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How the Pearl Harbor attack still shapes America

After Dec. 7, 1941, the now-disappearing Greatest Generation saved democracy, but much that came out of the end of World War II also lies behind our greatest security threats, from Iran to North Korea.
Cmdr. Michael Harris, executive officer of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52), salutes the USS Arizona Memorial as the ship passes it while entering port (June 2012).

Cmdr. Michael Harris, executive officer of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52), salutes the USS Arizona Memorial as the ship passes it while entering port (June 2012). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason Behnke

An aerial photographer captured some of the damage at Pearl Harbor three days after the attack.

An aerial photographer captured some of the damage at Pearl Harbor three days after the attack. U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Dec. 8, 1941, front page

Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Dec. 8, 1941, front page

The Dec. 7 anniversary of the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor will be remembered in history alongside the South Carolina secessionists' shelling of Fort Sumter and the terrorist events of 9/11/2001. It marked a wrenching turning point in our history, the effects of which are still being felt.

It also marks, this year, the further disappearance of the Greatest Generation heroes who fought the war for us. Former Sen. and presidential candidate George McGovern, who piloted the maximum 35 bomber missions over Europe, died only recently.  Former President George H.W. Bush, shot down in his dive bomber and rescued from the Pacific, and former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, wounded gravely as an enlisted infantryman in Italy, were admitted for hospital treatment during the past week. All were decorated for valor during their service, as were many others.

For my own generation, who were kids during World War II, there are many flash memories of the time. I was 7 when Pearl Harbor happened, 11 when the war ended in 1945.

My dad, an unskilled Bellingham sawmill worker, always brought home at Christmas a box of Japanese tangerines — until 1941, when they disappeared from the market. We walked to downtown Bellingham on Dec. 7 to see a Sunday movie matinee at the American Theater on Cornwall Avenue. It was an unseasonably balmy, clear-sky day. When we returned home, my mother met us at the front door. "The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor," she told us. "We're at war." Dad, charcteristically, said "Maybe now we'll take out Hitler." (Dad hated Hitler for occupying his native Netherlands and for his atrocities against Jews and other minorities.)

As it happened, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not mean we were at war with Germany. That happened a short time later, when Hitler declared war on us.

I experienced the time just as most of my schoolmates did. After the war began, both my parents began six-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day schedules at their workplaces. We had no automobile but, for those who did, there was gas rationing which sharply limited mobility.  There was an immediate fear that Japanese planes might launch air raids on West Coast cities — although that, at the time, was a technological impossibility. Every neighborhood had an air-raid warden and every home in Bellingham had a box of sand and a shovel on hand, with a posted notice above telling what to do in the event of a raid. Night sports and other events were cancelled, lest their lights be a beacon to Japanese planes or submarines. All nearby beaches were closed; some had obstacles against invasion. Our First Christian Church, just down the street, became a barracks for soldiers who marched in formation each morning past our doorway. We went to double Daylight Saving Time. Clocks were moved up two hours — which meant it was light outside on summer nights until nearly 11 p.m.

At grade school we regularly bought War Savings Stamps, to help pay for the war, and filled coupon books with them. On a more important level, neighbors' sons (and a few daughters) volunteered or were drafted for military service.  A majority were sent to the Pacific war theater.

There was no way to escape the war on the homefront. There was no television. But black-and-white films — some quite good (and being shown now on Turner Classic Movies) — and regular radio broadcasts and movie newsreels kept us immersed in the war. War posters were everywhere, exhorting us to support the troops, zip our lips (lest spies pickup useful information) and buy War Bonds. Others encouraged women to join the service or to take defense-factory jobs. Darker ones portrayed Japanese troops, in particular, as primitive, bestial figures with blood on their mouths and hands.

There were almost no Japanese Americans in Bellingham. But, down the Sound, they were rounded up and sent to internment camps. (Millions of German Americans, mainly living in the East and Midwest, were not similarly interned). Patriotic Japanese Americans volunteered for military service and were sent from their internment camps to training centers and, then, to Europe.  Among them was Hawaii U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who fought as an enlisted infantryman in Italy and lost his arm in battle. Inouye, in later years, would recount his unit's reaction when they learned of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. His company had been attempting to seize a German strong point up a hillside, Inouye said, but heavy fire had pinned them down.  Someone passed the word that FDR had died. A spontaneous yell went up: "Let's do it for the chief!" And so, Inouye said, they fixed bayonets and rushed and took the strong point, although taking casualties. "No one questioned our loyalty that day," he added.

Walking to Washington Grade School and to downtown, I saw Gold Stars in windows along the way. They signified that a family member had been killed in the war. Blue Stars signified that a family member was serving.

American losses in the Asia/Pacific theater, as in other war theaters, were relatively small compared to those of other major combatant countries. But the fighting in the Pacific was brutal and intense. The Japanese, with a long warrior tradition, held to a no-surrender, fight-to-the-death doctrine. When defeat was apparent in battle, they often made suicide charges. They also undertook suicide airplane and submarine attacks. They scorned adversaries who did not follow suit and who surrendered. American and other allied prisoners were often maltreated, sent to slave labor, and/or beheaded or used for bayonet practice. The best account of the Pacific fighting is perhaps contained in British historian Max Hastings' 2008 book Retribution (Knopf). If you prefer fiction, based on fact, there are Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line.

Could the war in the Pacific have been averted?

It is difficult to see how it might have been. Japan was bent on Asian conquest — and the establishment of a so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in which colonial powers would be expelled and it would dominate. Its conquests and occupations had proceeded during the 1930s. Finally, FDR ordered an embargo of Japanese petroleum, without which the Japanese economy and war machine would soon starve. He knew the Japanese would not yield and, in doing so, knew that he was pulling the U.S. toward a war it otherwise had wanted to avoid. A Japanese attack was, in fact, expected, although not in Hawaii. The Dec. 7 raid on Pearl Harbor destroyed battleships, aircraft, and other vessels. But, to our good fortune, American aircraft carriers were on maneuvers at sea and avoided the attack.

Japan had no intention, of course, of invading or conquering the United States. It believed that strong and decisive early Japanese blows in the Pacific would open the way to a negotiated end to the war. But that was a misreading of the American character. From that point forward, there was never a real chance for anything but an outcome resulting in unconditional Japanese surrender.

Lives were lost in the Pacific war that might have been spared. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded pre-war troops in the Philippines, insisted on the islands' reconquest. The lives and money expended on that reconquest, and that of the stepping-stone islands en route to the Philippines, need not have been expended at all. U.S. and allied forces could have bypassed them and proceeded in a straighter line toward the Japanese homeland.

In the latter stages of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay and his aide, Robert McNamara, oversaw unprecedented firebombing of major Japanese cities, with mainly civilian casualties, which claimed hundreds of thousands. They also pushed for and oversaw the dropping of nuclear weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashing a nuclear-weapons race which is still proceeding, most notably now in Iran. No time was given to the Japanese, between the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, to consider terms of surrender. The carnage simply proceeded. Just as at the beginning of the war, an alternative blockade-and-isolation strategy could have starved the homeland of vital energy and other resources and forced an eventual Japanese capitulation.

There never was an inevitable choice between dropping the nuclear weapons and/or undertaking a massive and costly land invasion of Japan. But war fever still ran high and President Truman OK'd the dropping of the nukes.

My most vivid recollection of VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day) was of horns and bells coming from the direction of downtown Bellingham. I saw two young wives, with husbands in the Pacific, race from their homes across the street and embrace each other in the middle of the intersection. They were sobbing with joy. I ran downtown to see similar street scenes. Not a day to forget. A few weeks later, a formal victory parade came down Holly Street downtown. It was led by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, a Washington-state native who had succeeded MacArthur in command in the Philippines and been imprisoned by the Japanese. He rode a white horse.  He was pale and weak and could not have weighed 130 pounds. A real hero, I thought, which the narcissistic MacArthur was not.

Thanks to films and books, Dec. 7 and the Pacific War will not be forgotten.   Few days pass when I do not think of events of the time and of families I knew which were tragically touched by them.   Our old high-school baseball coach, for instance, was a man in his 50s.  But he looked much older and always had a sense of sadness about him.   He often would ask one or more of us to go hiking or fishing with him on a Saturday.  I learned only later that his melancholy came from the loss of a beloved son in the Pacific.   I had an older cousin who served on the submarine which sank a Japanese capital ship in Yokahama harbor.  He returned to tell the tale.

Among the after-effects of the war which began Dec. 7, 1941:

  • A strong centralization of power in our national government, as in those of other warring countries, in order to organize, finance, and fight the ensuing World War II. That centralization has continued.
  • The death knell of colonialism in Asia (as in Africa, as a result of the European war) and the emergence of independent countries.
  • The establishment of a Stalinist North Korean government, as a result of the Soviet Union's late entry into the war against Japan. It later would invade South Korea and remains today a threat to regional and global peace.
  • The re-emergence of China as a pre-eminent Asian power, after the withdrawal of occupying Japanese troops.
  • The establishment in the United States of what President Eisenhower would call "a military/industrial complex" with a continuing interest in furthering a national-security state.
  • The emergence of a democratic, peaceful Japan (as a democratic, peaceful Germany) with a strong aversion to militarism and, of course, to nuclear weapons.
  • The United States' abandonment of its prior isolationist role and its active engagement — sometimes not wisely (as in Indochina and Iraq) — in parts of the world both important and unimportant to its national interests.
  • In domestic life, the speeding of minorities and women into roles that mainly were closed to them prior to Dec. 7, 1941. President Truman, after the war, ended segregation in U.S. armed forces. It was the first in a rush of major executive and legislative initiatives unprecedented since the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is easy to forget, now, that there was a real danger in the 1930s that totalitarianism of the Right or Left might prevail globally.

Global financial and economic distress were pervasive. Utopian solutions were alluring, even though they entailed sacrifices of freedom. Leading American citizens returned home from Germany and the Soviet Union — though not from imperialist Japan — to report that Hitler and Stalin might be breaking a few eggs along the way but were making delicious omelettes. Many here were perfectly content to accept the unacceptable. President Roosevelt, at the time, remarked that he might be "the last democratically elected president of the United States." Things were that chancy.

World War II was, mainly, a more bloody and ideological continuation of World War I. In the Pacific, it was nightmarish. During my years in Washington, D.C., I periodically would walk through Arlington National Cemetery, read the headstones, imagine the shortened lives of those beneath them, and wonder about the families and loved ones left behind. Were their sacrifices in vain? It is up to us to prove they were not.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Though I often disagree with Mr. Van Dyk, for this poignantly eloquent essay I salute him. Well done!

Posted Wed, Dec 5, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Van Dyk,
I recommend you read two books that deal with how the Germans and Italians were rounded-up, some torn from their homes in Central and South America and placed in American concentration camps. I suggest you read, Enemies by John Christgau to learn about the German internment, and Stephen Fox's Fear Itself to learn about both German and Italian internment. One individual who suffered was a doctor in the Puget Sound area who was taken away without any warning or opportunity to explain his situation. Neither the Germans or Italians who were imprisoned have been compensated.
Frank Bettendorf

arcatared

Posted Wed, Dec 5, 5:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Bettendorf: Thanks for calling these two books to my attention.
So far as I know, only a handful of German- and Italian-American
citizens were held in custody; they were believed to be actively involved with or agents of their home-country regimes. I would not be surprised to learn that some detentions were in error. There were no general roundups, however, as with Japanese Americans. I look forward to becoming further informed.

Posted Thu, Dec 6, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

FYI

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/1998/nov/29/during-world-war-ii-were-germans-rounded-ecuadoria/

There's more then you think.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Dec 6, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Who are we really afraid of?

The war really never ended for us, We've been on a war economy since WWII and neither Democrats nor Republicans want it to end. Just look at much pressure our own war supporting Democrats on this side of the mountain fight to keep the war machine here.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Dec 7, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Good article; thank you. The decision to bomb more indiscriminately was not made by LeMay (nor McNamara). It was the decision of Hap Arnold and, probably, the entire military command, including President Truman. LeMay's predecessor, General Hansell had pursued a more "precision bombing" campaign for two years. By 1945 it was demonstrably ineffective and was changed with the intention of preparing Japan for an invasion.

kieth

Posted Fri, Dec 7, 8:35 p.m. Inappropriate

We interned German-Americans and some Italians as well. Not as many as the Japanese, but not zero by any means.

As the Canadians interned Japanese-Canadians.

The Brits did their share.

I find it remarkable how people think the USA invented this sort of thing.

Posted Sat, Dec 8, 5:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for your further comments.

1.Kieth is correct that Gen. Arnold, the Air Force commander, and, ultimately, the Presiden were responsible for the overall decision to undertake massive firebombing and nuking of Japanese cities, inflicting huge civilian casualties, but it was Gen. LeMay who pressed for such a policy. (McNamara, his aide, was responsible for statistical analysis of various bombing approaches). Commanders at theater level were given huge leeway during WWII. President Roosevelt and General Marshall, the overall U.S. military commander, allowed MacArthur, for instance, to squander time, money, and lives with his campaign to retake the Phillipines.

LeMay and McNamara, of course, were to make their marks later on.
LeMay was nicknamed "the mad bomber" for his ceaseless post-World War II attempts to build up U.S. strategic bomber forces and our nuclear capability. He was one of those asserting that we should not fear undertaking a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. McNamara went on to become president of the Ford Motor Co., where he
launched the costly and failed Edsel project, and then Defense Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, before LBJ fired him
late in 1967. He attempted to run the Vietnam War through statistical analysis, leading U.S. commanders there to stress body counts and "kill ratios" as indicators of success. In an interview a few years ago McNamara recounted jokingly how LeMay had said, during the
firebombing and nuking of Japanese cities, that "we would be tried as war criminals" if on the losing side. He was right and it was no joke.

2. Yes, other countries on the allied side interned their own citizens of Japanese, German, or Italian heritage. And U.S. and other occupying forces treated captured and surrendered German troops
quite brutally in internment camps immediately after WWII. In the European theater, Winston Churchill successfully pressed for bombings
of German civilian targets comparable to the U.S. late-war bombings in Japan. He wanted not only to defeat Hitler and Nazism but to kill and punish German civilians. He cut his teeth in the bloody, imperialist Boer war and, in World War I, sponsored the disastrous Gallipoli campaign which killed needlessly so many Anzac troops. Churchill was a war lover, colonialist, and unreconstructed advocate of British
empire and dominance. We should not set our own standards of wartime conduct to match the worst ones of our allies.

Posted Sat, Dec 8, 5:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Your mention of posters reminds me of the ubiquitous gremlins, designed by Disney I think, who were always trying to cause sabotage. There were some orangutan characters too, but don't remember what they were about.

I still have a ring-binder that my mom kept as leader of our Blue Bird group (a sub-division of Camp Fire) which shows how much tin foil and how many small tin cans, puzzles and cartoons from magazines we had collected. The tin foil was for the 'war effort'. The cans were used as ash trays for servicemen in hospitals. The puzzles and cartoons were mounted in hand-made booklets for servicemen. We also bought a War Bond for Camp Fire's "Pledge-a-Plane" campaign.

Even the children could actively participate to help win the war.

s_calvert

Posted Sat, Dec 8, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

TVD, thank you for your reply. LeMay was chosen by Arnold because of his success in Europe (lower casualties, fewer lost airplanes, greater destruction); I admit his advice may have been solicited by Arnold but I think it is likely that LeMay's tenure in Europe convinced his superiors that he was an extraordinarily effective leader. A lot of talented military leaders are egotistical, narcissistic and delicately balanced psychologically (MacArther, Patton, Sherman). LeMay's private life was exemplary, his military service was crucial during WWII. His later, unfortunate political stances were, in hindsight, relatively harmless; he won no elections and probably had very little effect on the Nation's political path. So I tend to defend him. When he took over the 8th Air Force he flew on a weekly schedule with his men in addition to his administrative duties. He was, by accounts I have read, brave, intelligent and an inspired tactician.
His later political pronouncements have tended to tended to overshadow his well deserved military reputation. I regret that.

kieth

Posted Sat, Dec 8, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate


Posted Sat, Dec 8, 5 p.m. Inappropriate

We should not set our own standards of wartime conduct to match the worst ones of our allies.

And we didn't. I'll stack up the USA's behavior in WW-2 against any of the other powers in a heartbeat.

Canada's exclusion of Japanese from the West Coast continued until 1949 by the way.
http://www.japanesecanadianhistory.net/the_war_years.htm
oh, and in 1949, the Japanese-Canadians were finally allowed to vote.

Reading some descriptions of the war these days, one would think the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to free the Japanese-Americans from the relocation camps.

Posted Sun, Dec 9, 9:44 p.m. Inappropriate

War and conflict march on; we have been off and on at war with pirates (Muslim terrorists) since the 1790's. The memory of horrible and evil German and Japanese regimes of the World War II era still keep some of us from buying any of their modern day products since they have not all yet died off. The vicious, evil Soviets were destroyed by President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the Pope. America has changed for the greater good. Regardless of red vrs. blue state political differences, the country stands as a beacon of morality and freedom. A mobile, modern, high tech military will be required for decades to kill off the evil enemies of the USA. Sadly, other nations are not as willing to 'pay their fair share' in keeping the world safe from bad actor rogue nations and thug/gangs.

animalal

Posted Wed, Dec 12, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

"... Gen. Curtis LeMay and his aide, Robert McNamara, oversaw unprecedented firebombing of major Japanese cities, with mainly civilian casualties, which claimed hundreds of thousands. They also pushed for and oversaw the dropping of nuclear weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki..."

WTF? Well, that explains plenty. McNamara, the blood-thirsty psychopath, got away with wholesale genocide in two Asian wars (one of them undeclared). He was the key architect of the Vietnam War, which killed at least three million Vietnamese, around one million Cambodians and Laotians, and 58,000 American soldiers. And nobody had the guts to stop him.

Remember when McNamara went on his "mea culpa" book tour back in 1995? How about his half-baked "apology" in "Fog of War," where he never actually says "I'm sorry?" That despicably cynical attempt to rewrite his abysmal personal history was exceeded only in distaste by a gullible film producer who assisted him, and the egregiously ignorant, short-memoried AMPAS members who voted the disgusting, self-indulgent display worthy of an Oscar. At least Leni Riefenstahl was forced into it. Errol Morris will never be able to claim anything other than his own blind stupidity.

Too many have forgotten that this vile excuse for a human being was the primary architect of the Viet Nam War. I'm not one of them. Nor are the families and friends of the kids who died at Kent State.

Jones

Posted Sat, Dec 15, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I, too, am not an admirer of Robert McNamara's. Yet his continuing
acceptance in the Washington, D.C. policy and social communities, over a long period, illustrates the degree to which hypocrisy and fascination with power can overwhelm common sense. Among McNamara's friends and social hosts were many, including Robert Kennedy, who became critical of the Vietnam War. His senior civilian aides at Defense, all JFK appointees, were strongly loyal to him.

I periodically interacted with McNamara during his time as Defense Secretary, World Bank president, and later private citizen. JFK
appointed McNamara as Defense Secy because he wanted a Republican in the position and was attracted, as well, by McNamara's business background as Ford Motor CEO (even though his brief tenure as Ford CEO
had been notably unsuccessful). LBJ eventually fired McNamara as Defense Secy because he thought he was becoming unstable and doubted his judgment. He also was miffed because McNamara was an all-out hawk
in internal meetings re Vietnam but, at private dinner parties, was painting himself as an anguished dove. After he was pushed to the World Bank by LBJ, I asked his assistant at the Bank, a British citizen, how he liked working for McNamara. He responded: "He is the cruelest and most arrogant person I've ever known."

Later I served on a private economic-policy task force with McNamara.
There he was rigid, uninterested in contrary opinion, and saw everything in quantitative terms (harking back to his WWII and Vietnam-era quantitative approaches to policy). I, too, was appalled by his Vietnam apology tour and his sympathetic portrayal in the Morris film.

One reason for his continuing acceptance in D.C., despite his acts,
might have been his outward approach to people (although obviously not to his British aide at the Bank). I saw him periodically over a 25-year period in non-professional settings. He knew that I had been an avid Vietnam War critic inside and outside government. Yet he was personally amiable and cheerful whenever our paths crossed; it was hard to square that persona with his acts as policymaker. A complex man who did great damage.

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