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Never Again, Again! The Legacy of Pearl Harbor

Seven decades and a Cold War away, Pearl Harbor likely seems little more than a movie event to young people whose parents were not even born when the Japanese attacked. However, the multiple terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are a reminder of the real legacy of the attack on Hawaii, and what was the end of a six-decade hiatus of significant attacks on American soil. Today the nation lives in a time of new dangers and threats, and unlike 1941, the metrics are more difficult to understand and quantify. For many Americans, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor may seem to offer few connections for today. First and foremost, the attack on Pearl Harbor was an attack by military forces against military forces, while the Sept. 11 victims of terrorist attacks were overwhelmingly civilian. In many ways, however, Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, share a mutual place in American history, along with common causes.

The decades before both events were times of relative isolationism for the United States, which was far more focused upon events within its own borders than those overseas. Despite having previously helped win decisive victories in global conflicts, America was turned inward in the 1930s and 1990s, fighting out of the Great Depression during the first decade and enjoying its greatest period of economic prosperity in the second. Domestic issues during both periods occupied the attentions of the American people, allowing the overseas dangers of radical nationalism and religious extremism to develop unchecked. This inattention to emerging threats to democracy and freedom ended up costing the United States dearly. If the events following Pearl Harbor are any indication, the war on terror may require sacrifices equally difficult to bear and just as painful.

The Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii and other U.S. bases in the Pacific Basin did more to shape modern American society and the world in general than any other event since the Civil War.

This raises the question of what possible lessons can be drawn from the Pearl Harbor attack that can provide guidance and insight for the United States today and into the future. Though the armed conflict that began in the fall of 2001 has generally gone in America’s favor, the reality is that Afghanistan was only the first campaign of a long war. Many more have been, and will be needed to build order out of the chaos that went unchecked in the years following the end of the Cold War.

The Japanese surprise attack on Hawaii and other U.S. bases in the Pacific Basin did more to shape modern American society and the world in general than any other event since the Civil War. Obviously, most historians tend to focus on the direct effects of Pearl Harbor: its forcing the United States into World War II and providing a common rallying theme during that conflict for Americans of all ranks. However, the surprise attack on Hawaii that Sunday morning was a milestone with greater consequences than just one global war could dilute. Pearl Harbor was an event with long legs historically, and an influence still felt today among Americans and citizens of the world.

World Trade Center

The World Trade Center was destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson

The attack on Pearl Harbor was an episode with truly shocking implications to most Americans. Not since the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., 80 years earlier had an enemy conducted a surprise attack on U.S. installations on American soil. Those years in between had built a certain belief in the inviolability and safety of U.S. territory and the American military, something that was wiped out in a matter of just a few hours on Dec. 7, 1941. Obviously, the strikes upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon caused similar stresses upon the minds of contemporary citizens, in ways all too familiar to those of the Pearl Harbor generation. The buildings struck on Sept. 11 were the modern symbols of a strong America, much like the battleships sunk on Dec. 7. The collapse of the twin towers in New York City on live television were obviously as devastating to the morale of citizens as the pictures and newsreels of the Arizona and Oklahoma being destroyed. These images are seared into the consciousness of a new generation of Americans, much as the shots of “Battleship Row” in flames were for our parents and grandparents.

For almost five decades, Pearl Harbor was at the core of every American’s feelings of vulnerability after World War II. These concerns, heightened by the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems by the communist bloc, created something of a “gallows mentality” among U.S. citizens. Surprise attack by the Soviet Union and/or its proxies became an obsession with many people, and the basis for U.S. national security policy until 1991. The certain knowledge that the end of American society, at the very least, stood just 30 minutes away in the hands of men who were sworn to find a way to destroy the American political and economic system just made the feelings more widespread. There would be no true feelings of security or even a reduced threat until the collapse of the Soviet Union, driven into the ground by the stresses of competing with the western powers militarily, economically, and politically for its entire history.

For almost five decades, Pearl Harbor was at the core of every American’s feelings of vulnerability after World War II.

However, the end of the Cold War led to something far more deadly to the United States than even the 10,000-plus nuclear weapons that had been aimed at it by the USSR: complacency. It was a complacency that was felt by the American public after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with the twin victories of Operation Desert Storm and the Cold War, it came on quite quickly. Then, much like the Great Depression, the recession of the late ’80s/early ’90s hit America hard. The recession led to questions within the public and U.S. national leadership about America’s role in the post-Cold War world, a situation made worse by what some considered premature downsizing of America’s military and intelligence communities. Though not as severe, this paralleled the cutbacks in Army and Navy funding during the two decades between World War I and World War II, along with a similar inability to modernize and conduct an appropriate organizational reform.

Thankfully, the United States of 2001 was a much more robust and evolved nation than in 1941, something that has made America’s prosecution of the war on terrorism a much more rapid and successful effort than 1941. Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. military was moving to engage the Taliban and al Qaeda forces that were the first targets of Operation Enduring Freedom. Nevertheless, the United States still has a long road ahead to eventual victory against the forces of terrorism and religious extremism. Clearly, years of military action were ahead, probably followed by decades of effort to build a more positive image for America in the world. It is important to remember the great Gen. George C. Marshall, who, having already given a lifetime of service to the Army, created the overseas economic revitalization plan that bears his name while serving as Secretary of State. His effort is the classic example of “draining the swamp,” something that will be among the most difficult of America’s long-term objectives.

Atomic Bomb

A dense column of smoke rises more than 60,000 feet into the air over the Japanese port of Nagasaki, the result of an atomic bomb, the second ever used in warfare, dropped on the industrial center Aug. 9, 1945, from a U.S. B-29 Superfortress. The end of World War II brought new threats with it, such as the atomic bomb. National Archives photo

Along with the sacrifices required by the war itself has been a need to retool the U.S. military and intelligence communities into forces that can effectively engage not only the conventional threats to national security, but also the clandestine challenges that have emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This, however, has been easier said than done. The American national security apparatus of 2011 is derived from what existed in 1992, using much of the same equipment, technology base, organizations, and training assumptions. The 1990s saw it being scaled down, not reformed and remade to reflect the emerging threats and missions of the 21st century. Only in the past few years have voices within the Department of Defense and intelligence community begun to speak about real modernization and restructuring. This is a process to make the vital and necessary changes and investments to take American warriors and intelligence personnel into a new millennium.

Only in the past few years have voices within the Department of Defense and intelligence community begun to speak about real modernization and restructuring. This is a process to make the vital and necessary changes and investments to take American warriors and intelligence personnel into a new millennium.

Modernization and restructuring will mean not only the simple investment of tax dollars, but also the total reform of the existing attitudes and organizations to new paradigms and technologies as radical as anything seen in history. The complete reform of the American military by the National Security Act of 1947, along with the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the same legislation, is an indicator of what has been required in the past. Luckily, the United States has always been blessed with leaders of vision and commitment ready to do what was necessary.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...