The attack on Pearl Harbor, the date which will live in infamy in F.D.R.’s ringing phrase, happened 75 years ago today. Less than 2500 of the 42,000 sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen stationed there that fateful day are still with us. Time has done what the forces of Imperial Japan could not, and soon the memories of that attack will be only a page in history. The lessons of Pearl Harbor are however as timely today as they were on December 7, 1941:
1. It Takes Two to Avoid a War-Today, too many people speak the most dreadful rubbish that boils down to the contention that the US can avoid war if it simply adopts a peaceful policy to all other nations. Nations, like people, have their own goals, and they will pursue those goals as they will, whether the US adopts a “smiley-face” foreign policy or not.
2. Peace Time Mentality-Pearl Harbor was such a disaster largely due to a mindset that gripped too many in the military that it was sufficient to simply go through the motions. This is a common enough attitude in the world, and in peace time it becomes all too common in the military. Pearl Harbor teaches us how disastrous this mentality is in war-time.
3. Peace or War can be a Matter of Seconds- Throughout its history the US has often had wars start quite quickly: The Revolution, The Civil War, Korea, World War II and 9-11. George Washington warned us that: To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. Too often in our history we have forgotten that sage advice and paid for it at our peril as we learn the old lesson that war can come upon us with the speed of summer lightning, especially in our modern age.
4. Assumptions-Behind every great disaster there are usually a string of bad assumptions. We assumed that the Japanese if they attacked would likely not attack Pearl Harbor. We assumed that a Japanese fleet could not sail from Japan to Hawaii unnoticed. We assumed that our air power, especially with the new-fangled technology called Radar, would be on alert, and that in any case our fleet could defeat anything that Japan could send against it. Pile enough bad assumptions on top of each other and a debacle is in the making.
5. Killing More People Won’t Help Matters-That quote comes from Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the lone dissenting vote in the House against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. A Republican from Montana, Rankin is an interesting figure. The first woman elected to Congress, she served two terms. In her first term she voted against declaring war on Germany in World War I and in her second term she voted against declaring war on Japan. Both votes stemmed from her deep-seated pacificism, both votes were immensely unpopular and both votes effectively ended her political career at two different points in her life. I give her the courage of her convictions. However, her stance after Pearl Harbor illustrates the folly of pacifism as a national policy. The sad truth is that in this vale of tears it is sometimes necessary to take up arms to avoid greater evils than war, and those peoples who forget that truth of the human condition will experience such evils sooner or later.
6. Nations Sometimes Act Irrationally-Japan is slightly smaller than the state of Montana. It lacks much in the way of natural resources. A common question among American troops occupying Japan after the War was how in the world Japan thought it could ever beat the United States of America. A very good question and one many Japanese were asking themselves. It was an irrational decision for Japan to attack the US and embark on a war it could not win. One should never assume in making foreign policy and defense decisions that opposing nations will act rationally, at least rationally as we define it.
7. Heroism-15 Medals of Honor were earned during the Pearl Harbor attack, ten of them at the cost of the life of the man earning it. Acts of valor and self-sacrifice were common that day and indicated that Americans, as a whole, were neither weak nor decadent, as our enemies, to their cost, mistakenly believed.
8. Rousing a Sleeping Giant- Although the statement is apocryphal, the words put into the mouth of Admiral Yamamoto in the film Tora, Tora, Tora are an accurate reflection of the main effect of Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
9. American Resolve-My father was 8 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor. He recalled the next day the long line of men and older teenage boys waiting for the recruiting offices to open up so they could enlist. He wished that day with all his heart that he had been old enough to sign up himself. That type of resolve lasted the entire war.
10. American Power- One of the world leaders at the time instantly grasped what Pearl Harbor meant. Winston Churchill was half-American, and he had studied American history closely. He had a keen grasp of the American character, understanding us perhaps better than we understood ourselves. He later recalled what his thoughts were after he learned of the attack:
“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war — the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand’s breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force. The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and now the United States, bound together with every scrap of their life and strength, were, according to my lights, twice or even thrice the force of their antagonists. No doubt it would take a long time. I expected terrible forfeits in the East; but all this would be merely a passing phase. United we could subdue everybody else in the world. Many disasters, immeasurable cost and tribulation lay ahead, but there was no more doubt about the end.
Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”