“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.