This essay by your editor first appeared 12/07/12 in The Hill, a newspaper and website focused on issues affecting Capitol Hill.
Last year, Congress stopped remembering Pearl Harbor. For nearly 50 years, the U.S. Congress had honored the survivors and fallen of Imperial Japan’s deadly attack through a resolution either asking the President to issue a proclamation designating December 7 as Pearl Harbor Day or issuing their own recognition of when the United States was pushed into World War II. This ended in 2011. America’s Greatest Generation was pushed aside to make a petty swipe at the White House about a surplus bust of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
A House rules change in 2011 did away with commemorative resolutions. As a staffer from the House Speaker John Boehner’s office told me, a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day resolution would be “frivolous.” The House Republican leadership of the 112th Congress had adopted new rules barring consideration of any measure that “expresses appreciation, commends, congratulates, celebrates, recognizes the accomplishments of, or celebrates the anniversary of, an entity, event, group, individual, institution, team or government program; or acknowledges or recognizes a period of time for such purposes” (Rule #28).
Speaker Boehner did not completely ignore December 1941 last year, however. That month served as the occasion to taunt the White House over a bust of Winston Churchill. He and many Republicans were upset that the President had returned this loaned presentation of Britain’s wartime prime minister to the British Embassy .
On December 19, 2011, House Speaker Boehner allowed a resolution to pass that recognized the accomplishments of former Prime Minister Churchill. Boehner introduced H.Res. 497 commemorating the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s “The Masters of Our Fate” speech on December 26, 1941 before Congress, in which he urged Americans, barely two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to pursue the war first in Europe and not Asia. The resolution also requested the placement of a statue or bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the United States Capitol.
No one regrets our efforts in Europe during the war, but Americans then fighting the first battles on the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Java may have been somewhat circumspect about Churchill’s successful Europe-first lobbying. After Pearl Harbor, for four months through April 9, 1942, soldiers on Bataan tied up a better trained and equipped Japanese invasion force. On Wake Island, from December 8 to 22, 1941, less than 400 Marines held off a Japanese armada and amphibious assault. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in the Pacific were abandoned and never resupplied. They were thus condemned to hopeless battles with obsolete weapons and no provisions ending in death or over three years of unmerciful imprisonment in Japan’s notorious POW camps.
Naturally, any political and military decisions in 1941 would have had good consequences for some Americans and bad results for others. But, 70 years later, a decision to commemorate a speech of a foreign head of state coupled with an explicit decision not to commemorate American veterans in one of the critical chapters of WWII is unfathomable.
Sadly, there is no longer a constituency to hold the House leadership responsible for ignoring WWII veterans or their history. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio), who did not issue a personal Pearl Harbor Day statement in 2011, has the power to make exceptions to "Rule 28," but he has no incentive do so. This year the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded and other Pacific War veterans are considered too elderly to be an active political force.
In fairness, perhaps Speaker Boehner thought that Congress no longer needed to weigh on remembering Pearl Harbor. This was the president’s job. In 1994, Congress made permanent a tradition started in 1966 and passed Public Law 103-308) designating December 7th as "National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day." It authorized and requested the President to: 1) issue an annual proclamation calling on U.S. citizens to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities; and 2) urge all Federal agencies, interested organizations, groups, and individuals to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff in honor of those who gave their lives as a result of their service at Pearl Harbor.
President Barak Obama, fulfilled his obligation 2011 by saying: “On National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, we honor the more than 3,500 Americans killed or wounded during that deadly attack and pay tribute to the heroes whose courage ensured our Nation would recover from this vicious blow. Their tenacity helped define the Greatest Generation and their valor fortified all who served during World War II. As a Nation, we look to December 7, 1941, to draw strength from the example set by these patriots and to honor all who have sacrificed for our freedoms.” He followed his words with a quiet visit on December 29th to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.”
This year Congress is again silent on December 7. It is unfortunate that our veterans were ignored to make an irrelevant point about whether a foreign leader’s bust should on display in the Oval Office. Resolutions honoring WWII veterans transcend politics. They provide these men and women with a national gesture of eternal appreciation for their sacrifices and valor on Pearl Harbor day and the nearly four years thereafter fighting tyranny. They remind us of the greatness of American leadership. Failure to do so sends a troubling message to present and future veterans on how they too will be forgotten.