The war that we have carefully for years provoked Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.
Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.
Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.
The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.
Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.
Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.
At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.
At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.
At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.
Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?
As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”
It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.
So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.