Wednesday, December 2, 2015

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor Attack

December 7, 1941
December 7, 2016, will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  This "Day of Infamy" provides a temporal dividing line between the American isolationism that preceded it and the American engagement with the rest of the world that followed.  This engagement, for better or worse, endures into the 21st century.  The lessons we draw from seventy five years ago can help us to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.
Edward Gibbon
The great English historian Edward Gibbon described history as being “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was surely a crime that galvanized and unified our nation.  It also set into motion a series of misfortunes that would culminate with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki just over 70 years ago.
Admiral Yamamoto
The Japanese attack was surely a great folly as well.  As Admiral Yamamoto presciently remarked, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  World War II was remarkable among American wars in many ways but not least because of the political unanimity that followed the Pearl Harbor attack.  All races, creeds and political viewpoints in America were united to remember and avenge Pearl Harbor.  President Franklin D Roosevelt led our nation in the construction of a vast “Arsenal of Democracy” that ground the Axis powers into dust.

Every year at this time, charges arise that FDR knew in advance of the coming attack on Pearl Harbor.  We live in an age of rampant conspiracy theorizing with fires stoked by Internet speculation, yet these charges lack credible evidence.  Yes, FDR knew in a general sense that the Japanese might launch an attack on American military positions throughout the wide Pacific, but he did not know that the naval base at Pearl Harbor would be targeted in the early morning hours of December 7.  FDR, having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, loved the US Navy above all other military branches, and he would have done anything in his power to preserve it from destruction.
FDR statue, Grosvenor Square, London
FDR was not a perfect wartime leader.  He trusted Stalin too much.  He was overly suspicious of de Gaulle.  He was excessively partisan when he declined Herbert Hoover’s offer to assist with humanitarian relief during the war.  But he was an inspirational leader who did lead his nation to victory in World War II.  And he was certainly not a traitor.

These charges against FDR are based upon a gross underestimation of Japanese abilities.  The Japanese Navy really did achieve strategic surprise against the Americans.  They did so mainly because Admiral Nagumo ordered the fleet to maintain strict radio silence for its voyage from Japan to the Hawaiian Islands: “All transmissions of messages are strictly forbidden.”

Many Americans simply could not credit the Japanese with such military skill.  Even after the Pearl Harbor attack, some suggested that the Zeroes marked with the Rising Sun must have been piloted by Germans!

When the news of the Battle of Little Bighorn first spread in 1876, many Americans could not accept that Custer’s 7th Cavalry had been wiped out in Montana by a force of Native Americans.

While history may be the record of mankind’s crimes and follies it also holds valuable lessons.  The lesson of December 7 is that one should never allow ethnic stereotypes to underestimate one’s opponent.  The only effective cure for racism is knowledge.

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