Review: ‘Pearl Harbor’s context for troubled times

Tom Long

In the midst of deeply troubled times, it may help to look back at other troubled times for solace and context.

The key word there being “may.” Looking back may also serve to distract from the current condition or reassure us that things aren’t so bad after all. The door swings both ways.

Still, in a downright prescient move the Smithsonian Channel will offer up four specials over the next year marking the anniversaries of some very bad times indeed. Each special will come with the prefix “The Lost Tapes,” since each uses audio and video of the time which has been at least in part buried.

In April the look back will focus on the L.A. riots, in July the saga of Son of Sam will be dredged up, and in September we’ll be reminded of the Patty Hearst mess. Sordid stories all, but for sheer body count and cataclysm none will be able to top this week’s entry, “The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor.”

Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which took nearly 2,500 lives if you count civilians and the Japanese themselves. The vast majority who died were members of the U.S. Navy who were on ships that were bombed into oblivion.

The special sets the scene leading up to the attack, and it’s more than a bit disconcerting to hear President Roosevelt referring to a “damn Jap” long before the day of infamy. Apparently racism is not all that new to the White House. See: Context.

The Japanese sent hundreds of planes from aircraft carriers and caught America’s largest naval base unaware on a sleepy Sunday morning. The billowing smoke from sinking ships filled the air. Once Americans were able to take flight and fight back they repulsed the attack, but by then the damage had already been done.

All of which is, or should be, common knowledge. What “The Lost Tapes” adds, beyond all the terrifying footage, is a plethora of perspectives and insights. Without any good way to communicate, the bulk of the United States spent Dec. 7, 1941, wondering what the heck was going on. The only news reporter from Hawaii who was able to reach the mainland was unceremoniously cut off by a grumpy phone operator after less than two minutes.

Japanese-Americans were arrested and interned almost immediately, although the overwhelming majority had done nothing wrong and were patriotic Americans.

Again: Context. No solace; indeed horror. But context.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.


“The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor”


9 p.m. Sunday

The Smithsonian Channel