No American debated the meaning or virtue of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor a year later. No New Yorker or Washingtonian looked for the bright spots in the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001, a year after the terrorist attacks on those two cities.
And yet, as the one-year anniversary of the siege at the Capitol approaches, Americans are furiously debating the content and the significance of the violent insurrection that followed Donald Trump’s “fight-like-hell” speech, which he made as congressional lawmakers gathered to count the Electoral College votes that sent Joe Biden to the White House.
The battle of Capitol Hill is being fought again, this time in public discourse – and Americans, perhaps even more divided today than they were on Jan. 6, 2021, are approaching this anniversary of anguish with apprehension.
“Some Americans see Jan. 6 as something to be remembered but not celebrated,” said Steven Danver, a Washington State University historian and editor of the three-volume Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History encyclopedia. “But others see it as a rallying cry.”
The struggle over the legacy of Jan. 6 mirrors the deep political divides that are reflected in Americans’ colliding views of Mr. Trump, of the outcome of the 2020 election, and of mask and vaccine mandates.
Only slightly more than a quarter of Republicans see the Jan. 6 episode as an attack on government, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll taken in the fall, while more than nine out of 10 Democrats view it that way. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll released Sunday found that 92 per cent of Democrats believe Mr. Trump deserves “a great deal” or “a good amount” of blame for the Capitol incident, while only 27 per cent of Republicans feel that way.
In this fevered environment, with Americans opposing Americans on all the issues of the day, the planning for Thursday’s anniversary continues apace, with anxiety. Some lawmakers – including GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who voted to impeach Mr. Trump and was nearly censured by her state party committee for doing so – have said the passions surrounding the event were so great that they prefer no commemorations at all.
On Capitol Hill, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a New Year’s Eve letter to colleagues that she plans “an observance of reflection, remembrance and recommitment, in a spirit of unity, patriotism and prayerfulness” to commemorate the anniversary of the riot, which began on the East and West Fronts of the Capitol and spilled into the building itself, including her office.
The planned events include a forum for lawmakers to recall their own experiences that day. Ms. Pelosi also has invited a panel of historians, including Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin, to place the event in historical perspective.
Ms. Goodwin said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that she would tell the lawmakers they need to learn as much as possible about the insurrection. “We know the end of America’s earlier stories – that the Civil War ended with the Union restored and emancipation secured [and] that the Allies defeated fascism in World War II,” she said. “Part of the anxiety we feel today is escalated by the awareness that we do not know how our story will end. But that worry can be matched by hope – for it is still up to us to write the remaining chapters of our story, which must start with establishing and preserving a full narrative of what happened on Jan. 6.”
The two major-party candidates in the 2020 election are planning contrasting events. Mr. Biden is expected to give a major address in Washington, and Mr. Trump has scheduled a news conference at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.
The very act of commemorating historical events often says as much about the time in which these episodes are evaluated as it does about the occurrences themselves.
The civil-rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., for example, was an immensely controversial event when it occurred in March, 1965. When its 50th anniversary was marked in 2015, the protest was celebrated as a signature moment in American history and was re-enacted by, among many others, a Black Democratic president, Barack Obama; a former Republican president, George W. Bush; and a onetime activist who was severely beaten at the bridge, Representative John Lewis of Georgia.
Scholars, too, use anniversaries as occasions to take fresh looks at past events, often subjecting them to revisionist interpretations that upend the original narratives.
“Historians tend to analyze the anniversaries of major events, dramatic ones that changed the lives of millions,” Tyler Stovall, the late historian and dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote five years ago in the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. “Wars, battles, declarations of national independence, and major cultural landmarks preoccupy us. We rarely concern ourselves with how happy these events made people; rather, we tend to see them as particularly vibrant examples of our main concern, change over time.”
The view of Jan. 6 eventually will be shaped as much by the future of American politics as by the congressional investigation currently under way on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are pressing forward with the probe, most Republicans are resisting and Mr. Trump is battling demands for documents that might provide fresh details of the day’s events.
If, for example, there is a repeat insurrection – perhaps on Thursday itself – will Jan. 6, 2021, be seen as the opening of a multi-act tragedy, rather than as a one-act drama? If American politics reaches a new equilibrium in coming years, will the current angst among progressives over the future of democracy be seen as overwrought and antiquarian, much the way Henry Clay’s views of his great early-19th-century rival Andrew Jackson may seem to us now?
“We are in the midst of a revolution, hitherto bloodless, but rapidly tending towards a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man,” Clay, who twice ran against Jackson for president, said in 1833, the fourth year of the Jackson presidency. Today Jackson is reviled for his views on slavery and his campaigns against Indigenous peoples, but for at least two generations after the Second World War his presidency was regarded as a triumphal prelude to the New Deal and to a broader, more participatory American democracy.
In the passage of time, will the memory of Jan. 6 lose its power and merely take its place along with other American uprisings?
There have been so many of them that, in 1863, the historian Orville Victor published a book titled History of American Conspiracies: A Record of Treason, Insurrection, Rebellion, & c., in the United States of America, from 1760 to 1860. The preface declares: “The Federation which made us one people has not accomplished its ends without occasional insurrections against the consolidated authority.”
Before the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the principal controversy surrounding the Japanese attack had to do with how political figures used the event – universally condemned in the United States – to their own advantage. Six months after American entry into the Second World War, senator Harry Schwartz of Wyoming went to the floor of the chamber and attacked “whisperers who inculcate class, racial and religious hatred” and “camp followers, blinded by private ambitions and secret hatreds, intent on gathering unto themselves personal advantage.”
By the 20th anniversary, president John F. Kennedy, whose PT boat was crushed by a Japanese destroyer in Pacific combat the month Schwartz delivered his floor remarks, devoted only two sentences to Pearl Harbor in his Dec. 7, 1961, speech to an AFL-CIO convention in Florida.
“We face entirely different challenges on this Pearl Harbor Day,” he said. “In many ways, the challenges are more serious, and in a sense long-reaching, because I don’t think that any of us had any doubt in those days that the United States would survive and prevail, and our strength increase.”
Then he went on to talk about job losses, education and the balance of trade.
Today, less than 1 per cent of Americans were at least 10 years old when the country entered the war. It’s likely they are the last with any clear first-hand memories of that time. And so the reprise line of the Sammy Kaye song Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor, recorded 10 days after the Japanese attack, has lost most of its literal if not its metaphorical meaning.
Perhaps the most apt analogue to the Jan. 6 rampage is the Nov. 5, 1605, insurrection led by Guy Fawkes. It was the most famous in a series of conspiracies fomented by Catholics protesting the monopolization of power by Protestants in England. The rebels planned to assassinate King James I and blow up the House of Lords. Today the rebellion – later marked by doggerel, dating to 1742, that begins, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November” – is studied by historians, and commemorated by schoolchildren in a festive celebration involving bonfires, effigies and candy.
“The Capitol riot was a failed attempt to suborn your democratic institutions, and that is how we look at Guy Fawkes today,” said Lawrence Goldman, an Oxford historian. “Its historical significance is basically lost in ignorance now, and all you Americans have to do is to wait 400 years before the same thing that happened to Nov. 5 happens to Jan. 6.”
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