December 7, 2001. A date which will pass quietly and be forgotten on December 8, as people rush about preparing for another Christmas season. It is, however, the 60th Anniversary of another time, in another place. That date, December 7, 1941, as President Franklin Roosevelt said, “will live in infamy.”
Sixty years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning on the island of Oahu, thousands of American sailors and soldiers were waking up to another weekend, hoping to spend the day having fun in Honolulu, swimming on Waikiki, or perhaps simply resting at home doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do - washing clothes, mowing the lawn, going on a picnic with the kids, or maybe just sleeping.
The Japanese attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor and the six military airfields on Oahu changed everyone’s plans in an instant.
The attack changed the world as far as Americans were concerned. Europe had been at war already for several years, and in China for nearly a decade. But America, solidly isolationist since the end of World War One, was protected by distance. Americans were at war with no one, although the rumor of war had been creeping ever closer.
The “Hawaii Operation,” as the Japanese call it, was primarily an air attack, although a few dozen submarines played an entirely unimpressive role. The Japanese Navy planned to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet in a massive air attack. They had to destroy military aviation on Oahu to ensure that their aircraft could reach and attack the fleet, as well as to delay any aerial counter-attack while their fleet made its withdrawl.
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the architect of the plan, although many of the Imperial Naval Staff had more to do with the details of the attack. Yamamoto believed that America would need a year to recover from the attack, giving Japan time to consolidate its military conquest of Asia, which also began that day. He hoped America would negotiate a peace rather than fight a bloody and protracted war across the Pacific, although there is evidence to believe that he had no illusions about the outcome of the war.
Thousands died or were wounded in Hawaii that day, about 1,100 on the USS Arizona alone. “Remember Pearl Harbor” became the rallying cry and focus of such emotional strength that Japan’s fate was sealed as the first bombs fell. The immediate response of America was to declare war on Japan, and FDR gave one of the most memorable (and shortest) speeches of his career before Congress when asking for that declaration.
Next came the matter of blaming someone so that the nation could move past the attack and concentrate on the task at hand. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was sent to Hawaii within days, where he spent less than a week inspecting the damage. His return to Washington and report to the President prompted the first official investigation.
The investigation conducted by the Roberts Commission was a sham by any standard, but met the political and common sense needs of the time, which were to apportion blame and get people to think about fighting a war across two oceans. It would have torn the nation apart to have an open and public hearing at the beginning of a war, so the local commanders - Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short - were blamed and relieved of their commands.
There have been over a hundred books and thousands of magazine articles written about Pearl Harbor, and a number of movies and television shows. Most are general, focusing on the two-hour attack, while others focus on the various conspiracy theories that grew from the war-time need for secrecy.
The simple truth about the attack on Pearl Harbor is that Japanese duplicity in negotiating for peace while planning the attack served its purpose. They succeeded because they had a good plan for an attack on an enemy that was still rearming and not yet ready to fight.
There was no conspiracy, as some claim, and no one in the U.S government knew in advance that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor. Those who make such claims frequently resort to rewriting history by purposely misleading or not placing facts in proper context, by misinterpretting information, or even creating “facts” to support their theories.
Those who accept the official line that Kimmel and Short were solely to blame often ignore information that clearly shows the gross ineptitude and political machinations within the Navy and War Departments that contributed to the success of the Japanese surprise attack. Kimmel and Short were far from blameless, yet they were far from alone.
Despite claims by some, the only Pearl Harbor cover-up involved a dozen or so senior Admirals and Generals in Washington saving their careers by sacrificing two of their own.
The war that began at Pearl Harbor lasted four long years, and cost hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and sailors their lives. Countless millions worldwide were left homeless or scarred for life. The generation that fought World War Two learned first hand what it meant to stand up and be counted. And that is exactly what they did.
They are remembered today by Americans who don’t even know what happened at Pearl Harbor, many of whom don’t even know that Hawaii wasn’t a state in 1941. The generation that fought and won World War Two are remembered in books, films, and newspapers once or twice a year. Although Hollywood’s portrayals are often so inaccurate that only the titles are correct, they at least serve the purpose of keepng alive memories that would otherwise die with the aging veterans of those horrible events sixty years ago.
For my part, I hate to see the revision and “dumbing down” of history for each new generation of Americans. I hate to see Hollywood make movies such as “Pearl Harbor,” which the current generation will accept as historical fact. I also hate to see that World War Two history is seldom even taught in schools for more than a few hours a year.
And yet (knowing that I will receive a huge amount of mail for saying this), World War One is not remembered or taught in schools either, so why should the “last good war” be remembered while the “the war to end all wars” is forgotten?
Is it because history has a shelf life?
Is an event important only as long as it is within living memory?
I fear that a few decades from now, when there are no World War Two veterans still with us to remember December 7th, Americans will react exactly as they now do on other historically significant dates in American history, such as September 3, April 12, or August 24. *
What do you do on those days?
[i]* On those dates in history-
September 3, 1783 The definitive treaty acknowledging the independence of the United States of America was formally signed, ending the Revolutionary War.
April 12, 1861 Confederate forces fire on FT Sumter, beginning a Civil War that would kill more Americans than any other war in American History.
August 24, 1920 The 19th Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed, giving women the right to vote.
(Edited by Ken Hackler at 8:43 pm on Nov. 18, 2001)