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Patriotism then and now: College students reflect on Pearl Harbor anniversary

History class discusses U.S. work culture, political extremism
Students in Andrew Gulliford’s Recent American History class at Fort Lewis College talk about how the United States has changed since the Pearl Harbor attack 80 years ago. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Japan launched its attack the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 – 80 years ago – on the Hawaiian naval base Pearl Harbor. The assault killed 2,403 United States personnel, including 68 civilians, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. By Dec. 11, Germany and Italy had declared war on the U.S., which responded in kind, and America was pulled into the thralls of World War II.

Andrew Gulliford talks with students in his Recent American History class at Fort Lewis College about the Pearl Harbor attack, which occurred 80 years ago. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A consensus quickly formed in the U.S. that Japan had issued an attack against America and that the U.S. would retaliate, Fort Lewis College professor Andrew Gulliford said Thursday during his Recent American History course.

The Axis countries, Japan, Germany and Italy, were tangible threats to the United States’ democracy.

Today, in modern America, there is not a tangible, international and immediate threat for the country to unite against, Gulliford said. With different values and ideas of what is right and wrong clashing among the minds of Americans and across social media, it is difficult to find a consensus, he said.

In a sense, tensions within the great melting pot that is America are heating up and starting to bubble over.

In the shadow of the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack that catapulted the U.S. into “The Good War,” Gulliford’s students reflected on divisiveness in the U.S. and what it means to be patriotic.

Students discussed the state of work, social media influence and political extremism in the U.S. today.

What is American patriotism in 2021?

As Gulliford illustrated, Pearl Harbor had united 1940s America against a common threat. A consensus was present to rise to the occasion and defend democracy.

But the Recent American History students didn’t think patriotism was quite the same thing under the reality of world war as it is today.

Kaelani Hess said patriotism means different things to different people depending on their values. She said her grandfather, who served in WWII, risked his life despite how terrible war is because it was either that or do nothing at all. And should her grandfather have chosen the latter, what would have become of their family?

“I feel like it’s very hard to explain it,” Hess said. “There’s so many different values that other people have. So one thing that one person could think of as terrible can be something someone else is fighting for.”

Simone Leonard said Thursday that “patriotism” has manifested in modern times as something toxic and misplaced from its original definition. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Simone Leonard said she thinks the modern concept of patriotism has manifested into something toxic. She said the word itself is often misused.

“(It’s) something that is an unhealthy version of the meaning of the word,” Leonard said. “I think people use the word ‘patriotism’ to uphold values that are disgusting and justify actions that are reprehensible.”

Gulliford asked his students what the nickname for World War II was.

“The Good War,” he said. “What an odd phrase. The Good War, like war can be good.”

But Gulliford pointed out the United States’ objectives then were clear. Americans were fighting Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific because they were defending democracy and freedom after a direct attack.

“The whole idea of fixed objectives seems to have changed dramatically,” he said.

Kyle Overtoom talks on Thursday in Andrew Gulliford's Recent American History class at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Student Kyle Overtoom said many people are mixing up the definitions of “patriotism” and “nationalism,” and acting like the U.S. is above any form of criticism.

“I think that criticizing the country is actually very patriotic, that’s part of my definition, because it means you want the country to be better,” he said. “You like it enough to stay and try to help it do better.”

Leonard agreed. She said there’s “nothing more patriotic” than wanting better for the country one calls home. If that means confronting negative aspects of the country, she said, “then so be it.”

Emilie Parker said the political divides about matters such as COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have turned “patriotism” into a representation of hatred.

Parker offered what she called an extreme example in The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group.

“The Proud Boys walk around with American flags and are supposed to represent the ultimate patriot, but really, they just represent hate,” she said. “They’re saying ‘Get out of the country’ if you don’t represent these values.”

How do modern American values compare to the past?

History student Matt Gooley imagines the U.S. might react differently today to a Pearl Harbor-like attack than it did 80 years ago. He speculated there might be more hesitation and a will to find an alternate solution to immediate physical retaliation. Why? Awareness, he suggested.

Gooley said it is harder to get people to jump onto a movement of retaliation – that the idea of retaliation first doesn’t work like it used to – and suggested it could have to do with how quickly information travels across social media.

Kaelani Hess, a student in Andrew Gulliford's Recent American History class at Fort Lewis College, said on Thursday that patriotism may mean different things to different people depending on their values. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Ian Warner said Thursday that society appears to be shifting from a more blue collar, work-centric lifestyle to one with more emphasis on education and technological advances. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hess said the concept of the American Dream was simpler or more “black and white” in the 1940s. She said from her perspective, people pursue personal achievement more than they used to and offered the example that more women attend college today, even surpassing the number of men going to postsecondary education.

Student Ian Warner said the value of work has changed.

“Work was a big thing,” he said. “People wanted to find work and jobs and it was a big (thing) everyone did.”

In the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression, there weren’t generally any jobs. By the time the ’40s came around, people were excited and happy to have jobs, Gulliford said.

The students talked about how society appears to be shifting from a more blue collar lifestyle focused on work to one with a greater focus on education and technological advancement. A consensus formed in the classroom among some of the students that work isn’t as much a primary a goal as it used to be for young people.

“There’s no incentive to work,” Leonard said. “Nobody wants to give their life for pennies. There’s no reason to work like dogs. And everybody’s realized that.”

Overtoom drew a connection between the labor and worker shortage, or the “Great Resignation,” to the fundamentals of economics. He said there’s been a spike in demand for goods, which raised demand for workers. But workers have begun to realize that with that increased demand they also have more bargaining power.

“So if they quit, they’re going to be missed more,” he said. “If they just don’t work ... then businesses are going to be forced to increase wages to hire more workers.”

Kareena Hoover participated in Andrew Gulliford’s Recent American History class at Fort Lewis College. Class members discussed the evolution of American values, the concept of patriotism and more subjects ahead of the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Kareena Hoover said the current COVID-19 pandemic causes new stresses for people just trying to attend class or work.

“Back then it was just walking out your door and going to your job 9 to 5,” Hoover said. “(And now there’s) the growing tension and fear of being around people and not knowing if you were going to get sick or make the people you love sick.”


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