A Reconciliation at Pearl Harbor

Fear of “The Enemy” or “The Other” can drive humanity toward its worst instincts – a concern that Michael Winship recalls in light of a planned visit of reconciliation to Pearl Harbor by Japanese Prime Minister Abe and President Obama.

By Michael Winship

The recent 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor reminded me of the visit I made ten years ago and something curious that happened while I was there. I was on the way to my nephew and godson’s wedding in Kauai and stopped overnight in Honolulu expressly to visit the scene of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese air raid that was the explosive trigger for America’s official entry into World War II.

I had flown in from Los Angeles, arriving midday, so I didn’t get to Pearl Harbor until mid-afternoon. I didn’t know the last of the boats that take visitors out to the USS Arizona Memorial left at 3 p.m., but a kindly National Park Service volunteer took pity and hustled me onto the shuttle’s deck just as it was pulling away from the dock.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

After a short ride we were at the memorial that rests above USS Arizona, the battleship that was sunk about halfway through the surprise attack, killing 1,177 soldiers and Marines, almost half the more than 2,400 American military and civilians who died at Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning.

It is a beautiful monument and a solemn place. Looking down into the water you can see the ship’s remains and every day, two to nine quarts of oil still bubble to the surface from the 500,000 gallons of fuel that remain below. (She was launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1915 at a time when most battleships still burned coal but never saw combat until that Dec. 7.)

Once back on shore, and now that the final boat had come back from the memorial, almost everyone left — but the visitors center remained open. I wandered through the nearly deserted exhibit galleries and then returned outside. There was a bright blue sky, and as I looked across the harbor, I imagined that similar sunny day in 1941 and how bizarre it must have seemed to have bombs and gunfire bursting with deadly force into a seeming tropical paradise.

I recalled that a few years earlier, I had met a woman at a party who had been a journalist and a Navy wife at Pearl Harbor. She talked about standing on the top of a hill and watching the Japanese planes vector in on their targets. On 9/11, as I stood on my downtown Manhattan corner and watched the attack on the World Trade Center, I had remembered her description. as I did again now.

I was just getting ready to leave Pearl Harbor when two new buses arrived in the now empty parking lot. From them emerged a small crowd of tourists. Japanese tourists. It seemed clear that the tour group intentionally had waited until everyone else had left, presumably to avoid any possibility of confrontation with Americans who might take offense. They silently crowded into the Remembrance Circle in which a bronze topographical map of Oahu outlines where the Japanese attacks took place.

The tourists were aware of what had happened and their country’s involvement but quiet and respectful. There was not a hint of vindictiveness; they knew better than most that war rarely ends well.

A Joint Visit

This year, next week, just after Christmas, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese leader to travel to Pearl Harbor. He and President Obama will visit the USS Arizona Memorial.

“This visit is to comfort the souls of the victims,” Abe said. “We’d like to send messages about the importance of reconciliation.”

The mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

The two leaders’ visit comes at an important time. Back in May, both men visited Hiroshima — the first time a sitting American president had come to the place where we dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945, killing more than 125,000. With these visits we seek to heal old profound grievances.

But Abe and Obama’s Pearl Harbor trip also comes at a time when our world is fraught — “more fractious than it has been in a long time,” as Jonah Engel Bromwich recently wrote in The New York Times. Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Times, “Seven decades after Pearl Harbor, the guilt, reflection and self-questioning that followed the Second World War have been replaced by resurgent nationalism on both sides of the globe,” and Carleton University international affairs professor Stephen M. Saideman added, “Reactions to the Great Depression bred protectionism and authoritarianism. The advent of Trump and of far-right populist movements around the world makes us all feel déjà vu.”

A year or so after my Pearl Harbor trip, I was visiting a friend in the Sierra Nevada and on the way back to Los Angeles stopped for a while at another National Park Service site, Manzanar, the best-known of the infamous camps where innocent Japanese-Americans were detained against their will just months after Pearl Harbor. The camp’s remains are brutal testament to what happens when hysteria, xenophobia and paranoia are allowed to have the upper hand.

Last year, Joyce Okazaki, one of those who were held at Manzanar, told a reporter, “We really were in a concentration camp. We were imprisoned. We didn’t have due process. We should be aware of our freedoms and make sure they are honored. Don’t send people to prison just because of how they look.”

In this holiday season, usually one of hope and rebirth, and as the new Trump White House takes shape, seemingly prodding us toward a new time of prejudice and fear, let’s heed Okazaki’s words and give testament to peace and tolerance, freedom and understanding — while resisting those who would force march us into darkness. 

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This article previously appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/unexpected-lesson-pearl-harbor/

6 comments for “A Reconciliation at Pearl Harbor

  1. Robertsgt40
    December 22, 2016 at 16:18

    What should be placed at the memorial is a poster sized replica of the “McCollum Memo.” That would be the 8 bullet points FDR had Commander McCollum gather to entice Japan to attack the US. Google it.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 24, 2016 at 18:33


      The memo is the effort of a patriotic American officer to understand the military threat to the U.S. posed by the Japanese and consider possible defensive responses. It did not recommend attacking Japan. It was a low-level memorandum that probably never reached senior officials, It did not in any way influence American policies.

      Historians reject the false notion that the memo was the blueprint for war. The memo is legitimate and it recommended AGAINST war with Japan.

      The McCollum memo was first widely disseminated with the publication of Robert Stinnett’s book Day of Deceit, The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor. Stinnett is a conspiracy theorist who blames America for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

      I have the Stinnett book, and in my opinion he was pretty much of an idiot. In my Amazon review of his book I gave him points only for causing me to believe that Churchill probably had advance information about Pearl Harbor.

  2. aquadraht
    December 22, 2016 at 14:30

    I much respect Abe’s decision to visit Pearl Harbour, and think it is a good move. Yet, it is a gesture among allies. And I hope it is not aimed towards widening other rifts. I doubt that Abe has the greatness to spend a visit to Nanjing in a similar way. That would make a real difference.

  3. Tristan
    December 22, 2016 at 02:14

    Thank you for your thoughtful article, which, in the end asks for peace. Peace, a word and a concept not often mentioned in this dystopian age of unlimited freedom (as defined by predominant free market ideology). Peace, the antithesis of profit, under our current state of affairs in the free lands of the American Imperium, is not a desired goal or outcome. Freedom, as defined by our globalized free market overlords, is the ability to profit by the free movement of financial assets across the globe regardless of the negative impact upon nations or local/regional/national economies.

    When foreign war and the mirrored homeland security industries provide such an unlimited opportunity to exploit this unholy destabilization and the disruptions via NATO, unilateral US actions couched as coalitions, US Gov’t sponsored NGO’s, along with the intrinsic for profit contractors, who provide “aid”, “reconstruction” along with the supply of military weapons, deployments, and bases. By simply examining this aid in its various forms (how many billions of $$ did Obama promise Israel?), we understand how futile the simple desire for human understanding is under our present dystopia, and that a search for peace is not “on the table.” “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?!”

    Unless of course we change how we think and choose what is acceptable or not as citizens and human beings.

  4. Zachary Smith
    December 21, 2016 at 15:03

    In this holiday season, usually one of hope and rebirth, and as the new Trump White House takes shape, seemingly prodding us toward a new time of prejudice and fear, let’s heed Okazaki’s words and give testament to peace and tolerance, freedom and understanding — while resisting those who would force march us into darkness.

    Okazaki’s words are indeed inspiring, and ought to be heeded. Obama and Abe’s – not so much so. Pretty speech-making can too often be a cover for more a more sinister agenda.

    As our long-time readers know, we have posted a portrait of Japan’s nationalist-socialist prime minister Shinzo Abe a while back, entitled “Shinzo Abe’s True Agenda”. In brief: “fixing” Japan’s economy with even more inflation and deficit spending is only a side-show for Abe. He is convinced that he has a quasi-divine mission to bring Japan back to its glorious militaristic past. In this, he appears to be influenced by the philosophy of his grandfather Nobusuke Kichi, who actually served as a minister in Japan’s war cabinet during WW2 and became prime minister in the late 1950s.

    As a first step in this process, Abe has pursued a change of Japan’s pacifist post WW2 constitution, so as to allow Japan’s military forces to operate abroad again (as opposed to fulfilling a purely defensive function). In other words, similar to numerous European US vassals, he wants Japan also to take part when the Empire decides to bomb some defenseless little country usually inhabited by brown-skinned people back into the stone age.

    Not surprisingly, emotions have been flaring in Japan as a result. Especially the older generation that still has lots of painful memories of the war is strongly opposed to abandoning Japan’s post WW2 pacifism – regardless of the “reasoning” forwarded as to why it should be ditched. They don’t seem to agree that dying for the fatherland is sweet and honorable when it involves venturing abroad instead of just defending one’s home.


    Abe wants a return to the Glory Days, and has been busy whitewashing the details of those days. Did you know that the Korean Comfort Women volunteered to “service” Japanese troops during World War 2? Abe does! The gentleman sees a huge opening in Washington’s “pivot to China” to pursue his militarism.


  5. Bill Bodden
    December 21, 2016 at 14:03

    But Abe and Obama’s Pearl Harbor trip also comes at a time when our world is fraught

    Unfortunately, Obama’s credo, and probably Abe’s and Trump’s, is to look forward and not back.

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