Seventy-five years ago yesterday, most Americans believed that the two vast oceans on our coasts kept us safe from war as long as we pretended not to be part of it. Seventy-five years ago today, an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” on Pearl Harbor woke us from that fantasy — at the cost of over 2400 American lives. Pearl Harbor shattered our pretensions of isolation, and forced the US to perpetually prepare for war even during periods of peace, a lesson that we have occasionally forgotten a few times since.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately went to Congress to demand a declaration of war against the empire of Japan. Roosevelt offers one key observation near the end, though, which cuts to the heart of the need to recognize war when it arrives, rather than live within fantasies of peace (via Jeff Dunetz, who has the whole speech transcript):
I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
Hostilities exist. This is a point which we have lost in recent times, especially in the rise of non-state enemies such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. We pretended that a string of terrorist attacks in the 1990s were just a criminal issue rather than recognizing that hostilities exist after 9/11, a blindness that was not limited to one party or faction. It took us two years or more to fully realize that hostilities exist when al-Qaeda in Iraq mutated and metastasized into ISIS after our withdrawal from Iraq, and now they have spread to north Africa and even into Afghanistan.
For that matter, the US did the same with Japan in the 1930s, and Germany as well. Japan had conducted a horrendous military campaign in the far East, especially in China where their brutality peaked. Roosevelt imposed an oil embargo in an attempt to starve Japan out of its empire-building, but the US still did not prepare for the war that almost inevitably followed. In Europe, the British kept warning that Germany would eventually challenge the US; FDR agreed, but few others did. Hostilities existed, even though we pretended that they didn’t, or that those hostilities would never reach our shores.
December 7th, therefore, is a moment to remember those who died while valiantly trying to fight off that sneak attack, but also to remember that constant vigilance is the cost of liberty and independence. We should not seek out battles and wars, but we should not shirk from hostilities when they do arise.
“Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us,” Roosevelt declared. Pearl Harbor taught us to perceive the character of those who would conduct onslaughts, and deal with them before they happen. Let us hope that this seventy-fifth anniversary of the date which will live in infamy provides us a reminder of the deadly necessity of that preparation.
Addendum: Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe will pay his respects at the USS Arizona in a historic visit on December 27th. He will be the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor since the attack. We should welcome Abe in friendship, and not demand apologies from a generation who had nothing to do with the attack. We settled all accounts in 1945, and both nations have come a long way together since.
Update: The quote is actually “a date which will live in infamy,” not that. I’ve fixed the headline and the final paragraph. Thanks to Joe Eule for the correction.