12/07/04 — Pearl Harbor: Attack showed danger of being unprepared

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Pearl Harbor: Attack showed danger of being unprepared

It has been 63 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Not only do few witnesses survive, but the circumstances and preceding events have grown hazy over the years. That is unfortunate, because forgetting the lesson of Pearl Harbor could be calamitous.

It is particularly important that we understand that our own lack of preparedness encouraged the attack.

Most people in the United States were disgusted with Japan’s expansionism and its brutal conquering of its Asian neighbors before World War II, but Germany’s aggression in Europe, overrunning country after country, outraged and frightened us even more.

Japan had signed a Tripartate Agreement with Germany and Italy. Leaders of these “Axis” powers had a vision for the way the world might be divided among them once they had won the war. Still, Japan seemed a long way off, and “Europe First” was the prevailing attitude in America.

Hence, many U.S. policy makers were too relaxed about the prospect of war in the Pacific. They were so relaxed that they allowed all of the battleships in the Pacific fleet to be moored in a small nest at Pearl Harbor — a tempting target.

Japan’s parliament was under the control of its military. It wanted to knock out the U.S. warships mainly to keep us out of the war while it eventually added India, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries, to its empire.

So, 63 years ago today, warplanes from six Japanese aircraft carriers attacked the U.S. Navy’s base at Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m., Hawaii time. They killed about 2,400 people and destroyed or damaged eight battleships.

By luck or by Providence, no U.S. carriers were in port. When that was brought to the attention of Adm. Yamamoto, who had planned the attack, he commented: “We have awakened a sleeping giant, and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.”

Soon, other Japanese would see what he meant. The American carriers made possible the famous Jimmy Doolittle attack on Tokyo, and they were instrumental in U.S. victories in the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway. These battles opened the way to the methodical, island-by-island retaking of the Pacific and, eventually, to the Allied victory.

That victory cost millions of lives and untold human suffering that might have been avoided if we had been sufficiently armed and ready, and if our resolve had been known before it was instilled by a sneak attack.

Our resolve could have been similarly in question before Sept. 11, 2001, when we suffered an attack that cost even more American lives than Pearl Harbor. The 9/11 attack might not have happened if Osama bin Laden had known it would bring the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan and would so arouse America’s awareness of the danger of Muslim fanaticism that we would launch all-out war.

But nothing in the preceding few years — not even our reaction to earlier attacks against us — had given him any indication of significant consequences.

That is a mistake we must not repeat. Showing weakness and a lack of military readiness invites catastrophe. It did in 1941, and it does today.

Published in Editorials on December 7, 2004 10:35 AM