From 2/15/98, to 6/6/44, to 9/11/01

Following are some thoughts, composed on the 66th anniversary of the most famous D-Day in history, related to history and cultural memory, especially how commemoration and experience of momentous events (meaning social, political and military episodes that affected the entire nation and shaped the culture) shift over generations. What causes some episodes to “stick” through the generations, and others to fade away?

I was born a quarter century after D-Day, June 6, 1944. My parents were five and six years old that summer. When I was a boy, I had older relatives–a grandmother, great aunts and uncles–who were young adults or in their 30s throughout that decade. Five of my great uncles landed on the Normandy beaches in the days following the initial assault and served in Europe until the end of World War II. I knew these men, and was especially close to one of them. They shared some of this experience with me, either explicitly or indirectly via cultural attitudes and perceptions shaped by growing up in the first half of the 20th century.

Consider one of my grandmothers, for example, who was born in 1914 in rural Louisiana and moved to Texas as a teenager. She was 12 when Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic–the biggest news event of 1927 and for many years thereafter. She was 18 when FDR was elected president; 27 when Pearl Harbor was attacked (one of her uncles was there) and 29 on D-Day; in her early forties during the Korean War; 49 when JFK was assassinated, and in her 50s during the 1960s.

I knew her (well, from when she was 55) the best of my grandparents. Insofar as her outlook was shaped in part by the events that would have had a significant and visceral impact on her, therefore, my experience was at least informed by these events, too. But the “soup” of her experience was diluted in me; and the cultural impact of her experience will be a thin gruel for my own child, who will instead inherit from me the proximate experience of events such as President Reagan’s near-assassination; the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; 9/11; the Iraq and Afganistan wars; Hurricane Katrina; and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the most significant events of the late 19th century was the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, in Cuba in 1898. It precipitated the Spanish-American War and launched the United States as a global military and economic power at the start of the new century. On February 15, after the explosion that sent the battleship to the bottom of Havana’s harbor, the U.S. media, led by Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s papers, stirred such a monumental outcry across the country that President McKinley’s hand was essentially forced in asking Congress for a declaration of war. For example:

Now it seemed the extraordinary public reaction to the sinking of the Maine was forcing the president to consider making new demands of the Spanish government. Historian David Trask says that no one in the Administration would have entertained the possibility of war, had it not been for the ungovernable uproar throughout the country that followed the destruction of the Maine.

Everybody American old enough to have an opinion in 1898 would have had one, as newspapers were widespread, and people shared news with each other orally. My great grandparents would have known about the incident and would have formed opinions one way or another. As “twenty-somethings” for the most part (the oldest was then about 33), the crisis and ensuing war shaped their perspectives as young adults as much as, say, the fall of communism, Tiananmen Square, or the Oklahoma City bombing shaped my worldview as a young adult. But what these ancestors imparted to the next generation–including my oldest grandparent, born in Chicago in 1899–was something less direct. Whatever strong views then twenty-year-old Bill Kuester of Milwaukee had about “Remember the Maine,” very little of it filtered through to my father–his grandson, and none to me. Nobody “remembers” the Maine in 2010, even though it was the most significant event in U.S. foreign policy between 1846 and 1917.

I was 11–and remember the day clearly–when President Reagan was nearly assassinated; 16 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded and 20 when the Berlin Wall fell; a few weeks after I turned 32, 9/11 happened; and in my early 40s, we’re at war in Afghanistan and other places. I will remember these events that had profound effects on my psyche and personality. I have slightly older friends for whom the Iran hostage crisis was a pivotal time during their teenage years, and some even slightly older who were riveted by Watergate and remember the end of the Vietnam War. And all of us born in or after, roughly, 1990 will carry searing memories of that horrible day, September 11, 2001, to the end of our days.

My daughter is four. Her parents were children in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her three living grandparents were children in 1944 and grew to adulthood in the ’50s. What will she know of these times? What will we tell her? What will move her to learn more about her cultural inheritance? Will she want to read what happened to us on about 9/11/01–because her parents endured it–the way I want to learn more about 6/6/44–because my grandparents endured that? And, what happen in the world in a few years’ time when momentous events will start to profoundly affect her? 

The cultural memory of D-Day and events related to that time are directly present in my own lifetime and in those of most people in my age cohort. But the younger you are, the more indirect becomes the connection between living people and great events further in the past. Pearl Harbor day is fading even now from our cultural consciousness. Who remembers the Lusitania? There is one living American World War I veteran left.

And the Maine, like the Alamo, is forgotten.

– By Fred Dews

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