Americans tend to commemorate Pearl Harbor as one of the most tragic days in U.S. history, much as we do the far more recent 9/11.
Yet, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was as much as watershed event as a tragedy, not only for us but also for the rest of the world. It marked the first day of a three-year trek away from a self-imposed American provincialism to global preeminence.
The Pearl Harbor attack had exposed our provincialism in a stark and ugly way. But the march to global preeminence was a rough slog for a country that had always clung to the 18th century interpretation of empire. We had preferred to remain an empire of liberty rather than one of global entanglements. Among millions of Americans, the precepts of non-interventionism outlined in Washington’s Farewell Address were regarded as sacred writ, much like the Bill or Rights and popular sovereignty.
We had a deeply entrenched mindset to overcome. Indeed, few Americans in the 21st century fully grasp how deeply embedded within national psyche non-interventionism and even pacifism were in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor.
There was a longstanding anti-imperialist and anti-war tradition in the United States, one that was not only respected by millions of Americans but also highly influential politically. Some 20 years ago, I read most of the writings of a loose coalition of writers, journalists and intellectuals whom the former Marxist writer and historian Ronald Radosh aptly described as the “Prophets on the Right.” They articulated the nation’s profound distaste for further entanglements in the affairs of Europe. In fact, their thoughtful and eloquent critiques of interventionism served as an inspiration for the New Left in the 1960s, but that’s another story. (For what it’s worth, I have an old hidebound copy of Radosh’s “Prophets on the Right” in my stacks.)
In the years following World War I, pacifism had taken such hold within American culture that military planners in Washington reported to work in business suits rather than uniforms. Many of the military officers who accompanied FDR to the first high-level consultation with the British literally had to bring their uniforms out of mothballs.
And serving as a constant reminder of our provincialism throughout the war were our cousins and new-found allies, the British. This fascinating chapter in U.S./British relations is brilliantly recounted by British historian Andrew Roberts in Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945. Most British elites still regarded us as ill-bred yokels, equipped by experience and temperament only to man frontier outposts or to garrison our backwater colonial outposts in the Pacific. Prosecuting a global war was far beyond our competency, many of them believed. And even our backwater colonial competency was put to extreme test only a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack when the Japanese attacked the Philippines.
But we adapted. Adapting to new circumstances has always been part of the American genius. As the half-American Winston Churchill predicted to many dubious British elites, American industrial might would ultimately would tip the scales toward an Allied victory. And, of course, he was right. We exceeded beyond our dreams and those of our enemies.
Reichsmarschall Herman Goring denigrated American industrial capacity as suited only to producing razor blades. But in a sense, that was precisely the point. Our adaptive genius transformed the world’s largest consumer economy into the most potent and comprehensive military arsenal the world have ever known.
In only three years our greatly expanded Navy achieved against Japan what had eluded Hitler in his desperate efforts to kill off Britain’s merchant fleet with his U-Boats and starve the beleaguered island into submission. We not only sent Japan’s merchant fleet to the bottom of the Pacific but also virtually all of its Navy. The massive fleets of American strategic bombers that blanketed the skies above Japan and Germany reduced much of their industrial capacity to ash. And the steady streams of fighter planes introduced in both the Pacific and European theaters transformed battlefields into raging infernos for Axis forces. Many hardened German veterans of the Eastern front reluctantly credited Allied air superiority over northern France in 1944 with imposing the the closest thing to hell on earth, inflicting levels of suffering on the Wehrmacht far exceeding that in the East.
And in transforming ourselves into the world’s preeminent power, we transformed the world. Much of the world is freer and more prosperous than ever before in human history because a powerful but provincial nation finally chose to engage with the rest of the world.
And it all began on that tragic day, Dec. 7, 1941.