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.