I have taught hundreds of college students each year for more than 30 years. Some of them grew up, as I did, in homes where the day's events were talked about, and where such topics as Pearl Harbor were discussed and regarded as important. I see and hear today that so many students do not talk about things like that at home. They do not get together and talk about the good and bad of the day.
And because young people are not talking with their parents about topics such as Pearl Harbor and its history and meaning, there are many misconceptions among students today. Most people think that we went to war with Hitler and Nazi Germany that day in 1941. No, we went to war against Japan; Hitler declared war on us four days later. People believe that we were a world superpower at the time of the attack. We were not. We were an industrial and economic power, but we did not yet have much military clout.
The United States emerged from the war as the world's superpower, but looking back on it now, many begin to think that we were the world's only superpower. And that, too, is not true.
I do not want to chastise parents, but I do not think they take time to do things like that anymore, talk with kids and have discussions at the dinner table. Dinner, to me, is not just about food, but it is about being and getting together and talking about things. Things that mean, and have meant, something to us. Things such as Pearl Harbor, and those who died in that tragic attack.
I tell my students when a quality TV documentary is coming on that it is good family time to sit down together. It's a good time to talk about it at suppertime. It's a good time to remember, and to make sure the next generation remembers. In our family, that's where we discussed things -- what we learned in school, and what we needed to know.
I suppose this is what happens as time goes on. People forget. I see this happening with students. Even 9/11 is beginning to flutter a little bit. For a while, students all remembered every living detail of it. But students today were tiny tots back then. Many have heard about it, but many just remember that their parents were very upset.
It is important to understand who we are and what we became as a nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 is one of the key moments in defining who Americans are. It set in motion the process of becoming the superpower we have become. It is important that we understand, as a nation, that it wasn't all victories for us. That sometimes, like 9/11, a great sense of pride in our nation comes out of a terrible tragedy. That too, was, and is, Pearl Harbor.
There will likely be a point when the attack on Pearl Harbor, like so many other older tragedies, will go into the attic of our memories. But I do not believe that it is time to go there just yet.
Saunders is a professor of history at Clemson University.