Remembering the lessons of Pearl Harbor in the age of Donald Trump

Two ships built in New York City, two ships that launched wars.

The first was the armored cruiser Maine, which rolled out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Wallabout Bay in 1890. That ship met a fiery end in Havana’s port, which led (with yellow journalism help) to the Spanish-American War, says Brooklyn historian and Cornell associate professor Thomas Campanella.

The second was the battleship Arizona, completed in 1915, which fell victim to a Japanese torpedo attack at Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today.

The day that would live in infamy pulled America into the Second World War. More than 2,400 servicemen were killed by the surprise attack. Thousands of miles to the east, a slow New York Sunday was disrupted as news trickled in.

Public address announcements interrupted the last game of the NFL season at Ebbets field, between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers football team. The announcements alerted military personnel to make contact with Washington DC — including the head of the Office of Strategic Services William Donovan, according to Richard Goldstein’s picture of wartime New York, “Helluva Town.”

There was shock and fear. Rumors circulated about possible Japanese treachery. Contemporary news accounts described tense and silent crowds gathered in Times Square to read the news bulletins. Some sailors were more jovial, sure that “we can whip them in no time,” according to the New York Times.

There was a rapid public reaction, civic and military. By Monday morning, the Civilian Defense Volunteers Office on 5th Avenue was “swamped,” according to Richard Lingeman’s WWII history “Don’t You Know There’s a War On?” By 7 a.m., 30 people waited in line at the Army recruitment center, where enlistments by the end of the day tripled that of the first day of WWI.

There were other reactions too. Between midnight and 9 a.m. the next day over a hundred Japanese nationals were arrested and interned at Ellis Island, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Then-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decreed that Japanese New Yorkers stay inside their homes. He sent NYPD officers to close Japanese restaurants, escorting owners and workers home (a Times account says they waited for patrons to finish eating). He also directed NYPD detectives to assist FBI officers in their rounds of targeting “potential saboteurs,” according to Lingeman’s book.

LaGuardia was known at other times for his comparative rationality on racial and ethnic issues. This wasn’t his finest moment. Clouded by war fever, he also opposed letting Japanese Americans interned after Pearl Harbor resettle in New York City as late as 1944 — even when urged to do it by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who accused the mayor of “playing the discordant theme of racial discrimination.”

LaGuardia said it would be “unfair . . . to force them upon New York City.”

As in other periods of larger or smaller turmoil in New York City, there were reports that minorities who bore the brunt of blame were harassed. Japanese American institutions declared support for their adopted nation; a hospital worker named Matsusabo Matsushito attempted to commit hari kari with a pen knife and needle, feeling shame from Japan’s attack. Yet the next day’s newspapers carried stories of a Japanese American who had lived in the U.S. for 40 years arrested at home; another beaten by three assailants outside his house.

Today, these darker elements of recent history are mostly papered over, though LaGuardia’s lesson shows: even otherwise good citizens can be overcome by baser impulses. We are in danger of surrendering to those impulses today, in a complicated, post-9/11 world that has had its own fair share of shocks and reactions.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama gave a thanks-to-the-troops national security address that also served as a warning about the dangers of stigmatizing Muslims, submitting to torture, betraying America’s better principles.

Those tensions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, long after Pearl Harbor was avenged and the Second World War ended — on another Brooklyn Navy Yard Ship, the Missouri, aboard which Japanese and American officials signed their peace.