70 years ago today, the world changed forever. “Changed forever” is a phrase used too often these days for much less momentous events that turn out to have little impact on culture, sociology and the future of our civilization.
Pearl Harbor, however, was a world-changing event. History imposes mental lines of demarcation separating “the old” and “the new” across centuries. From that infamous moment when Japanese planes attacked the American naval base in Hawaii, the United States shot out of its old-world isolation and agrarian conservatism, morphing as it hurled forward into the dominant global power with stunning industrial and technological might. World War II was far more than an ugly, bloody horror, as all wars are.
WWII exposed millions of Americans to “the other” whom they otherwise would never have encountered, both Americans of different stripes thrown together in military circumstances and citizens of many other nations fighting together with our troops or across battle lines for the then-enemy armies and navies. Even as WWII changed American sociology permanently, the war drove technological innovation that shaped modern life — everything from aircraft technology to plastics to communications innovations to atomic power.
World War II also changed higher education permanently. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill in 1944, little could he have known the long-term social transformations that would accompany his idea of opening the high gates of college to ordinary people. At that time, Roosevelt knew that the soldiers and sailors returning from the war would need some further education in order to enter a workforce where the available jobs were already very different from those in the pre-war era. Prior to the G.I. Bill, the idea of college was largely decoupled from the idea of workforce preparation, and a college education was something that very few people outside of the elites could attain.
The G.I. Bill changed the whole idea of who could go to college, and why citizens should enroll. That legislation was the first step toward the massive federal financial aid programs that began in the 1960’s, and the opening of university gates to a broad range of students from all social classes.
The “Greatest Generation” is almost gone. Their legacy to the future is enormous. The generations since World War II have not begun to equal the accomplishments of that generation. More worrisome, we are now in an era when many of those achievements seem on the brink of backsliding — from the global economic crisis to the ongoing War in Afghanistan to the ugly political discourse in this country, we are wasting the hard work and achievements of the World War II generation.
On this Pearl Harbor Day, let’s take a minute to remember their sacrifices in World War II, and their achievements in the decades thereafter. We are all beneficiaries of their hard work, creative minds and broad vision for our society. We may never equal their achievements, but surely we can do more to ensure that their legacy is not lost in the years to come.