A surprised and outraged Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy.” But Dec. 7, 1941, may also be remembered as one of the great turning points (for the better) in world history. It had the startling effect of rousing a sleeping giant (the United States) into purposeful action, and that was the primary factor in stopping the forces of evil from cruising to an easy triumph in World War II. In Churchill’s words, the world was trembling on the edge of “a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
The Japanese Imperial Navy struck Pearl Harbor in two waves beginning at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time. Japanese aircraft destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific fleet and killed a total of 2,403 Americans – which compares to the 2,605 Americans and 372 U.S. residents from other countries who lost their lives in the surprise attack on the United States launched by al-Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001.
As the Japanese readied for their attack, Hitler was sitting pretty – perilously close to winning a two-front war. Having already conquered France and other smaller European nations in 1940, German troops scored one victory after another against the poorly equipped and outmanned British Army in Southern Europe and North Africa in 1941. “Evacuation going fairly well – that’s all we’re really good at!” Alexander Cadogan, at the British Foreign Office, observed in his diary during the British withdrawal from Greece. “Our soldiers are the most pathetic amateurs, pitted against professionals.”
Things looked no better on the eastern front – with the German army on the outskirts of Moscow. In three parallel offenses, German forces invaded Russia in late June – sweeping across the vast countryside with the same lightning speed that marked the earlier invasions of Poland and Western Europe. Desperately short of every kind of war materiel from boots and rifles to tanks and planes, the Russian army was saved by the onset of winter.
Pearl Harbor changed everything – ending the long, enfeebling debate inside the U.S. between isolationists and interventionists. Suddenly, America was at war, and almost everyone – from FDR on down to Charles Lindbergh, hitherto an arch isolationist – agreed that this was a war that had to be fought with everything we had. Overnight Lindbergh turned from dove to hawk. Though unable to regain the Army Air Corps commission which he had resigned in April 1941, Lindbergh flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific Theater as a civilian consultant.
Within days of Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of Americans made up their minds to join the armed forces. That included the two oldest sons of Joseph Kennedy, another isolationist and outspoken advocate of the appeasement of Nazi Germany, whose departure from London where he had served as U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s was a major addition by subtraction for both Roosevelt and Churchill. The older Kennedy left England in October 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, which reduced much of London and other cities to rubble.
My late father – then 24, a reporter with The Kansas City Star, with a wife and baby daughter – was one of the many who rushed to serve. He failed his first Navy physical – being exceedingly thin – but passed the second time after gorging on food and water. He was one of the “ninety-day wonders” – sent to officer training school for just 90 days of rigorous physical and classroom training – and went on to skipper a submarine chaser that saw action along the eastern seaboard, off the coast of North Africa, and in the North Atlantic.
If any disaster may be called a good disaster, it was Pearl Harbor, which awakened America with a violent start and averted what might easily have been the greatest setback to human freedom, joy, and advancement in world history.
Andrew B. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute.