We all know what happened 78 years ago yesterday.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is one of those events that bends the arc of history and sends the world hurtling into a different direction. There’s no way to know, of course, what would have happened if Japanese planes hadn’t commenced their bombing runs that morning, but we do know what did happen: The United States was plunged into World War II. By the time it was over, Nazi Germany was reduced to rubble, the atomic bomb was invented and used on Japan, and the post-war world was divided by a figurative Iron Curtain.

It was 1:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Dec. 7 when Navy Secretary Frank Knox burst into President Franklin Roosevelt’s private study to tell him the Japanese were bombing U.S. Navy ships in Hawaii. At 12:30 p.m. the next day, Roosevelt went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war—his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech. For the 23 hours in between, Roosevelt had to figure out what he would say.

Hawaii in 1941 was not a state. It was a territory—but a distant one that many Americans still considered rather exotic and, um, foreign. Only 19 percent of Hawaii’s population was white and, let’s face it, that’s what mattered to a lot of people in charge in Washington—and also a lot of those not in charge. Hawaii wasn’t the only place the Japanese had attacked on Dec. 7—they also attacked the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Malay, and lots of other islands in the Pacific. Some of those were American possessions—note the word—and some weren’t. The political problem Roosevelt faced was polls recently had shown Americans weren’t particularly interested in defending distant holdings such as The Philippines and Guam.

There was still a big isolationist streak in the United States. Bombing the U.S. Navy broke that mood, but Roosevelt wasn’t entirely sure of that yet. Northwestern University history professor Daniel Immerwahr writes in his book “How To Hide an Empire” about the word choices Roosevelt played with. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used a radio address on the night of Dec. 7 to talk about Japan “bombing our citizens in Hawaii and the Philippines.” Other top administration officials used almost identical language. So did the first draft of Roosevelt’s speech to Congress. “Yet Roosevelt toyed with that draft all day, adding things in pencil, crossing other bits out,” Immerwahr writes.

When Roosevelt finally went before Congress, he took a much clearer approach: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked . . .” Not Hawaii and the Philippines. Not “our citizens” in those places or our naval forces. No, the United States of America—the same language he might have used if Japan had bombed California.

Throughout the speech, Roosevelt wanted to make it clear the United States had been attacked, even if this was some distant U.S. territory. The famous line was in the first sentence.

Now, to be fair, Hawaii might have become a state anyway. Or maybe not. The U.S. acquired both Hawaii and Puerto Rico the same year—1898. But Puerto Rico still isn't a state, and Hawaii is. Part of the reason why is what happened on Dec. 7, 1941. Roosevelt emphasized how American Hawaii was rhetorically; the war accelerated that process. The war transformed Hawaii’s economy and tied it more closely to the U.S. mainland.  

There long had been a push to make Hawaii a state, dating back to 1903. Southern Democrats resisted because Hawaii was likely to give Republicans more votes, particularly on civil rights issues. One of the biggest opponents of Hawaiian statehood was Virginia’s political master—U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. Eventually, politics happened: Between Northern Democrats and Republicans, both Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.

Five years after Hawaii became a state, voters there sent Patsy Mink to Congress. She’s most famous for one bill: Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act. That’s the law that mandates gender equality in college sports (among other things). That law transformed athletics at all levels. The year before Title IX was enacted, there were about 310,000 girls and women in America playing high school and college sports; today, there are more than 3.6 million. Maybe that would have happened without Pearl Harbor; alternative history is unknowable. All we know is that it did. 

Seventy-eight years after that awful morning, its legacy lives on in very unexpected ways.

—Excerpted from The Roanoke Times 

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