Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pearl Harbor: Remembering what soon will be forgotten

A broad view of the damage after the attack

L to R: The USS West Virginia, sinking into the harbor, USS Tennessee damaged, USS Arizona, sunk

Close up of the ruin of the USS Arizona, almost 1,200 men died out of 1400 crew

View from the Naval airbase on Ford Island in the center of the harbor, looking toward 'Battleship Row'

"Yesterday, December 7th, 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.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of
Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
With those words, forcefully delivered and eloquently spoken, Franklin Roosevelt brought America into a war already a decade old in Asia, in which millions had died, and tens of millions more would be dead within four years.  The Japanese had hoped to accomplish what the terrorists on 9/11 did accomplish, to create a situation in America where the supposedly soft and foppish Americans, already torn apart by radical isolationism and fervent anti-war protests, would beg for peace and allow Japan its dreams of establishing a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

This Co-Prosperity Sphere was, of course, a euphemism for empire, a forgotten reminder that Europe and America were not the sole inventors and distributors of the ideal of seizing what belonged to others.  The resulting conquests would bring  a reign of terror surpassed only by the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union through the 1930s and 1940s.

America, wallowing in the mire of an economic collapse that still makes our current mess look mild by comparison, had other things to worry about than what people different than ourselves were doing to each other.  Far more concerned were we with our more closely related kin in Europe, as well as the threats posed by the newest, hippest ideology that all the really cool intellectuals were warming up to: Communism.

But on a sunny Sunday morning in a far away and exotic tropical island called Oahu, where America had built several military bases and a key naval base, those expectations and worries were forever shattered.  Within hours, almost 3000 American servicemen and women were killed.  Thousands more were wounded.  The pride of the American fleet lay twisted and smoldering, half of the ships sinking into the mud of the harbor.  Hundreds of planes were destroyed.  Japan had pulled off one of the most brilliant attacks in the history of military maneuvers.

Enraged, not just for the oft emphasized racial reasons, but because Japan was in negotiations with us at the very moment of the attack, an attack that planned for, and relied upon, surprise, it was as if America woke up.  Americans had a sense of urgency, a sense of near panic.  They realized, albeit briefly, that this country we had, no matter how flawed and no matter how divided at the time, no matter how prosperous and powerful, was not guaranteed another day.  Just as France and Poland had discovered, and as the Russians were only avoiding with the oceans of blood that was spilled to defend their homeland, we knew America could fall.  Of course most leaders knew that Germany would not be goosestepping down Pennsylvania, or that Tojo would not be setting up shop on Capital Hill.  But they understood that if powerful, aggressive societies, however those societies are shaped and formed, gain the upper hand, it can mean the end of everything you hold dear. 

Yes, propaganda would play a part.  Sure, America would do things that were wrong.  What country, kingdom, empire, civilization, culture hasn't?  Yes we were plunging forward into a time that would lift America up to the highest heights, only to drop it at the end of the Cold War into the same downward spiral upon which Europe had already embarked.   

But for a time, for a brief moment, despite the controversies, problems, failings, sins, and shortcomings that our hyper-critical and judgemental generations prefer to focus upon, America stood tall.  Unlike 9/11, our country came together and decided to do what it took, as best as they could and with the best intentions possible, and fight what could only be described as some of the greatest evils the world had ever seen.  Evils so horrible that even today they defy comparison.  That we have forgotten all but the Holocaust is probably one reason many no longer find much to celebrate about the days and months that followed December 7.  But when one steps back and looks at the whole picture, even if the worst that America could ever validly be accused of doing is considered, it still reminds us why the appellation Greatest Generation will be a worthy epithet.


  1. Great post! I've never read the entire speech before. I can't imagine our presidents today being that blunt. Or that eloquent.

  2. Thanks for the reminder on such a day as today to remember those who have done so much for us.
    That is a generation that will be missed.

  3. This was a good post. Obviously you care about the subject. Did you write the captions to the pictures?

    I found this sentence especially troubling, though unfortunately true:

    "The Japanese had hoped to accomplish what the terrorists on 9/11 did accomplish"


  4. I agree with BenHeard. That sentence is troubling. The events that have happened since 9/11, the way in which we were told that we should "get back to normal", the left and right fighting over everything etc. These are all evidence of this very thing unfortunately. (at least IMHO)

  5. I hated to say it, but it's true. America has become everything the Axis thought we were in the 40s but weren't.

    BH: Yes, I added the captions. I majored in history as an undergrad, with emphasis on Western History (Medieval), though it was WWII that got me interested in history as a youngster. Pearl Harbor especially interested me. It was somehow the last dying breath of the old world before the explosion into the modern. Whenever I was in a pinch in a history class and needed a project or term paper, it was the subject I grabbed.

  6. I've been chewing on this one all day, and still have little to say that can be said briefly, if only because I'm young and never saw this world.

    I wonder, for example, given that war against real threats to our freedoms and the freedoms of other nations is perfectly justifiable and given that the one generation knew that, whether the anti-war sentiment that much of America flipped around to just a generation later was because of Fat Man and Little Boy, or was it something that generation had against their parents, or what?

    I wonder, given that we must fight and sacrifice for what we love, why so few are able to see any nuance of doing so and at the same time valuing the lives of your enemies? I thought that fighting and valuing your enemy's dignity at the same time was the crux of chivalry, and I thought chivalry would never really die, just be rather unpopular; but sometimes, sometimes I wonder.

    *shrug* I should probably just hang around and keep chewing on it.

    Oh, and 9/11... I recall the country being quite united for about a week, till it came out that the Republicans weren't willing to define a religious enemy and the Democrats, well, I'm not sure they understand enemies other than traditional Western thinkers. What fascinates me is hearing about how at ground-level all that political trouble was more or less irrelevant -- ordinary people driving from Texas to New York to try to help, till the local authorities couldn't figure out what to do with everybody, or so I've heard from time to time. The trouble seems to be that that sort of sense of care for our fellow American is somehow cut off from the political process and/or the upper government levels (maybe some of the lower ones too).

    I should stop musing out loud though; this is how I get when I haven't slept enough lately.

  7. SC- your comments were fine. You don't always have to know what to say to make people think. Sometimes musing might bring out other points that people didn't think about. Keep wondering and maybe flush out some of your ideas another time. :) Thanks for the post. thought you had a great comment on the pearl Harbor video post.

  8. Shakespear's Cobbler,

    Good questions, but more worthy of a post than a comment. I'll get around to that as soon as I can.


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