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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Lotchin says Pearl Harbor ‘fading from collective memory’

According to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 7, 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy.” After 71 years, Roger Lotchin, professor of history, wonders if Roosevelt’s declaration is still true.

Japan’s brutal attack on Pearl Harbor came with little official warning, shocking Americans and leading directly to U.S. involvement in World War II. But Lotchin said the date’s significance is fading from our collective memory.

“It’s been a long time since Pearl Harbor, and we’ve had our share of crises since that time,” he said. “We’re worried about the fiscal cliff, or if taxes are going to go up, or about what’s going on in Europe or the Middle East.”

By the time we recognize Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, it’s easy to forget about Pearl Harbor Day, Lotchin said. Unlike those days, Pearl Harbor Day is not a federal holiday.

“Perhaps the fact that we’ve got so many different sources of information today coming from so many different directions makes history more and more historical,” he said.

“It gets pushed out of our perspective.”

An endangered history

“As these things recede in our memory, it’s easy to forget why they happened. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened because of totalitarian powers in the world,” Lotchin said.

“We have to be careful dealing with those powers, and we have to protect ourselves.”

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day of Roosevelt’s famous Infamy Speech, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and days later, Germany and Italy.

World War II, Lotchin said, was a conflict in defense of Western Civilization and its tenets, such as democracy, capitalism and Judeo-Christian values. Though the U.S. has been engaged in other military conflicts since that war, there has been no conflict close to that scale since 1945.

“This was the most important thing that World War II did, and it’s easy to lose sight of that lesson. But that’s what’s been happening in the last 10 years,” Lotchin said.

The war made the world safer, he said, but it didn’t necessarily rid the world of danger.

“The world is not a friendly place. It wasn’t then and is not now, and you have to be prepared,” he explained. “When Pearl Harbor was more at the front of the perspective, it was easier for people to understand that.”

The personal side of war

Each year Lotchin offers a class on World War II. What used to be a room of 100 students is now limited to around 30 for a more intimate teaching environment.

Lotchin said World War II history is traditionally personal as we’re naturally inclined to hold on to the memories of the people who came before us.

For some, it’s a part of their family identity. When he asks students why they signed up for his class, many give the same answer: “my grandparents.”

“They almost always say they’re interested because their grandfathers fought in the war, or their grandmothers were in Women’s Army Corps or went into industry, as 8 to 10 million women had to do for the first time,” he said.

World War II veterans, and the keepers of all those memories, are dying by the hundreds daily, Lotchin said.

“Every day there are fewer of those men and women here to remind us of that experience. Without someone to push the issue, it gets lost.”

A positive outlook

Lotchin is an urban historian. He studies American cities and the overall patterns that make cities what they are. This research brought him to California in the 1960s, where he began to look at the close connection between military spending and urban development.

He has written five books about the subject, including “Fortress California, 1910–1961: From Warfare to Welfare,” which looks at the effect military presence had on the economic growth of cities like San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Diego became home to the leading naval base on the West Coast, which influenced everything about the city, from city planning to traffic patterns, zoning and politics.

Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, which developed more diverse economies, “in the end, it [the base] narrowed the potential of San Diego to develop anything else,” Lotchin said.

Urban history started to take off at the same time as the upheaval of the Sixties, he said, pointing out such deficiencies in cities as racism, pollution and poverty. Even with their problems, cities had considerable potential, Lotchin said. “I’m an immigrant’s son. If cities were so bad, why do immigrants from around the world flock to them?”

He began to look at what made cities bloom – factors like military spending, which boosted the business economy, but also art and entertainment ventures like sports and jazz, which moved talented individuals into cities that, in turn, rallied around them.

“The precursors of jazz came out of the African-American heritage, and when African-Americans moved to cities like New Orleans, Chicago and Kansas City, out came this new art form that was quintessentially American,” he said.

In 2014, after 48 years of teaching at Carolina, Lotchin will retire. He’ll have more time with his grandchildren, but his work observing the growth and change of American cities will never really be finished.

“When I first came to the study of cities, it seemed that the discipline was laboring under a pessimistic look,” he said. “My way of looking at cities is to emphasize the positive. I’m a natural optimist.”