If we are to have war with America, we will have
no hope of winning unless the U. S. fleet in
Hawaiian waters can be destroyed.
Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet
...Admiral Yamamoto radioed the task force: 'Climb
Mount Niitaka.' It was code for 'Proceed with
-Day of Infamy
Yesterday, December 7, 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 . . . .
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the rare historic events
whose significance and continuing ramifications it is probably impossible
to overstate. What If? games are inherently silly, however fascinating,
and they can't produce any certain answers, but consider the course that
history might have taken had the attack (or another like it) never occurred.
To an extent that Americans no longer seem willing to concede--witness
the hysterical reaction to Pat
Buchanan's musings on the subject--Pearl Harbor was the proximate cause
of the United States' entry into World War II. But for the attack,
it is entirely possible that America
would have safely sat out the War. This in turn would have meant
either a bloody stalemate between Nazi Germany and the USSR or victory
by one, followed by a debilitating attempt to control the European land
mass. Meanwhile, Japan would have had a free hand to completely overextend
itself in the South Pacific. Ultimately, the victorious Axis powers,
and/or the Soviets, would have collapsed of their own weight. The
Cold War would have been avoided and along with it the fifty
year long economic displacement that the U. S. suffered through.
Or suppose that Japan had simply declared war before attacking : would
the lack of the "sneak" in the attack have made enough of an emotional
difference for Americans not to have imprisoned our own Japanese-American
population or not to drop the atomic bombs on Japan ? Well, you get
the picture; we're talkin' big, big deal here.
What makes this event all the more remarkable is how utterly futile
it was. Even if the bombings had been completely successful and all
the U. S. Naval ships in port that day had been destroyed (in fact,
only two battleships, one target ship, and two destroyers were permanently
lost), what good would that have done Japanese war aims ? At best
it might have bought them a very little extra time in which to try to expand,
and thus further overextend, their Empire. There was never any chance
that the Japanese could actually attack the American mainland, which meant
that the U. S. would have the opportunity to rebuild those ships at her
leisure. And, once entered into the War, it was inevitable that the U.
S. would defeat Japan and Germany. Pearl Harbor was essentially
a national suicide mission by the Japanese.
One natural outgrowth of the importance of this episode is that for
sixty years now there have been all kinds of recriminations and conspiracy
theories surrounding the events of December 7, 1941. Volumes have
been written about what
Roosevelt knew and when he knew it. Ditto for Churchill.
U. S. Intelligence services have taken a beating. The various military
commanders have been blamed. And so on, and so forth, with the unfortunate
result that most versions of the day's events have some axe or another
One exception to this rule is Walter Lord's thrilling moment-by-moment
account of the attack in his great book, Day of Infamy. Ignoring
all of the controversies and avoiding any finger pointing, Lord simply
reconstructs, as best anyone can, what happened on that fateful day.
His thoroughness is staggering. He interviewed some 577 participants,
both Japanese and American, and their recollections give the story
an extraordinary level of intimacy and immediacy (for a similar effect
see a more recent book on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, In
Harm's Way by Doug Stanton). Though Lord masterfully imposes
order on the material, these first hand accounts convey a sense of just
how chaotic things were during and after the bombings. And he captures
a sense of the violation that Americans felt in the wake of the attack.
Standards of conduct in warfare have fallen so far since then that it's
easy to forget how outraged all of America was by this perfidious action.
Literally overnight, a healthy and so far triumphant Isolationist movement
dissipated, as even the most vocal advocates of staying out of the War,
voiced their commitment to avenging this wrong.
I've been a huge fan of Walter Lord's books since I was a kid. [In fact,
I was shocked to hear that he's still alive.] In addition to this
one, he's written excellent books about the sinking of the Titanic, A
Night to Remember, and about the War of 1812, The Dawn's Early Light.
Not that these are specifically kids' books, but they have a couple of
things that recommend them. Lord writes clearly and concisely.
Wherever possible he relies on the accounts of people who were there.
And, because he doesn't seek to place blame or provoke argument, the stories
are populated by heroes, rather than goats. Best of all they are
truly exciting. This sixtieth-anniversary edition of Day of Infamy
has a cover blurb saying that one million copies of the book have been
sold; here's hoping they sell a million more.