After the Day of Infamy:
"Man-on-the-Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,
and that is the lamp of experience.
I know no way of judging the future but by the past.
The illustration above depicts the Greek poet/historian/reporter, Homer, chatting to an audience of rapt listeners. I’d imagine he’s waxing about the Trojan Wars, describing the trials and tribulations of men like Odysseus and women like Penelope. That’s how we used to learn about the past. Despite the fact that the oral tradition has become outdated in the age of modern technology and record- keeping, the spoken word still provides the grist for any historian's mill.
This unit we’ll be working with an aural/oral archive that chronicles public reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. On the day following the bombing of the naval base in Oahu, the Library of Congress commissioned field operatives to record the voices of ordinary Americans and their reactions to the sneak attack.
Because we’re dealing with an historical event that none of us experienced directly, we have to rely on the official “history” that has evolved regarding the Japanese assault on Hawaii and America’s subsequent entry into World War II. For some of you, this may mean information learned in school and data gleaned from popular culture sources like the History Channel or the recent film, Pearl Harbor. And while the knowledge gained from such texts certainly can be legitimate and tell certain “truths,” it represents a distilled version of the events.
The Library of Congress Archive provides an opportunity for us to examine the public reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in its rawest form – interviews of the “man-on-street” on the day (and months) following the attack. Alan Lomax, the folklorist responsible for coordinating the post-Pearl interviews, devoted much of his career to gathering and preserving the thoughts and performances of what he called the “voiceless” people of America.
This grassroots approach to preserving artifacts from the past is unusual, and we’ll want to examine how such a record complements or differs from the “official” history. But before doing so, it would be useful to take advantage of a similar event from recent history to prepare our investigation, namely, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon September 11, 2001. Since I’m certain that all of us recall this event fairly vividly, we’ll use it to prime the pump for our examination of the Pearl Harbor archive.
But your main assignment this week will be:
- to listen to several hours of voices from the past
- to be an historian
- and to construct your own historical narrative of reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor
We can draw lessons from the past, but we cannot live in it.
-- Lyndon B. Johnson