Pearl Harbor, 65 years later
In the end, the Japanese attack led to some positive effects in the US.
On this day in 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked. The bombing killed 2,388 Americans, put much of the Pacific fleet out of commission, and came while the Japanese ambassador in Washington was preparing for a diplomatic appointment at the State Department. Among the losses was the battleship Arizona, which went down with nearly all hands on board. It is still there as a national shrine.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In President Roosevelt's speech to Congress the next day asking for a declaration of war, he called Dec. 7 "a date which will live in infamy." Congress responded promptly with a declaration of war against Japan. It followed up on Dec. 11 with retaliatory declarations of war against Germany and Italy. World War II was the last time the United States has declared war, though it has fought three major wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan-Iraq) and numerous minor ones. Not many Americans are old enough to remember the events of 65 years ago. So it seems worthwhile to reflect on some of their consequences.
The Pearl Harbor attack unified a country that had been divided over the war in Europe, but it also terrified the country. This was much the same reaction as followed the attacks of 9/11. Just as 9/11 led to unjustified imprisonment of some Muslims living in the United States, so Pearl Harbor produced persecution of Japanese-American citizens. Most of them lived in California; they were rounded up and interned in remote camps in Wyoming and other inland Western states. Although the Japanese were not tortured, their treatment was as morally bad as what's happened under Bush's watch in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and other prisons. Critics of President Bush (including this one) should take note. In 1988, Congress developed pangs of conscience and formally apologized to the interned Japanese. It also provided payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.
Those who say that Mr. Bush's campaign for global democracy is overreaching (again, including this writer) should also note that democ- ratization is a thread that runs through American history. One of President Wilson's goals in World War I was to make the world safe for democracy. That is not quite the same thing as making it democratic, but it's a big step. Even before Pearl Harbor, in the State of the Union message in January, 1941, President Roosevelt proclaimed a goal of ensuring "four essential human freedoms." They were freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He wanted to see all of these everywhere in the world.
The attack on Pearl Harbor put the US on the road to becoming a world power. It did not end the debate over America's role in the world, but it did end the debate over whether the US has a role – it does.
It helped end the Great Depression that had begun in 1929, something that all the New Deal programs of the 1930s could not do, though they did ameliorate it. In this process, itchanged American society. With 14 million men in the armed forces, women entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers. Their granddaughters are still there.
It marked the faint beginnings of the civil rights movement. After black Americans had served honorably, in many cases heroically, in the armed forces, the injustice of forcing them back into a segregated society was intolerable. President Truman used an executive order to integrate the armed forces after the war. Other steps followed.
The United Nations was born out of the resolve not to allow a repetition of World War II. The Senate, which refused to approve America's membership in the League of Nations after World War I, overwhelmingly approved US membership in the UN after World War II.
Perhaps the most awesome consequence of Pearl Harbor was the development of nuclear weapons. Two of these were used to end the war against Japan. Revisionist historians have argued that these should not have been used, that Japan could have been driven to surrender by conventional bombing. True enough, but at what cost? Both Japanese and American casualties would have been far greater, and the war would have been prolonged.
During a visit to Harvard University after he had been president, Harry S. Truman was asked what he was most proud of. His answer was that after America crushed its enemies, it embraced them and turned them into allies.
A final irony: Japanese investors now own much of the island their grandfathers once tried to destroy, and are tolerated by the country they once tried to conquer.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.