The importance of Pearl Harbor is to remember both the human loss 80 years ago and the extraordinary response by this extraordinary nation to an unprovoked, unnecessary attack on freedom.
This week, we remember Pearl Harbor – a devastating, unprovoked attack by Japan on Hawaii 80 years ago. That event triggered US entry into World War II. “A day that shall live in infamy,” said President Franklin Roosevelt. For perspective and implications, consider more.
War – at the tactical level – often involves surprise attacks. From China’s Sun-Tzu to George Patton, surprise can be decisive. On the other hand, inflaming passions of an innocent party – attacking without cause, without measuring an adversary’s commitment, can be fatal.
What Japan forgot is that America’s commitment to freedom is fed by a deep taproot, goes way deep, draws from an invisible reservoir of individual beliefs, resolve, concern for justice, defense of the right, and intolerance for evil.
As Japan’s militant general and prime minister, Hideki Tojo, laconically observed – on learning of America’s war declaration, “I fear we have awakened the sleeping giant.”
Indeed, they had.
Within weeks, America had reconfigured strategy and tactics. A first, daring counterassault was launched by the Doolittle Raiders. Stripping down 16 B-25 bombers, they plowed waves to mid-Pacific, then launched a one-way air raid on Tokyo.
Japan was shocked. Message to the imperial belligerent: You misjudged. You thought a single Sunday blow, surprise attack below the belt, would quiet us. You thought wrong.
Never count America out. That is one of history’s clearer lessons. The Doolittle Raiders sent a shockwave through Japan’s leadership. We were supposed to be incapacitated, yet within four months hit Tokyo. We would not pause, Guadalcanal north, not stopping until done.
At war’s end, we would meet this imperial arrogance, intransigence, and resistance – a threat of millions of Americans dead on their beaches and kamikaze mentality – with two atomic bombs.
Many facts are forgotten around this day, which triggered our entrance into World War II. Like the miscast surprise attacks of 9-11, Pearl Harbor swiftly ended America’s resistance to war.
Like 9-11, Pearl Harbor killed and maimed thousands – 2,403 killed, 1,178 wounded. On 9-11, radical Islamic terrorists killed 2,977, left 6,000 injured. Both events catalyzed our nation, unified, fortified, awakened awareness of what counts, the importance of defense, response, deterrence, and an unblinking resolve to preserve freedom and security, to extinguish evil.
Other facts surrounding Pearl Harbor get little ink, worth recalling on the 80th Anniversary. Unknown to many, within seven hours, Japan hit other US territories, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and British Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong. Their aim: Preemptive horror.
The idea – flawed as war-starting often is – was to hit hard, make clear to the US and Great Britain that Japan intended to take Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific. We were to back off.
The process of seeking hegemony began before Pearl Harbor, before WWII. Ten years earlier, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. Then, with method, they pushed the West – glancing blows.
They took territory, ignored human rights, committed massacres, attacked US ships, disrupted trade, accelerated militarization, insulted Western values, personnel, and status quo. Their hostility to the West – especially American values – was open, notorious, and no secret.
Still, the West was unmoved, unwilling to see the shadow. We continued to trade with Japan, only slowly curtailed weapons sales, indulged cognitive dissonance – the idea that we saw one thing and believed another. We did not want to believe violent hegemony was in their sights.
By early 1941, another fact loomed large. Japan was afraid the West would cut off fuel supplies, especially aviation fuel after Japan started taking countries. As their plans expanded, the US did cut off oil, triggering an accelerated assault by Japan on regional US allies.
In short, Pearl Harbor, a bold, horrific attack on innocents, launched without moral compunction, probably was not foreseeable – but the drift toward hostilities had been growing for a decade.
The losses suffered and a reminder that defense means awareness, realism, deterrence, candor, clear expectations, no wishful thinking come back on this 80th Anniversary. The result of Japan’s misjudgment of American resolve proved devastating to that country and costly to America.
The forward lesson – one of the implications of Pearl Harbor – is that we have the power to shape the future through plain-spoken, proactive, clear, credible, and honest diplomacy.
We can – so long as our word is good, history our baseline, consequences follow threats, and promises are kept – shape the future in ways that minimize accidental or reckless wars. The clearer our resolve to fight for freedom – anywhere and everywhere – the less chance of war.
Look around us today. China is creeping forward, signaling a strangely similar interest in regional – even global – hegemony. They snuff out human rights at home, overran Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, intimidated Western allies, invited confrontations at sea, pushed Communism as Japan once pushed Imperialism.
China is militarizing at breakneck speed, advertising first-strike weapons, including an orbiting hypersonic missile. They are preparing thousands of nuclear silos, building for maritime dominance, testing anti-satellite weapons, weaponizing trade and educational exchanges.
Espionage, theft, dishonesty in multiple forums, including denial of responsibility for a devasting virus, all seem to prompt no contrition, signal no remorse, imply disinterest in respect.
The importance of Pearl Harbor is to remember both the human loss 80 years ago and the extraordinary response by this extraordinary nation to an unprovoked, unnecessary attack on freedom. It is also a moment for taking what we know of human and international behaviors, becoming more circumspect, applying what we know to assure deterrence against future tragedy. Winning wars is good; preventing them is better. That is the lesson hidden within Pearl Harbor.