It has been 72 years and veterans of the attack are in their 90s, some of them taking tourists out to the memorial built over the sunken battleship Arizona, which is still leaking oil. Almost 1,200 men were killed and went down with that ship when a bomb found its magazine and blew it up. Total losses that day were over 2,500 killed, 1,000 wounded. Material losses amounted to 18 ships and nearly 300 airplanes destroyed or severely damaged.
It was one of the most successful surprise attacks in the history of war. Brilliantly conceived and audaciously executed, it changed the world. The forces that it set in motion led to the utter destruction of the Japanese Empire. Retribution for having launched the attack. Beyond that, it brought the United State into a war at the end of which Germany had been reduced to rubble, the sun was conclusively setting on the British Empire, and the Soviet Union ruled half of Europe and threatened the other half.
But the greatest changes might have been to the United States. Four years later, when the Second World War was over, it was a different country with a wholly new relationship to the rest of the world.
Before Pearl Harbor, the United States had been a reluctant global player. There was an abiding strain of isolationism among its citizens. America had sent Doughboys “over there” in the last European war and the payoff for their sacrifice (more than 100,000 dead) was the prospect of another war between the same players. We had, in the minds of many, been burned once. So the United States fielded, in 1939, the world’s 17th largest standing army. Good enough since, between us and the rest of the world, there were two wide oceans and two peaceful borders.
We had a navy to assert our rights and protect our interests on those oceans. By 1941, its destroyers were already in action in the Atlantic, against German U-boats. But the less said about this, the better the government liked it. The people did not want war, understandably, and many of them believed the country could simply choose to stay out of it.
The U.S. Navy based most powerful assets based in the Pacific. These were the battleships (including the Arizona) which it moved from West coast ports to the Hawaiian Islands as tensions between the U.S. and Japan increased. By late 1941, after the U.S. had embargoed oil exports to Japan, war seemed inevitable. Still … for the U.S. to simply declare war and strike first was unthinkable. So the Japanese Navy saved it the trouble, sailing six aircraft carriers across the Pacific in total radio silence, launching some 350 airplanes before dawn on a Sunday morning, catching those proud American battleships at anchor and totally unprepared. By the end of the day, there was no American battleship fleet. And, inconveniently, the country was in a naval war. A few days later, Hitler made things easy on Washington by declaring war on the U.S.
Isolationism and neutrality seemed extinct conceptions.
The battleships turned out not to have been so great a loss and the Japanese missed the U.S. aircraft carriers and subs that would bring doom on their empire. At war’s end, the United States had the bomb and seemed totally and irretrievably involved with the world.
Still, the isolationist impulse made a mild comeback. There was opposition from heartland Republicans to U.S. membership in NATO. Washington settled on military doctrines and weapons that relied on long ranges and wide oceans for the nation’s defense. The B-36 bombers and their nuclear payloads would keep us safe. Then, Korea. After which, the draft became permanent until after Vietnam when he country turned inward again.
This was reversed during the Reagan years. After the end of the Cold War, there was another retreat and this one seemed safe enough. Who, after all, did we have to fear.?
Then, another surprise attack. One every bit as shocking as Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was embroiled in parts of the world where it had never been before, in a war like none it had ever fought before.
Now, according a recent and reputable poll:
Americans appear to be less interested in U.S. foreign engagement that at any other time over the last half-century [with] an all-time low in public support for an active U.S. foreign policy, as well as a growing desire to focus away from the world stage.