In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, the US naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by carrier based Japanese planes. More than 2400 Americans died that day. While the event drew our country into the conflict and support for nonintervention into the already raging World War II evaporated, there are multiple tales of warning signs ignored, for various supposed reason.
It was a tragic day that woke us our of our isolationist slumber. It woke the giant that would be soon be the envy of the world. That day caused a nation to pull together, lick its wounds and come out fighting. There is a lot we can learn from the people one member of the formerly main stream media called the “greatest generation”. In spite of other differences of opinion, I believe he got that right.
The citizens of that era were already fighting their way through an economic depression that the government had no real answer for. They were not fat and happy as we are today. They cleaned their own houses. They mowed their own yards… those that had them. They valued their families, and attack on their country was an attack on the things they loved. To say the least, the American people were riled up.
For some reason, we didn’t hear calls from the left, which would be more centrist these days, to try to understand Japan would do such a thing. There was no talk of looking into what we did wrong to cause this “man made tragedy”. We were attacked by an evil empire that had to be stopped.
There are hundreds of lessons we could take from those years, but hundreds of books have already been written on just about every one – and even listing them would be far beyond the scope of this current effort. However there are a few things we can consider as we remember those who lost their lives on this “date that will live in infamy”.
The first is that we were a united nation. People actually knew they neighbors and the people from their home towns. They had a sense of common good. The educational system and media had not given them the hedonistic, narcissistic attitude we see today where a large, and growing, segment of our society could not be bothered with understanding the fates of people like Brian Terry and Christopher Stevens – and the duplicity that led to their deaths – as long as they got the free phones and other government goodies. Sure, there are always people who will look for their own advantage, even in times of crisis, but in the early 40s it was not institutionalized.
Americans in that era put up with gas rationing, tire shortages, and all sorts of other inconveniences as they knew they needed to do their part for the war effort. For the younger generation that cannot conceive of being limited to a few gallons of gas a week, or, for the ladies, a shortage of stockings, because the raw materials were needed to help defeat the Axis powers intent on ruling the world, and ourselves, the whole idea is that there is often something greater than our own convenience and enjoyment is simply beyond their comprehension.
Even President Roosevelt, for all his socialistic tendencies, knew it was not a good idea to play the class warfare game and divide people when you have a common enemy. His administration imposed some pretty draconian measures on businesses like price controls (fixing) and the like. Surprising to some, this was not just on the upper end to prevent price gouging, but also on the lower end that an enterprising business man could not offer lower prices either. He could have done better, but he kept the people together.
Then there was is issue of dropping the atomic bomb – a decision that fell to President Truman. This must have been a difficult decision considering the destruction and loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many have criticized his action as unleashing the nuclear “madness” on the world.
At the same time, American forces were preparing for a land invasion of the island country. Untold thousands of GIs, would have died in the effort. Beyond that, given the effectiveness of the newly developed weaponry, many more Japanese would die as well. I’m glad I did not have to make the call, but I believe it was the right one. We were dealing with a fanatical enemy that developed the idea of the kamikaze attack where young pilots willing crashed their planes into American vessels in a last ditch effort to turn the tide of the war back in their favor. The word “kamikaze” is literally translated “god wind” which brings in the religious component of emperor worship that inspired the single minded dedication to the suicide missions that proved to be so effective.
Then, also, the A-bombs were little more than the natural consequences of a struggle that began on December 7, 1941. Japan underestimated American resilience as they attempted to knock-out blow. Then, as time went by, they suffered the consequences of picking a fight where there was none needed. Even though, they made that foolish decision, it should be noted that the Japanese leadership knew they could not invade our country because too many people had guns and they would fail in their attempt.
Today, just as the United State has a new generation populating our land, so does Japan. We are no longer enemies, at least in the military sense. In the trade wars, they are eating our lunch, because Japanese society is showing us many of the same values our parents and grandparents had that caused them to prevail almost seventy years ago.
We cannot forget that the feckless American government was negotiating treaties with the land of the Rising Sun, even as the six aircraft carriers were steaming toward the Hawaiian port. That last lesson, of understanding who we can trust, and who we cannot, may be the hardest to learn, and learn again, and again. It cost us dearly in 1941. One must wonder what the price of failure will be next time around.
And one final thought: a forgotten idea called “victory” was the goal – not an equitable peace acceptable to everyone. Just saying.