The Attack On Pearl Harbor And The ‘Collective Amnesia Of Comfortable Societies’

In the mind’s eye, one can imagine a peaceful Sunday morning in Hawaii eighty-one years ago. Warm Pacific trade winds drift across the harbor, passing through the row of warships anchored bow-to-stern. Some crews laze in hammocks below decks while others sleepily emerge topside to perform mundane shipboard tasks.

It is the beginning of another day in the life of sailors who count themselves fortunate to be stationed with the U.S. Pacific Fleet currently at anchor in idyllic Pearl Harbor.

Just before 8:00 a.m., however, the tranquility is broken by the humming drone of radial engines echoing off the escarpments that corral the naval installation. Unsuspecting seamen cast their gazes skyward, trying to make sense of an inexplicable cloud of aircraft bearing down on them. Some fly high and level. Others descend to skim just 50 feet above the water.

As the men stand on the decks and scratch their heads wondering what planes with Japanese rising sun markings are doing here, the first torpedoes splash into the shallow water and propel towards the exposed ships. Then bombs start dropping.

Through the next hour and a half all eight battleships, the pride of the U.S. Navy, are enveloped in fireballs and waterspouts while sailors, many bleeding, broken, and burned, leap into the flaming water.

Meanwhile, farther inland, more Japanese bombers annihilate some 300 American warplanes parked wingtip-to-wingtip on the tarmacs of Hickam and Wheeler fields.

What began as just another dawn in paradise is transformed by two waves of 353 enemy planes into a hellscape. Fires rage and pillars of oily black smoke climb high into the otherwise clear sky. And with each of the 20 vessels hit and set ablaze, sunk, capsized, or run aground, and 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians killed, the rest of the 20th Century and beyond is forever changed.

It is difficult for us to comprehend today, a full eight decades later, how truly galvanic the attack on Pearl Harbor was to a United States that just the day before had been fairly divided about the country’s role in the world. Especially considering that beyond our two shores, over each horizon, wars of conquest and annihilation were raging on three continents.

Japan’s rampage of gore had swept through China, capturing the capital of Nanking, murdering over 200,000 innocents. 

In Europe, Hitler’s victorious Wehrmacht lorded over a Third Reich stretching from the English Channel to North Africa to the gates of Moscow. 

Still embittered over the 116,000 young lives lost during America’s last foray into what was then the Great War of 1914-1918, many Americans wanted no part in this new conflagration. Pearl Harbor changed that. By the time President Roosevelt stood before Congress on December 8 to call for a declaration of war against Japan for its “dastardly” attack, the U.S. was united with a singular purpose: To avenge Pearl Harbor and wipe out the Japanese Empire.

Still, not every democratic world leader was so enraged as FDR. 

In London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was elated. The greatest power of the world, the United States, was now an overt ally. Churchill later recalled that upon hearing the news “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved.” The Briton intuitively understood that with American industrial might and military potential now fully committed, the war was won.

Four days later, the dual thugs Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the United States, the former above the protests of his generals. 

German military men weren’t the only ones to recognize the true implications of what war with America really meant. Ironically, the man who masterminded the operation, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, was feeling as much a sense of foreboding as Churchill was salvation. Having lived in the States for several years, he, too, was well aware of America’s capacity for mass-production. Leading up to the attack, he grimly ascertained his country’s prospects should they be drawn into a protracted war against the United States. “For the first six to twelve months … I will run wild, winning victory after victory. After that time, I have little hope of success.”

Indeed, the U.S. response in the months after Pearl Harbor demonstrated that resilience and adaptability are among our nation’s greatest strengths. 

Consider: of the eight battleships attacked, only three were total losses; Oklahoma and Utah capsized and Arizona exploded. But the others including the sunk California and West Virginia as well as the intentionally beached Nevada, were raised, repaired, and eventually sent back into action. 

Yes, bitter defeats for the Allies at Wake Island, the Philippines, and Singapore lay ahead in early 1942. But almost exactly six months to the day of the attack, Yamamoto’s dire prediction came true at Midway. In one day, American aviators — flying off carriers that luckily had been at sea on December 7 — sent four of Japan’s fleet carriers, along with thousands of trained crews, to the bottom. The rest, as they say, is history.

Speaking of history, particularly history classes, one must wonder how many young Americans today even know what happened on the morning of December 7, 1941. And if they do know, why does it matter on December 7, 2022? The broader answer is that they are part of this nation. They are members of a continuum that is the story of us. A story that begins well before the first shots at Lexington & Concord, through Antietam and Gettysburg, and into the great battles of the last century. By remembering days like December 7th we remember who we are, where we come from, and, as with all such significant historical events, where it can lead us if we are not careful.

In my lifetime, the closest event to Pearl Harbor in shock and scope was 9/11. I can remember the emotions of that day … a bloodlust desire to kill anyone and everyone responsible for this brazen atrocity. For my generation, our version of FDR standing before Congress declaring a “date which will live in infamy” was George W. Bush perched atop the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center, bullhorn in hand, promising that those responsible “will hear all of us soon.”

In retrospect, the stories of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are deeper than one of sneak attacks on an unsuspecting U.S., and punishing the perpetrators. In many ways, they represent bookend moments. In between them we saw America roused like a “sleeping giant,” as Yamamoto called us, to meet the challenges of the shrinking world. We went on to dominate the globe, economically, militarily, and culturally. 

But then the U.S. influence began to recede as the new millennium dawned … a decline symbolized by the destruction of its biggest city’s most prominent edifices at the hands of an enemy with no capital, no borders, no central state upon which to set our vengeful sites. Within those brackets, the U.S. went from 50% to 20% of the world’s GDP, and a series of unnecessary and ill-conceived wars from Asia to the Middle East have sapped our strength. 

The 20th Century has been labeled “The American Century.” If so, then this period of dominance began at Pearl Harbor and came to an end in lower Manhattan.

As with 9/11, Pearl Harbor was a bolt from the blue. And yet, there were warning signs … there always are when you connect the dots backwards in such matters. The main warning should have been visible to those stepping back to see the big picture. 

Why did Japan attack? 

They did not attack in a vacuum or on a whim. The U.S. had imposed a crippling oil embargo in response to Japan’s aggression in China. This effectively cut the island nation off from 80% of its oil imports. As such, Yamamoto’s attack was a desperate gamble to take out the U.S. Pacific fleet and free Japan to wage wars of conquest into the oil and resource-rich European colonies of Southeast Asia unimpeded.

There is a relevant lesson to be learned here. When you flagrantly push totalitarian nations up against a wall, they might conclude they have little choice but to lash out and raise the stakes — even go to war — to protect their interests, which in the 20th and 21st Centuries means securing energy. Fossil fuels remain the lifeblood of nations. 

Aggressively impede a country’s ability to deal in these most valuable commodities and you risk waking up one morning into a changed world — and not for the better. 

The U.S. played a dangerous game with Japan, and paid for it at Pearl Harbor. We are playing just such a game today, goading a perhaps unstable Vladimir Putin through embargoes on his primary product, oil and natural gas, starving him not of energy, as in Japan’s case, but rather hard currency. But the response might be the same. 

The difference is that in December 1941 the atomic bomb was still years in the future. Today there are over 13,000 nukes dotting the globe, many in Russia, with whom we are engaged in a proxy war, blithely tossing matches at a gas can, over a far off country most Americans couldn’t have found on a map a year ago.

No matter. In 1941, most Americans couldn’t have found Pearl Harbor on a map either. Not so after the Japanese strike force winged away back to their carriers, leaving a burning U.S. Pacific Fleet and crippled air force behind it.

As the cliché goes, history doesn’t always repeat, but it sure can rhyme. And if it’s any guide, there is another Pearl Harbor waiting for us out there. One we cannot imagine in detail, but we just know is lurking somewhere in the murk of the remaining decades of the 21st Century. 

It would, therefore, behoove us to remember Pearl Harbor always. Not just because it tells us the story of who we were and are, but also what may lie ahead in a very dangerous world.

In the meantime, as another December 7 comes and goes, it reminds us that time moves inexorably forward.

In 2019, the last chapter Pearl Harbor Survivors Association officially disbanded. Sadly, as the last of our World War II veterans pass away, the lessons they learned die with them. Therefore, it is up to us to guard against falling into what historians call a collective amnesia of comfortable societies. 

If the Japanese surprise attack teaches us anything, it is that peace is often an illusion. If you need clarification, go to the Arizona Memorial. Eighty-one years later, the ghosts still call up to us from their watery grave: Cave Inopinatum.

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, columnist, and author of the best-selling novel “The Extraordinary,” which deals with autism and PTSD and the critically acclaimed World War II novel, “Of Another Time And Place.”

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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