearance of public hostility.

In recent years, large majorities of Americans have described their feelings toward Japan as friendly. …

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