On this 65th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor it is becoming all too easy to forget the lessons learned on that horrific Sunday morning. As with any historical lesson we must start with an appreciation of the sentiments of the times. The Far East and Europe were embroiled in the early months of World War II. The world had watched in silence as Nazi Germany had blitzkrieged its way across Western Europe. The Japanese has slaughtered tens of thousands of Chinese during the invasion of Manchuria, but America felt safe. America was insulated by not one, but two great oceans. It was generally believed that it was impossible to breach the safety this buffer afforded.
Somehow American had failed to learn the lessons of World War I or perhaps they had just forgotten them. In World War I we had thought that simple isolationism would protect us from a worldwide war. By 1917, history had proven us wrong. We were embroiled in a “war to end all wars”. It was not the war that ended all wars but a virus, the Spanish flu. While military historians argue the point, medical historians can draw a clean and clear line between the onset of the Spanish strain of avian flu and a loss of fighting forces worldwide. World War I did not end with a bang but with a sniffle.
In 1941 the United States was negotiating to remain neutral although neutrality was far from our actual policy. We were supplying arms as well as intelligence to Allied forces throughout Europe. Nazi Germany had already negotiated a pact with the other Axis nations and using the old schoolyard logic of “if you aren’t with us you’re against us” that put America solidly against the Axis nations.
In the waning months of 1941 the United States was actively negotiating with the Japanese. Up until the last days prior to the attack the Japanese sat ardently at the negotiating table. America had lulled itself into a false sense of security.
It was a beautiful Hawaii Sunday morning, crisp December air and a blue sky when planes dotted the horizon. Within minutes bombs were falling. People were screaming. Smoke and fire rose into the air. America, the slumbering giant, had been caught sleeping. It was not the first time nor would it be the last. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would address the nation beginning with the words, “December 7, 1941, a date that will last in infamy . . .”
55 years later, Commander Peter Margalla, USN (Ret) would write a report December 7, 1996, the second attack on Pearl Harbor. In that report only recently declassified he would describe not a bombing attack on Pearl Harbor but an anthrax attack. Clearly in 2001 his version of a sneak attack on America came to pass not just with aircrafts on 9/11 but with anthrax only days later.
In 2001 President George W. Bush addressed the nation. He did not begin with a bold statement as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did but he invoked Roosevelt when he said, “A slumbering giant has been awakened.”
Now 65 years after Pearl Harbor and five years after 9/11 the question is has the slumbering giant been awakened or is America lulling itself back to sleep?
The United States is now part of a global community and the threats to a global community are threats to America. We can never again allow ourselves to believe that distance or time, technology or ideology can protect us or our children. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said 65 years ago today,
“Will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us?”