Lying in bed last night, I was troubled by the sensation that, should I fall asleep, I might never wake again. I thought of what I would leave behind, and the catalogue of my accomplishments was so short that I was forced to change the subject for want of material. It was a rare moment of anxiety brought on by the dizzying headache that, I presume, is one symptom of a five-week-old cold I cannot seem to shake. I wonder how many folks, even in the best of health, had that feeling back in December 1941 when, instead of mind’s eyeing the seasonal shop windows, they were confronted with the likelihood that their world was coming to an end.
The raid on Pearl Harbor on this day, 7 December, in 1941, forced many Americans to reexamine their life or, perhaps, examine it for the first time. Wondering about the future and their part in shaping it, civilians no doubt asked of themselves what, if anything, they might be able to contribute, although we should not rule out that some were busy conceiving ways of avoiding any such contributions. I well recall that feeling of utter worthlessness during the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, when I dutifully took the train (or the bus, or whatever mode of transportation would run) up to the Bronx to teach college students not to split their infinitives or dangle their modifiers. In light of the deadly strike and the uncertainties ahead, making my mark in red ink struck me as petty and pointless. The most troubling sight, the most nauseating response was anything suggesting “business as usual.” It was not so much reassuring as offensive, this make-believe of “life goes on.”
In his radio address to the people of New York, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, known as the Little Flower, still had to bring home that business in the city was going to be far from usual. Being that the city itself had not come under attack and there were no immediately signs of violent change, many of those tuning in to WNYC had to be reminded of the urgency of the situation and its possible effects on a city thousands of miles from either Hawaii or Europe.
“I want to warn the people of this city that we are in an extreme crisis,” La Guardia addressed the public.
Anyone familiar with world conditions will know that the Nazi government is masterminding Japanese policy and the action taken by the Japanese government this afternoon. It was carrying out the now known Nazi technique of murder by surprise. So there is no doubt that the thugs and gangsters now controlling the Nazi government are responsible and have guided the Japanese government in the attack on American territory and the attack on the Philippine Islands.
Therefore, I want to warn the people of this city and on the Atlantic coast that we must not and cannot feel secure or assured because we are on the Atlantic coast and the activities of this afternoon have taken place in the Pacific. We must be prepared for anything at any time.
While ordering “all Japanese subjects to remain in their homes until their status [was] determined by [the] federal government,” La Guardia urged citizens to be “calm,” arguing that there was “no need of being excited or unduly alarmed.”
Listening to such historical recordings, I imagine myself in the moment, imagine the bewilderment of those who had stayed out of world politics, the irritation of those to whom such a disruption of the holiday season meant inconvenience or financial loss, the immigrant who would be subjected to the suspicion and the hatred of their neighbors. Perhaps it is my own sense of historical insignificance that makes it possible for me to imagine what it was like to wake up on the morning of Monday, 8 December 1941, of feeling the burden of living, and of taking on the challenge of translating such an onus into a chance to matter, if only for a little while—to be prepared for death as well as life.