1941 : Pearl Harbor bombed
At 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appears out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes followed, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States irrevocably into World War II.
With diplomatic negotiations with Japan breaking down, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers knew that an imminent Japanese attack was probable, but nothing had been done to increase security at the important naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, and many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off base. At 7:02 a.m., two radio operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the United States at the time, they were told to sound no alarm. Thus, the Japanese air assault came as a devastating surprise to the naval base.
Much of the Pacific fleet was rendered useless: Five of eight battleships, three destroyers, and seven other ships were sunk or severely damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed. A total of 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded, many while valiantly attempting to repulse the attack. Japan's losses were some 30 planes, five midget submarines, and fewer than 100 men. Fortunately for the United States, all three Pacific fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers. These giant aircraft carriers would have their revenge against Japan six months later at the Battle of Midway, reversing the tide against the previously invincible Japanese navy in a spectacular victory.
The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and declared, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." After a brief and forceful speech, he asked Congress to approve a resolution recognizing the state of war between the United States and Japan. The Senate voted for war against Japan by 82 to 0, and the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 388 to 1. The sole dissenter was Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a devout pacifist who had also cast a dissenting vote against the U.S. entrance into World War I. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the U.S. government responded in kind.
The American contribution to the successful Allied war effort spanned four long years and cost more than 400,000 American lives.
Published on Monday, December 7, 2009 by The Boston Globe
Living in Shock and Infamy, Years Later
When the waves of Japanese dive bombers flew in on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the good news was that the US Navy had previously sent its Pacific fleet aircraft carriers out to sea. Otherwise, they would have been sunk or damaged at their moorings as the fleet's battleships were. It was those surviving carriers that turned the tables on Japan little more than a half-year later at the Battle of Midway.
The Japanese preemption marked what Franklin Roosevelt called "a day which will live in infamy,'' and in the American memory its character as a sneak attack has signified the height of political immorality. ("Now I know what Tojo felt like,'' Robert Kennedy remarked as he contemplated an attack on Cuba, "when he was planning Pearl Harbor.'')
The American public's rage at the blow's perceived unfairness was such that, had Hitler not "quixotically'' declared war against the United States four days later, it is possible, according to war historian John Keegan, that American forces could have been deployed "en bloc'' to the Pacific.
There is no doubt that Pearl Harbor inflicted a massive national trauma - the date is still marked on calendars - but its meaning transcends the actual scope of the attack, and its character. The emphasis on sneakiness, for example, ignores the ample precedence in war of unannounced initiative.
Indeed, surprise is a normal strategic asset. Japan and the United States had been openly making belligerent moves toward each other: the US Pacific fleet had been transferred from San Diego to Hawaii; US bombers had been forward-based in the Philippines. War readiness was the drill. The intensity of shock was rooted less in Japanese chicanery than in America's race-based assumption of technical and martial superiority. As for morality, the Japanese attack was aimed against genuine military targets. The US revenge attack, a bombing raid led by Jimmy Doolittle on Tokyo some months later, was aimed purely at civilians.
The deeper shock of Pearl Harbor, and why it lives on as a turning point in the American narrative, has to do with its significance as the event that jolted this nation into the wielding of power. Native Americans and Mexicans from whom Washington had forcibly seized much of the continent knew otherwise, but to most Americans it seemed that Pearl Harbor marked the radical shift from innocence to morally complex military engagement.
Leaving behind the ethical purity of isolation, we armed ourselves and entered the global arena to stay - a gladiator nation from then on. A world power. And we learned soon enough, as Reinhold Niebuhr would put it, that there is no exercise of power in the world without guilt. As our revenge assaults on Japan would show, especially at the end of the war, we would have guilt aplenty. The argument from Pearl Harbor on, of course - and no one made it better than Niebuhr - was that the renunciation of power for the sake of innocence involved "even more grievous guilt.''
Pearl Harbor was revived as a milestone in the American imagination on Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, 9/11 replaced Pearl Harbor as the motivating trauma of American power, but once again the shock was mostly to our sense of national superiority. The anger sparked by the Japanese assault was in direct proportion to the fear it instilled, but in the conventional war that followed there were multiple channels into which that fear could run. Bloody as the battles were, the enemy was readily identified, and definitions of victory and defeat were clear.
Not so after 9/11. Instead of battleships and aircraft carriers, the real danger comes from variations on box cutters and explosive charges hidden in shoes. The revelation is that such small bore threat can frighten a nation as much as an armada. After Pearl Harbor, the scale and meaning of mobilization was crystal clear. After 9/11, with our futile, misdirected, ongoing wars of vengeance, which lay nary a glove on Al Qaeda, the mobilization has mainly been against ourselves.
The Niebuhrian argument about action leading to guilt versus inaction leading to greater guilt seems strangely outmoded because terrorists are unfazed by such distinctions. Our fear remains unchanneled, therefore unchecked. So also our rage. Pearl Harbor was a mark of the good old days.