A Misremembered Day of Infamy
US Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 (wikicommons)

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Brian Stewart
Brian Stewart
10 min read

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties.

This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home and their increasingly tenuous attachment to high purposes abroad. It isn’t quite that Pearl Harbor Day has somehow been forgotten, but that its animating spirit—the marrow-deep understanding among previous generations that America’s weakness had left the world in dire peril—has gone missing. This attenuated sense of global responsibility is a sign that something has gone amiss in American higher learning, and has seeped into the nation’s popular culture. A historical event as dramatic as the attack on Pearl Harbor may still be dimly remembered, but its deeper meaning has been lost.

This is not a minor problem for a nation whose pre-eminence among nations is in danger of slipping from its grasp. The United States needs to develop the political culture to uphold the concept of international responsibility. Retrieving the memory and proper meaning of Pearl Harbor, which initially introduced Americans to the hazards of isolation from the world, is a necessary precondition for Americans reacquiring the understanding and confidence to fulfill the important duties that lie beyond our borders. Without this historical sense, the past will be lost and with it any prospect of future success for the world Americans live in.

Pearl Harbor was a rude awakening to the harsh realities of an increasingly interconnected world. After the sinking of America’s Pacific fleet, which the Japanese hoped would knock America out of a war it had not yet entered, the nation rallied to the flag to purge the world of European fascism and Japanese militarism. It was these forces that had begun to turn the world into a landscape of acute misery and potent menace, effectively banishing the “America First” movement in American politics.

Many decades later, of course, Donald Trump attempted to resurrect it, the chief result of which has been to pollute and diminish the Republicans’ internationalist tradition, and to accelerate the world’s post-American future. America First 2.0 did appreciable harm to American interests in the world and now lies in ruins, but there isn’t a remotely coherent sense in the nascent Biden administration or the opposition party, much less in the country at large, of what should replace it.

In the decades between America’s feeble and quiescent posture that predated Pearl Harbor and the advent of Trump, the US had generally played the part of a mighty imperial republic in world affairs, defending international norms while deterring and occasionally punishing global predators. There is now a real fatigue for this imperial enterprise felt by the American public and by some influential sections of the foreign and defense policy elite in Washington. Before abandoning the mantle of global leadership, however, it behooves Americans and their representatives to recall why they took it up in the first place.

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The presidential contest of 1940 between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie was closer than many Americans care to recall. While vast tracts of Europe and Asia were consumed by war, the United States had maintained a discreet distance from the battlefield carnage. Both presidential candidates promised to keep it that way—public opinion was determined to steer clear of the excruciating agonies that were besetting the Old World. In a Gallup poll published on October 22nd, 1939—seven weeks after the outbreak of the war on European soil—95 percent of Americans said they wanted to stay out of the fight, but 62 percent responded positively when asked if they thought “the United States should do everything possible to help England and France win the war except go to war ourselves.”

Roosevelt had been an elusive and mercurial leader, but his close relationship with the British prime minister and his maneuverings to send aid to an embattled Britain, made him effectively the candidate for the latter position. Willkie, in his opposition to involving America even tangentially in another global conflict (to say nothing of his undisguised disdain for Churchill), was a more stalwart proponent of the former. Solidarity with the enemies of the German Reich had to be weighed against the over-riding principle of non-intervention that had been the default setting in American diplomacy since the end of the previous war.

Even after the Nazi onslaught that eviscerated France had been turned against Britain, the presidential candidates evinced an allergy to delivering anything more than words of sympathy for America’s faltering allies. “Let me say to you, if you elect me president of the United States, no American boys will ever be sent to the shambles of the European trenches,” Willkie told audiences in the autumn of 1940. Likewise pandering to provincial and xenophobic opinion, Roosevelt spoke in Boston a week before the election. “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: ‘Your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars.’” It was customary for Roosevelt to issue a qualifier: “except in case of attack.” This time he didn’t. When Sam Rosenman, a presidential speechwriter, challenged his boss about abandoning the caveat, Roosevelt replied testily: “Of course we’ll fight if we’re attacked. If somebody attacks us, then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?”

If there was any irony in this retort, it came partly at FDR’s expense—and all those who indulged the isolationist conceit about self-contained foreign conflagrations in the first instance. Of course, the very notion of “foreign wars” that would tear Europe and Asia asunder while leaving the United States materially or morally unscathed was grossly misconceived. How much more obvious was it that America would defend itself under attack than that Europe under Nazi rule—or uncontested Japanese dominance in the Pacific—would be intolerable to American interests and American principles alike? No one who understood the vicious totalitarian ideology animating the Axis Powers, or how modern technology had defeated geography, would find themselves persuaded by this false dichotomy.

In time, FDR came to fully comprehend these stakes. Near the end of his life, he spoke of the lessons Americans had drawn from “the agony of war.” The essential lesson about the immense undertaking in which the United States was engaged, he argued, was that “great power involves great responsibility.” What did this principle mean in the real world? First and foremost, that Americans and their way of life could not prosper in a world dominated by hostile authoritarian powers. “Today we can no more escape the consequences of German and Japanese aggression than could we avoid the consequences of attacks by the Barbary corsairs a century and a half before.”

When that aggression against the United States materialized, the terrible war that so many Americans imagined, or hoped, to be “foreign” suddenly manifested in their midst. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor would be a historic turning point, when the smallness of the world, and its potential for lethal menace, became etched in the American mind. The attack would “live in infamy,” but its shattering of American complacency would prove no less lasting. It served a clarion warning for future generations of Americans that, as Arthur Vandenberg famously remarked, “our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts.”

The United States could never again observe an idle division between the American world and the foreign world. If the oceans no longer protected our ramparts, it was also true that our ramparts were not restricted to American soil. If the history of the interwar years was any guide, what happened abroad was liable to disturb Americans’ quality of life at home. Thus if America did not defend the welfare of others, it would find its own welfare imperiled. Although this new strategic orientation was devised in pursuit of national interests, the approach transcended traditional notions of national interest. It entailed the creation and defense of a liberal international order that would not only assure America’s immediate physical and economic security, but that would breed what Dean Acheson called “an environment of freedom” around the world.

Some critics never came around to this understanding. A few of the most prominent were conservative Republicans, led by Senator Robert Taft. “We should be prepared to defend our own shores,” Taft warned, “but we should not undertake to defend the ideals of democracy in foreign countries.” Otherwise the United States would become a “meddlesome Mattie, interfering in trouble throughout the world,” with “our fingers in every pie.” It would “occupy all the strategic points in the world and try to maintain a force so preponderant that none shall dare attack.” He was against such an immense concentration of power. “Potential power over other nations, however benevolent its purpose, leads inevitably to imperialism.”

Despite prewar claims that it was none of America’s business who ruled Eurasia, the catastrophe that ensued powerfully suggested that America’s principles as well as its prosperity were at stake in the global struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Some conservative critics, then as now, contest this central lesson, and cling to the claim that global involvement only promises to embroil America in a dizzying array of conflicts. This profound critique of American predominance holds many in thrall, now more than ever. But it is grounded in the same fatal conceit that animated early opponents of American hegemony: that America had nothing especially to worry about, morally or strategically, in the human condition beyond its borders. This argument had been made explicitly—and has been repeated in our day—regarding the Nazi takeover of Europe, and imperial Japan’s march across the Indo-Pacific.

As a matter of empirical record, this was and remains rubbish. One need only revisit Nicholas Spykman’s old but still-relevant treatise, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, to grasp the paucity of this kind of thinking. Written during World War II, it claimed that the geographical position of the United States was at once a blessing and a curse, granting it space to develop its expansive economy but also cutting it off from the harsh realities abroad that certain atavistic forces weren’t amenable to adjudication or argument. Since modernity had defeated distance, a strategy premised on rigorously enforcing the Monroe Doctrine—i.e., preventing the penetration of the Western Hemisphere by foreign powers—was desperately naive. Hoping to arrest the rise of totalitarian states that patently harbored imperial ambitions would leave a democratic America isolated and vulnerable to hostile and powerful regimes. Acheson poignantly described this disengaged strategy as the equivalent of “sitting in the parlor with a loaded shotgun, waiting.”

Eliot Cohen echoed this argument in his masterful essay “The Strategy of Innocence: The United States, 1920–1945.” In the interwar years, the combination of modern instrumentalities of warfare and the expansion of aggressive totalitarian dictatorships was not merely an affront to American principles but an emerging danger to American security. Since Japanese airpower was within striking distance of the Panama Canal (to say nothing of US bases in the Pacific), “the requirements of hemispheric defense” demanded a wider deployment of larger, more flexible military forces. In similar ways, “the possibility of a Nazi occupation of Britain and of German control of the Royal Navy represented serious threats to the United States.” (In 1939 and 1940, army and navy planners even prepared for an intervention in Brazil to head off the creation of a Nazi satellite regime in the tropics.)

Before its entry into the war, then, the United States stood on the strategic defensive. It frantically shored up its defenses while sending arms to countries valiantly resisting Hitler’s armies. “In order to avoid defeat” in the war, Cohen writes, “the United States had to sustain its allies on a vast scale; in order to win, it had to embark on the most extensive strategic offensives in history.” In the first half of the 20th century, Asians or Europeans struggled in vain to keep the peace without the deep involvement of the United States.

By the end of the war, it was patently obvious that the world—or at least those parts of it that shared Americans’ worldview—could scarcely afford continued American impotence or abstention. If armed defensiveness wasn’t a credible strategy, the alternative was for the United States to pursue armed dominance. It needed a forward defense, in other words, to establish “situations of strength” and a “preponderance of power” in critical locations (especially in Eastern Asia and Western Europe) in order to prevent any aggressive authoritarian empire from emerging to control the Eurasian landmass. The national elite in the United States recognized this painful truth, and what it might entail. As early as 1938, Truman acknowledged that the world was becoming a more dangerous place on account of Americans having shirked “our responsibility as a world power.” Henceforth, FDR declared, “we, as Americans, do not choose to deny our responsibility.”

Today, however, Americans no longer seem so sure. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially in the aftermath of America’s costly and messy post-9/11 wars in the greater Middle East, this entire intellectual foundation of US foreign policy has come under pervasive and sustained scrutiny. A large part of this scrutiny springs from a misunderstanding of America’s place in the world since 1945, and the purpose of its power.

After World War Two, for reasons of self-defense as much as self-respect, Washington needed a broader conception of its interests that would extend its security frontier in the world. It is often forgotten that this grand strategy did not arise with the specter of geopolitical competition against the Soviet Union, and did not disappear with its collapse. Nor was it directed toward any particular new or emerging threat. Rather, the new internationalist approach was forged chiefly in response to what had befallen the world in the preceding decades.

The fresh memories of Pearl Harbor were then abundant proof of the dangers of a world without a benevolent hegemon. A new order was required to prevent a reversion to the strategic circumstances that had driven a ruthless cycle of geopolitical competition and interstate violence in critical areas of the globe. After the war, some envisioned the world moving forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But more modest and realistic minds sought to arrest the slide into a new dark age. And for that, American global dominance had to begin in earnest.

The urgent question in our distracted age is how much longer it will last. Only by remembering the world in which Pearl Harbor came about, and salvaging our forefathers’ tragic sensibility, can we avoid entering a world in which modern imperial states rise to positions of power that we find we cannot tolerate.

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Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy.