THE 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor tomorrow reminds Americans that a remarkable cadre of leaders who were shaped and toughened by World War II is rapidly departing from positions of power.When 360 Japanese planes struck the United States Pacific fleet without warning at Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, it galvanized this nation. But the war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany also forged a group of leaders who turned America away from isolationism to become the world's No. 1 superpower. Many of those leaders are now part of history. They include presidents - Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, all of whom served in the military, as well as other leaders like George C. Marshall, George McGovern, William Colby, and John Foster Dulles. George Bush, who piloted a US Navy torpedo bomber in the Pacific campaign, probably will be the last of the long line of presidents who once served in that war. "It was a remarkable group of men, and I ponder over how we were so lucky to get them," says Stephen Ambrose, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. Dr. Ambrose explains: "In the 1920s and 1930s ... people had turned against World War I and decided that we had made a terrible mistake ... and that the way to avoid future wars was neutrality and unilateral disarmanent." The Japanese attack changed that. Americans instantly saw the dangers of complacency. "Pearl Harbor burned itself into their souls," Ambrose says. "You simply cannot understand the [postwar] arms race without taking into account the determination of that whole generation, who decided it would never happen to us again." Their greatest fear: a "nuclear Pearl Harbor."
Two great scourges Ambrose says: "That generation, it can be fairly said, turned back the two great scourges of the 20th Century, Nazism and Communism." Hugh Heclo, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University in Virginia, says it wasn't just the elite who were changed by Pearl Harbor. "Ordinary, slogging Americans" also realized the need for national resolve. He notes: "[They] came to understand they were in something together." Because of the war effort, Americans became believers that the US "could do something in the world to make it better." Later generations, beginning with the Vietnam war, lost some confidence in their world role. Professor Heclo told one interviewer recently: "What we are seeing with the Pearl Harbor commemoration is the departing from the scene of the last cohort of Americans who were bound together in the shared experience of the depression and the war, who were taught by those experiences that there is a value in sacrificing for a great good. "Ever since then, the kinds of grand, sustained adventures we have gotten involved in as a nation - Vietnam, civil rights, the war on poverty - have promoted more dissension than unity." Fred Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University, makes a similar point. The wartime generation was confronted with a choice between extremes, good versus evil, democracy versus fascism. That became the political lens through which they saw the cold war. Today's leaders, however, are faced with world conditions that are potentially more difficult, Dr. Greenstein suggests. First, there is a "less united United States." Vietnam tore the fabric of American society in ways "practically unprecedented since the Civil War." Henceforth, even strong leaders may find that the public is less willing to follow. Second, today's world is more "complex and polycentric," Greenstein says. The enemies are not an "evil empire" against which Americans can rally. The greatest challenges are diffuse, such as another country's better educational system, or its more efficient factories, or its scientific breakthroughs that make American products outdated. Today, simplistic answers won't suffice, Greenstein says. Even domestically there is no obvious agenda to solve problems. As World War II fades in memory, some analysts worry America will return to isolationism. "I think the Army, especially, is in danger of severe cutbacks," Ambrose says. Others, such as Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College, and Stephen Hess, a Brookings analyst who wrote speeches for President Eisenhower, are less concerned. "Every generation brings new and exciting people with new and exciting goals," says Professor Warshaw. The Pearl Harbor generation moved the world toward democracy. That goal is still supported. But today's world is more complex, and the next generation of leaders will be "forged in an era of global interdependence, global respect, a technological era, all very different from what leaders in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s were used to."
New challenges ahead Mr. Hess says change is coming, but he doesn't see a return to isolationism. Rather, the breakup of communism will bring new challenges, which will include "ethnic, nationalistic, and even tribal" disputes. In this new environment, "the US needs to figure out what its national interest is but withdrawal from the world stage is unlikely. A footnote: On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was hit by a Nazi attack that surprised the Kremlin. Some historians view it as the SovietsPearl Harbor." The Soviets vowed never again to be surprised, setting the stage for the 45-year arms race with the US.