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by John Biewen
The Story Behind "Days of Infamy"

Last spring, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS) secured exclusive broadcast rights to the 9/11 audio tapes that were gathered in the fall of 2001 by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Elana Hadler Perl of CDS approached American RadioWorks (that is, walked next door to my office at CDS, where I'm "in residence") and asked if I'd like to collaborate on a documentary using those tapes. I said yes without hesitation, and so did my colleagues at American RadioWorks, including editor Deborah George.

After a few discussions, we all agreed that the best approach would be to place the 9/11 tapes side-by-side with those gathered by the Library of Congress right after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. That older collection of interviews with ordinary Americans, recorded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax and his cohorts, had sat in Washington, largely ignored, for sixty years. Clearly, the September 11th attacks had given the Pearl Harbor tapes new significance.

Still, before we heard the two sets of recordings, Elana and I were unsure what story the tapes would tell. What would be the 'point'? Would any lessons emerge? We made two trips to Washington and spent hours at the American Folklife Center, our heads pinched by headphones, listening first to post-9/11 tapes, then to those recorded in late 1941 and early 1942. The older tapes, especially, were a wonder to hear. The very sounds of American voices have changed in these sixty years, almost as much as our music has changed. These tapes of regular Americans talking about their nation under attack—joined with the music that we would select from the two eras—would certainly make compelling radio.

Meanwhile, as we listened, some themes began shouting at us.

Sure, there are surface similarities between Pearl Harbor and September 11th. A surprise attack shocks the nation, prompting waves of fear and patriotism and a declaration of war. But listen to the voices of Americans in these two periods, a couple of generations apart, and soon the differences become sharper and more interesting than the similarities. That's because the attacks and their circumstances differ, and because the United States is not the same country that it was in 1941.

To help us sort through the two events and their meanings, we decided to interview some prominent, thoughtful Americans who've lived through both attacks. We drew up lists of smart people in their 70s and above—people who've spent their lives understanding America and writing or talking about it. In the end, Russell Baker, Helen Thomas, Pete Seeger, Roger Wilkins, Elizabeth Spencer, and Sen. Daniel Inouye provided invaluable context—connecting tissue—for the Library of Congress recordings. They became the narrators of this story.

There are important differences between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But comparing Americans' responses to the two attacks proved even more illuminating and fascinating that we'd imagined. We think these Library of Congress tapes, and "Days of Infamy," serve as a powerful mirror on America and its people—who we were and who we've become.

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