A Date Which Will Live In Infamy

“…December 7th, 1941. A date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by air and naval forces of the empire of Japan.”

These were the opening words of a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt when he appeared before Congress the day after the attack asking them to declare war on Japan.  This year, like all the years that have past we will solemnize the Pearl Harbor attack and remember the heroes of that day along with the fallen, some 2,403 dead.  Among them, 2,008 Sailors, 218 Soldiers, 109 Marines and 68 civilians.  Fully half the Sailors killed were lost on the USS Arizona which became a monument for all those lost in that battle.

Every year since the number of Pearl Harbor battle participants has grown smaller and smaller.  There may be fewer than 75 still alive scattered all over the country in towns both big and small.  They are what remains of some 16 million Americans who served in WWII in the largest and most powerful military the world had ever seen, fighting in the most devastating war in human history.

Today we will also read, hear and see stories about what happened on that day,  some of it will be very good and some of it will be plain awful, riddled with inaccuracies, rumors, and conspiracy theories. I like to offer my take on just a few of them.

Most prominent is the notion that we had advanced notice that Japan was going to attack and that President Roosevelt allowed it to happen so that we would enter the war on the side of the Allies. As proof, they offer disparate memos, statements, and other bits of information pretending that all this was known to Roosevelt and his staff prior to the attack.

What was not in their hands was the date of the attack, where the attack would be, and what forces that attack would employ.  At a minimum, we would have needed those important details to even know how to respond. A Japanese military radio intercept inquiring about ship movements around Honolulu wouldn’t have been enough to sortie the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet out of Pearl Harbor to go attack Japan first in international waters. Even if they knew where to find them.


Were We Trying To Get Into WWII?

Did the United States want to enter into the war in Europe on the side of Brittain?

Yes, of course, but if Roosevelt was looking for the slightest pretext to enter that war he seemingly ignored two overt acts of war Germany committed against the U.S. when U-boats in the Atlantic torpedoed two American Navy destroyers, the USS Kearny and USS Reuben James.  120 Sailors died in those two attacks,  why didn’t a hair-triggered FDR just start the war on those two incidents?

“Oh no,” we are told, “We needed to suffer a really big loss in order to get the American people solidly behind going to war.”

It’s something of a self-refuting hypothesis to claim we needed the disastrous loss of the bulk of the Pacific Fleet in order to convince the American people that we should attack the Japanese with that same fleet, isn’t it?

FDR signs the declaration of war. Photo; National Archives


Nine different investigations were launched into what happened on December 7th in Pearl Harbor and they all came to the same conclusion;

That the government was bungling and incompetent.

Our diplomats misunderstood, underestimated, or dismissed growing Japanese belligerence towards the U.S.

Remembering Pearl Harbor with touching images that mix the modern with the ‘day that will live in infamy’

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The military was stingy with sharing signal intelligence with the people who needed it, to the point of absurdity.  The Army and the Navy barely spoke to each other let alone cooperate on intelligence and finally, our intelligence apparatus was seriously undermanned.  That may sound eerily familiar to those of us old enough to recall the hearings into the 9/11 Attacks on September 11th, 2001.  In the end, they found scapegoats in Admiral Kimmel and General Short who were in command at Pearl Harbor.

So while the incompetence of our own government certainly made it easier for Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, but it’s absurd to imagine we somehow tricked the Japanese into doing it because it served our interests to lose most of the Pacific Fleet in a 90-minute battle.


The Japanese Were Perfectly Capable Of Figuring Out How To Attack Pearl Harbor On Their Own

There is also the claim that our own naval exercises doing mock attacks against Pearl Harbor taught the Japanese how to attack us as if they were incapable of formulating such plans on their own.  This is one of those “It’s our own fault” arguments that just ignores everything Japan did after they were our allies(against the Germans)in WWI.  Following the war, Japan spent lavish amounts to build itself a very powerful and modern navy with 11 aircraft carriers and 1o battleships, and nearly 40 cruisers.  Their most helpful ally in this was actually Great Brittain which had built battleships for Japan after the war and licensed armor plate manufacturing using the Vickers process of steel making. By 1922, just four years after the end of WWI, Japan had built its first aircraft carrier, the Hosho.  This ship was based on the operational design of the British aircraft carrier HMS Furious.  The air raid on Pearl Harbor was not a novelty. In November of 1940, the Royal Navy attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto.  Using just 24 torpedo planes and attacking at night they sank one battleship and knocked two others out of action.

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had nearly 20 years of experience building and operating aircraft carriers and needed no inspiration from us in how to employ them.  Truth be told, their employment of carriers early in WWII was our inspiration for operating our own. After the Pearl Harbor raid, the Japanese carriers didn’t return to Japan. They raided Midway, Wake, the Gilbert Islands, Ceylon, the Philippines, and at least five towns and cities along the northern coast of Australia.

During the interwar years, our country had badly neglected its military, both the Army and the Navy.  Our own battleships dated back to WWI with the exception of two that were modern for that time. While we outnumbered the Japanese in battleships they outnumbered our navy in every other class of ship and Japan was a one-ocean navy, ours was split between the Atlantic and Pacific. The Japanese Navy had a very advanced doctrine for fighting on the surface at night as well. In a very real sense, the Pearl Harbor attack may have been a blessing in deep disguise.  Had our obsolete and neglected fleet sailed out to give battle to the Japanese in the fashion of that era, they might have suffered an even worse defeat than on December 7th.


We Began WWII ranked 17th In Terms of Military Power

In 1941, the United States was not the superpower that it is today, the U.S. was ranked militarily as 17th in the world, just below Romania.  The defeat of our naval power at Pearl Harbor wasn’t our only defeat. The U.S. Army then suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Philippine Islands. A defeat that witnessed the surrender of an entire U.S. Army along with 23 generals.

23,000 American Soldiers were killed and another 12,000 surrendered.

Then in just four years, the United States built the most powerful army and navy the world had ever seen, armed with nuclear weapons no less.  At the end of WWII, the United States assumed the role of Super-Power and has expended vast sums to maintain that position in the world today.

This may be the best reason to remember Pearl Harbor each year, to restate the lesson we learned the hard way on that Sunday morning.  The cost of not being an unrivaled superpower is to face rivals who want that title for themselves.

At Pearl Harbor today sits the USS Arizona Memorial which entombs the remains of her crew, a short distance away sits the battleship USS Missouri the last battleship we built in WWII.  By comparison, Missouri is twice the size of Arizona in displacement.   Observers often note that Missouri has her guns raised as if to salute and protect the final resting place of so many.

Hopefully, Missouri is also there as a reminder of the great cost of lives and treasure that comes with being caught unprepared.

An aerial view of the USS Arizona and USS Missouri Memorials at Ford Island, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Johans Chavarro/Released)