“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address, Dec. 8, 1941
If you have been to Oahu, the island in Hawaii that is home to Pearl Harbor, you know how big the sky can be over the Pacific. A Sunday morning on the deep-water Navy port can be pretty quiet. It was even quieter on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 — until all hell broke loose.
Japanese naval and air forces launched a devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, dragging our nation into World War II. America’s entry into the war spurred a generation to overcome through courage and sacrifice, and reshaped our nation to make it a global superpower.
The attack destroyed or damaged 19 Navy ships, including eight battleships; destroyed 169 planes; and left 2,403 people dead. Of the dead, 1,177 were from the battleship USS Arizona. The ship remains at the bottom of the harbor, a memorial to remind us of the devastation wrought by the sneak attack on a U.S. territory.
But it is important to remember the attack for more than its devastation and loss of life. The attack has lessons to teach us.
• The danger of isolationism. The U.S. on the brink of World War II worked diligently to stay on the fringes and to base most of its international relations on trade with a side of diplomacy. Given the rise of fascism and Japan’s hunger for land and resources, trying to remain at arm’s length didn’t help us or those who became our allies.
• The risk of hubris. Overweening pride led to Japan’s errors. The empire thought that the strike planned by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto would knock the U.S. on its heels and take it out of action for at least a year. Yamamoto warned that a long-term campaign against the U.S. was doomed. Leaders assumed that knocking out the Pacific Fleet would cripple and demoralize America. The U.S. made the same error in that it anticipated a Japanese strike as diplomacy failed, yet assumed Japan wouldn’t dare to hit Hawaii. The Navy therefore moved the fleet there from San Diego. The U.S. was lucky that the carrier force was underway during the strike, sparing the carriers and shifting U.S. naval power away from the sunken battleships to aircraft carriers.
• The power of unity. America came together in the wake of the attack and the declaration of war, working and sacrificing to rebuild and expand our military capabilities on the sea, land and in the air. We joined with other embattled nations to create strong alliances that defeated the Axis powers and that continue to shape our world today.
• The shame of fear and racism. The internment of Japanese Americans and to a lesser extent Italian and German immigrants without evidence was fear making us abandon our principles. Additionally, Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller bravely manned an unfamiliar anti-aircraft gun on the USS West Virginia during the attack and shot down as many as six Japanese planes. He was the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. Yet African Americans, Japanese Americans and Native Americans continued to be second-class citizens at home, despite serving in some of the most decorated units in our armed forces.