“AIRRAID ON PEARLHARBOR X THIS IS NO DRILL” was the simple wording of the Radiogram sent by the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) to all ships in the Hawaiian Islands area moments after the attack began on December 7th, 1941.

The naval air forces of the Empire of Japan had launched a preemptive attack on our Army and Navy at Pearl Harbor. As a country, we commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor more than any other event of WWII, including the surrender of Italy, Germany, and finally, Japan which ended the largest conflict in human history. Pearl Harbor captures something deep in the American psyche that writers and historians around the world have been trying to understand for the last 59 years.

But what makes the attack on Pearl Harbor so ingrained in American culture?

In Japanese writing on the subject, there is the belief that American remembrance of the attack serves the purpose of enforcing a myth of American innocence in WWII. A war we did not wish to fight but were thrust into. It also serves as justification for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan by saying, “Japan started the war and got what they deserved.”

The first claim about America creating a myth of innocence, i.e. about not wanting to enter the war, is not without merit. The historical record shows that FDR very much wanted to get the U.S. into the war on the side of Britain and France but was dealing with a very strong isolationist sentiment that transcended party lines. That isolationism also had an ethnic strain to it. Millions of Americans were of German descent, and many of them were first-generation Americans whose parents had been born in Germany. There was even an American Nazi party with one million members, most of them of German extraction.

On the Pacific side of the world, China, a U.S, ally, was being dismembered by Japan bit by bit. Japan had already won a war against China in 1895 over the Korean peninsula; it had also wrested Taiwan away from China. In 1937 Japan decided it also wanted all of Manchuria and invaded. Roosevelt did not stand by passively. The U.S. provided military equipment to China, even sending it squadrons of P-40 Warhawk fighters and U.S. pilots to fly them — yet, at the time it was said that the pilots, the American Volunteer Group (also called “Flying Tigers“) were not officially sanctioned by the U.S. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the Pentagon finally acknowledged that the Flying Tigers was a covert operation funded and controlled by the War Department.

FDR went on to impose severe economic sanctions on Japan designed to cripple her war machine and economy. The Panama Canal was closed to Japanese shipping and the U.S. imposed an oil embargo that meant no one could sell oil to Japan without facing U.S. sanctions. Japan was importing 80 percent of its oil and gas from the U.S, so these sanctions were crippling. Additional embargos on metals meant that Japan would lose 93 percent of its copper and 74 percent of its scrap iron imports. Finally, FDR froze Japanese assets in the U.S. and shut the country off from the U.S. financial and banking sector.

None of the above justifies the Japanese Empire launching a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, but it ought to do away with the myth that the U.S. took no provocative actions against Japan. Because we clearly did. The U.S. exerted diplomatic and economic pressure against Japan to get it to withdraw from China. What nobody was able to tell FDR (and have him believe) was that Japan lacked the ability to respond in kind diplomatically or economically. Unlike Britain, Japan was not a self-sufficient empire with colonies to provide it with iron ore, oil, rubber, and other raw materials. But it did have a big army and a first-rate blue water navy with 10 battleships and six large fleet carriers. In fact, at the time, Japan was rated higher in military power than the U.S. which was ranked 17th in the world, right behind Romania.

This relative weakness of the American military makes it probably true that America did not want a war with Japan. The plain proof of it is that we chose diplomatic and economic sanctions against Japan rather than declaring war or launching a sneak attack.

As they did to us.

Could Pearl Harbor and the culture around it be needed to post-facto justify the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? No. The bombs were justified by all the battles of the Pacific War and the hundreds of thousands that perished on both sides. When those two bombs were dropped, Japan was clearly at the end of its rope but stubbornly refused to let go of it. Even when the U.S. took Okinawa and was on Japan’s front porch, Japanese military planners were waiting for the Allied invasion of the home islands believing they could inflict so many casualties on the U.S. that they could force a negotiated peace. They changed their minds after, not one, but two atomic bombs were dropped on them and they realized that the bloody invasion they were perversely hoping would save them might not even occur. The Americans could obliterate Japan’s cities and military installations by risking only a couple of B-29s per sortie. It was then, and only then, that Japan decided to surrender.

Battleship Nevada, on fire and down at the bow makes a dash for the open ocean and some fighting room to maneuver. (Photo, National Archives)

Others, in trying to understand the American culture’s interest around Pearl Harbor, ascribe it to some notion of American victimhood. Our Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines being asleep in their beds and suddenly and brutally murdered. I don’t think that captures it either.  There were numerous battles in that war where the U.S. got a beating. In the Philippines, 12,000 U.S. troops surrendered to the Japanese. That was the largest surrender of U.S. forces in history and it hardly registers in the minds of most Americans. A total of 27,000 American service members were prisoners of the Japanese. A stunning 40 percent died in captivity. That’s 10,800 POWs killed by Japan. It’s three times our losses a Pearl Harbor, but hardly anyone even knows about it, let alone commemorates their sacrifice.

Some have said it’s a function of racism against the Japanese (I roll my eyes at this one too). Pearl Harbor was 79 years ago and has been commemorated in many ways, but it has not caused Americans to take to the street and kill or harm Japanese tourists or Japanese Americans. So the charges of racial bias against Asians or the Japanese are just nonsense.

So what is it? What makes Pearl Harbor so different that it has captured the American psyche for so long and is the main American commemoration of WWII? A commemoration of the start of a world war, not of its end.

On this day: The USS Ward fired the first US shots of WWII at Pearl Harbor

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I think that Pearl Harbor is unique because of the American culture’s intrinsic sense of fairness.

We obsess over the idea of fairness and playing by the rules in everyday life. We hate the cheat or the thief because they’re unfair and enrich themselves by guile. To “sucker punch” someone is regarded as shameful. So is “kicking a man when he’s down.” We love a good fight, maybe more than any nation on Earth. But we want there to be rules and have them respected. We want it to be a “fair fight” and we are ashamed to participate in one that isn’t. Even our most brutal sports, MMA and Boxing, have very strict rules; they would be eye-gouging, ear-biting brawls without them. We joke that “all’s fair in love and war” but we only joke about it; we don’t believe in it. Right now the country is embroiled in an election controversy about whether the results were honestly and fairly reached. We may not realize it, but we are a country obsessed with notions of fair play and the square deal.

To Americans, Pearl Harbor was the ultimate sucker punch coming from the back of the room. It was unfair to our Army, Navy, and Marines who we believed could beat anybody in a fair fight. And Japan did not give us one. They snuck up to us and hit us when we were asleep, on an early Sunday morning… while we were at church.

And that made this country very angry, not at the Japanese as a race, but at the Japanese for their unfair conduct. As FDR put it, December 7th, 1941 would be “a date which [would] live in infamy.” It would be remembered as day something evil was brought about by the grossly criminal, shocking, and brutal actions of another. And I think this is how we still feel about it today. We look at that proud Navy at rest at Pearl Harbor on that day and think, “If only it had been a fair fight, we might have taken some lumps, but we’d have licked ’em.” And it rankles us that they never got that chance to have a civilized, straight-up fight by the rules. A fair fight.

Our boys, Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines were robbed of that chance. I think that is what underlies our sadness over the attack on Pearl Harbor and our resolve to never get sucker punched again by anybody else. Not by Russia, not by China, not by anybody.

Because it isn’t fair.

Tell us what you think about Pearl Harbor and its place in our culture in the comments below.

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