Pearl Harbor Revisited

Dan van der Vat discusses Jerry Bruckheimer's 2001 film Pearl Harbor and the lessons the US has learned from the attack.

Jerry Bruckheimer’s film Pearl Harbor was released in 2001. As Hollywood celebrates in its own inimitable way the impending anniversary of the Japanese attack, what lessons have Americans chosen to learn from the history of December 7th, 1941, before Disney rewrote it – and are they are the right ones?

By all accounts the film, blessed with a budget of Titanic proportions, gives Americans a taste of the blithe distortions perpetrated on British history in that epic, as well as in The Patriot, Braveheart and in that other mockery of Second World War naval history, U-571. There is every sign that the Americans, especially veterans, like it no more than Britons do.

In my researching my book Pearl Harbor – The Day of Infamy I was struck once again, ten years after I wrote The Pacific Campaign for the fiftieth anniversary, by how deeply the disaster had penetrated the American psyche despite the overwhelming US victory in 1945, and how powerful it remains as a folk-memory, with demonstrable influence on the foreign and defence policy of past and present Washington administrations. 

To recount what actually happened blow by blow, as in the exhaustive Tora, Tora, Tora!, is one thing; to use the event as the backdrop to an avowed fiction, as in From Here to Eternity, is equally legitimate. But to play fast and loose with history by presenting fiction as fact is at best confusing and at worse dangerous – especially when the event is still within living memory, affects current policy and needs to be understood by the young if the lessons of history are to be truly learned.      

On Roosevelt’s ‘date that will live in infamy’, six Japanese carriers launched 350 aircraft to immobilise the US battlefleet at the very moment talks were due to resume in Washington. The Americans knew Japan’s propensity for surprise attack (Korea in 1895, the Russians’ Chinese enclave at Port Arthur in 1904, Manchuria in 1931, China in 1937). They were forewarned by their Tokyo embassy of the inclusion of Pearl Harbor in Japan’s war-plans, and they intercepted signals exposing its intentions. Yet the Japanese achieved strategic surprise. But their strategic blunder in not bombing repair facilities and fuel dumps spared the US Navy the crippling embarrassment of having to withdraw 2,200 miles eastward to the continental West Coast.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, identified the US battlefleet as the only force capable of obstructing Japan. He wanted to immobilise it for six months, to present the Americans with the fait accompli of a greater Japanese empire by the time they were ready to negotiate. And so it might well have turned out, had the Tokyo junta not been tempted to improve on the perfection of such swift triumphs as the fall of Singapore and Java. In seeking to extend their new perimeter even further they incurred the destruction of their best carriers at Midway, six months after Pearl Harbor almost to the day – the turning point in the Pacific war.

Initial American reaction to Pearl Harbor included not only rage at Japanese duplicity but also incredulity based on racism. Many witnesses insisted they had seen swastikas on the bombers; surely the Germans must have been behind such a sophisticated stroke. Inability to cope with the reality of America’s most spectacular lost battle led to a flourishing conspiracy industry which sprang up within hours of the bombing.

Even today, extreme revisionists claim that British frogmen came in on the midget Japanese submarines that almost gave the game away by trying to attack before the bombers. That at least one batch of intelligence intercepts from 1941 has not yet been released is taken as proof that they must conceal the ‘smoking gun’ the revisionists so stubbornly seek to this day.

A popular song entitled ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ swept the US within weeks. The attack was the first serious assault on American territory since the early years of the republic. The cry of ‘never again’ translated into an abiding fear of pre-emptive strikes (including readiness during the Cold War to carry out a nuclear one of their own to avoid another Pearl Harbor).

The Congressional inquiry into Pearl Harbor castigated, inter alia, intelligence failures in 1941. Among the post-war countermeasures was the foundation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the much more elaborate National Security Agency, forever eavesdropping at home and abroad for whispers of surprise attack by ‘rogue states’ or by a terrorist fifth column within the gates.

The US, always in the vanguard of ideological opposition to Communism, was all the keener to confront it worldwide so as to maintain the territorial inviolability it was determined to have and to hold. Korea (1950-53), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and then Indo-China, America’s first lost war (1975), ensued.

In the 1980s many Americans stuck to the domino theory, believing that if Communists were allowed to expand outside the Soviet bloc and China, they would soon overrun the White House.

Britain had enjoyed immunity from major attack, thanks to the Channel, until the age of the bomber; America lost its territorial immunity to the nuclear missile within a few short years of its greatest victory in 1945. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union has not reduced that threat in the minds of American strategists – on the contrary. The angst, it seems, is permanent.

Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or ‘Star Wars’) was a stratospherically expensive and ultimately abortive attempt to regain immunity for Fortress America from missile attack. George W. Bush wants a National Missile Defense (NMD or ‘Son of Star Wars’) as a ‘limited’ protection against rogue states such as Iraq, Libya and North Korea. Not to mention China.

This looks counterproductive by threatening to undermine the fragile network of nuclear arms limitation and associated treaties built up over a generation. It has unsettled not only Russia, heir to the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal, but also many of Washington’s Western allies. Not to mention China.

But Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to go further and put killer-satellites in orbit, to prevent an aggressor from knocking out the satellites on which US defences depend. In pressing for an overkill system potentially deadlier than today’s ultimate weapon, the ballistic-missile submarine, Rumsfeld expressly warned against ‘another Pearl Harbor’.

There can be no denying that America has never recovered from the shock of December 7th, 1941 – or that many in Washington will go to any lengths to obey the 1941 cry, ‘never again’.

Dan Van der Vat’s is the author of Pearl Harbor – Day of Infamy, an Illustrated History (Perseus Books).

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