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.
Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of