Special Report

Days of Infamy

Marking the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we cannot fail to remember another day of treacherous attack.

By 12.7.11

Bitterly, the lord admiral put the phone down, using all the self-control for which he was renowned to keep himself from slamming it and cursing out the man he had been listening to, Army General Hideki Tojo, chief of the imperial general staff and as close to a military dictator as was possible in a country that deified its emperor.

"My lord?" His loyal adjutant waited for the order.

At 56, imposing and stern and with the iron discipline of a Japanese naval officer, Isoruku Yamamoto gripped his katana, the sword with which the samurai fight and die. He knew there was no appeal. He had lost out in the councils, the emperor had gone with the war party, and this was, as the Americans said -- years at Harvard and in Washington had given him a feel for American English idioms -- it.

Let the heavens help us now, he muttered under his breath, then said in a resolute voice: "Plan Z! I want the first wave in the sky within the hour."

"At your orders, Admiral! What is the code?"

"The code? Ah yes. When the first squadrons meet the enemy, shout: Tiger! Tora! That will inform the second wave to commence its attack formation."

"It will be as you command, Lord Admiral!"

"Go to it, boy. For the Emperor! For Japan!"

Several thousand miles and several time zones to the east, where it was still December 7, Major General Walter Short, the ranking Army officer on Hawaii, was, once again, discussing contingencies with his Navy counterpart, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. "Don't know," he said. "And don't like."

"Check. Anything out of Washington?"

"Not much. If they know more than we know, they're not saying. We can expect more infantry. You expect your transports to reach Manila in what, about a week or two?"

"And then come back for more. The carriers are out there" -- he made a vague gesture toward the west -- "bringing aircraft to the Marines at Wake and Midway. Idea is to show the Japs we're serious. Heard the striped pants are meeting with the Jap ambassador today."

"So what else is new? Well, I'm off to Schofield to read the riot act to some moron of a captain, more interested in his boxing program than defense drills. What do you want, peacetime army."

"Hey -- that your idea to mass the aircraft at the center of runway at Wheeler?"

"Thought it might be a good idea. Protect them from bombardment if they ever sneak some battleships within range."

"Uh-uh. We ought to review. What if there's an air attack?"

"Air attack? You gotta be kidding."

WHY WEREN'T WE PREPARED?

There are answers to the question that every American male has asked at least once, why were we taken by surprise on that morning 70 years ago at Pearl Harbor. And one of the simplest and most vexing is that our radio intercept capabilities were functioning better in Washington, D.C., than at the Hawaii military bases while, ironically, communications between Washington and Admiral Kimmel's H.Q. were technologically primitive.

Washington knew more about Japanese intentions than did Admiral Kimmel, indeed thanks to advances in code breaking the State and War Departments often read the communications of the Imperial war staff ahead of the Japanese ambassador. Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura, himself a full admiral, was due to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull at 1 p.m., and did not know that he was supposed to deliver an ultimatum regarding grievous and, in the argument he was ordered to make, war-justifying differences between the two Pacific powers. In Tokyo, the reasoning was that with the ultimatum delivered, the nearly simultaneous launching of imperial naval air power on Pearl Harbor was legal.

But Hull and Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, reasoned that after the delivery of the ultimatum, which their specialists had intercepted, they should assume some sort of countdown would begin. Of Plan Z, no one in Washington knew the details, even the name.

As he made his way to Foggy Bottom, Nomura thought he was going for another tense but, still, routine game of diplomatic penny ante with Hull. The latter, who was aware of the ultimatum, was preparing to reject it forcefully and gain a little more time -- for he and the president no longer believed America could stay out of the war.

In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the Pacific fleet moved to Pearl Harbor naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu from San Diego, California, because of rising tensions in the eastern Pacific. Forward defense, you may think with some bitterness considering the result -- though think too for a moment of the effect of an attack on San Diego. The Japanese plan, after all, was an early version of Rumsfeldian shock-and-awe. Yamamoto, who knew the U.S. well, did not believe Japan could win a long war. He had opposed a land war in China, the pact with Germany and Italy, and war with the U.S. But my country right or wrong and duty is duty, so he designed the best plan he could. The idea was to hit hard and demoralize the Americans and immediately offer them terms: they would think they were getting a good enough bargain, retain their non-belligerency. More likely, the admiral thought, the destruction of U.S. naval power would give the Empire time to conquer southeast Asia, pushing the Americans out of the Philippines, over-running the British at Singapore and the Dutch in Indonesia, threatening Australia; maybe terms could be offered then. The Japanese militarists, whose leader General Tojo had wrested the premiership in October, like their Nazi counterparts had a low opinion of the fighting spirit in free societies; Yamamoto was not so sure.

Reinforcements were on the way to the Philippines, some 40,000 troops, far fewer than the half-million General Douglas MacArthur said he needed to defend the islands. War news on a daily basis (including rather fanciful news put out by MacArthur) reminded Americans that trouble was coming. Yet as late as September, the year-old America First Committee claimed a million members across a broad range of political opinion that was agreed on the theme of staying out of the war.

Sending the fleet to Pearl could also be seen, let us be fair -- Americans are fair -- as forward offense, from the Japanese point of view, a signal that we really were intent, as their war party had been insisting, on interfering with the necessary, vital, and legitimate pursuit of their national interests in such places as China, Korea, French Indochina. We, by contrast -- in their view -- had through our sanctions blocked the normal management of their brutally conquered and administered possessions -- scarcely better than slave camps -- in Korea beyond, including the renamed Manchukuo where they had installed a puppet ruler who was not the last of the Manchus. We had dared raise our voices in protest at the rape of Nanking, 200,000 massacred, and at their savage behavior generally. The Japs -- this was the universal English language term, used in newspaper headlines, and it was not in itself racist -- despised all non-Japanese, Asian and Western both.

However, it was also more complicated, as politics and war and greed usually are. The Japanese might be a superior race of destiny, but they had concluded an alliance with the Teutons and the Latins. In all the sheer madness of the totalitarian early decades of the 20th century, none perhaps is more outrageous than the racial claims of Italians and Germans, nations in the middle of other nations, formed by successive invasions and migrations over centuries. But in Japan the fascists -- using the term in its popular denotation -- did at least have an ally that due to geography had a history of isolation and, in the hateful fantasies that replace political ideology, a claim to ethnic or racial purity, one that surely caused Hitler and Mussolini horrible carpet-chewing, mouth-foaming outbursts of envy. And this meant that any war involving Japan would also involve Germany and Italy. In fact, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill made plans to visit Roosevelt over Christmas to plan the American rescue of Europe.

The war in Europe, two years on, had expanded eastward into Russia and southward into the Middle East and North Africa. Like the Japanese in the Far East, the Germans and Italians coveted territories rich in the raw materials, notably oil, that they needed to sustain their empire-building militarized states. Not insignificantly, in doing this they encountered empires -- Dutch, French, British -- that employed military power too but whose purposes were primarily commercial not tyrannical and ideological.

This European war, recognized and named global by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle from the start, was, as a practical matter, linked to the rising tensions between the U.S. and Japan. The Nazis despised the mongrel, as they called it, American nation, "half Jewish and half Negro" in their leaders' words, and they believed in a coming showdown. In any case, they were well aware that American supplies to Britain and, since the summer, Russia through the Lend-Lease program meant the U.S. was not neutral.

In keeping with the U.S. position of opposing aggressive tyrannical states, there was an embargo on critical materials for Japan, a matter that the latter protested bitterly. It was, in fact, a principal concern of the diplomatic negotiations that had been taking place on and off for years and that now, in the last weeks of 1941, were at a critical pass.

The first sanctions had been imposed following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and they had been tightened over the years to include aviation fuel (though not oil) and iron. On the political side, the U.S. demanded Japan withdraw from China and cease its military build-up.

As we would say today, the economic sanctions and the political demands amounted to a program for regime change.

WHICH HAS BEEN THE THEME of U.S. foreign policy ever since. The driving idea of the containment doctrine was that Soviet Communism would eventually mellow and desist from aggressive designs, eventually change entirely. The driving idea of American policy in the lands of Islam, at least in their core territories, is that they will respond to various enticements and accept coexistence, eventually friendship, with Western civilization as we still know it.

The enticements we have come up with range from the very friendly, such as allowing oil-producing states in the region to set the terms for the hydrocarbons extraction industry to the very hostile, such as invading Iraq (justified as a pre-emptive strike to deter attacks on ourselves or our allies). What is remarkable is that since 1943, when President Roosevelt met with the tribal leader Abdulaziz Ibn-Saud and got this carrots and sticks game going, we seem to have learned awfully little. There is no other way to explain the utterly befuddled reaction of Western public officials and observers to this past year's wave of unrest in the Arabo-Islamic world and our nearly perfect cluelessness in the Pashtun lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the first days of September 2001, most Americans thought we had a reasonably secure situation in relation to the rest of the world. We had fought a war with Iraq ten years earlier to restore international order, a position so clear that we had partners in the enterprise from amongst Iraq's own neighbors as well as our traditional allies. The position now seemed more or less stable, with a containment policy, complete with sanctions, embargos, and no-fly-zones to keep the surviving outlaw Iraqi regime in its place. At the same time we maintained tense, but evidently sustainable, relations with neighboring Iran, which regularly threatened us (and others) with destruction.

On the morning of September 11, as President Bush visited an elementary school, a commando of mainly Saudi terror operatives received the go-ahead from their commander, a man named Osama bin Laden, to launch a long-planned attack on two vital, as well as highly symbolic, centers of American power, the complex in lower Manhattan called the World Trade Center, and the Defense Department headquarters at the Pentagon in Arlington. The plan, like the Japanese one 60 years earlier based on a misreading of the likely American reaction, was that the shock would lead to a deal centered around the end of U.S. influence in the Muslim world.

Why weren't we prepared?

The short answer is that security measures in civil aviation were inadequate, enabling commercial planes to be hijacked by pirates and used in the attacks. This was despite 30 or more years of experience with airline terrorism. The long answer is that we saw no reasons why Saudis should want to kill us, but to elaborate on this would take us some distance from the memory of Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941 -- a Sunday – when the undetected Japanese task force was only 200 miles from Oahu, regular air patrols were not out over the ocean. On the ground, ammunition was lacking for anti-aircraft batteries which were not manned, and the idea of a surprise attack simply was not taken seriously, even if military planners discussed it as a hypothetical possibility. In a painful illustration of this mind-set, an alert forward radio operator in fact spotted the arriving Japanese attack, only to be told that these were American planes that were expected that day.

The first wave, 181 dive bombers and fighters, struck at 8 a.m., exactly on schedule, hitting the great battleships and Wheeler and Bellows air bases where Gen. Short had massed his planes. The second wave struck less than an hour later. The attack was over by 10 a.m. Two thousand four hundred Americans were killed, including over 50 civilians, most of these due to misfired anti-aircraft shells. The worst blow was the hit on the battleship Arizona, with 1,100 crewmen killed when its munitions magazine blew up.

In Washington, Ambassador Nomura was almost as surprised as Secretary Hull, who could not contain himself -- the ultimatum he expected, not the attack itself -- and yelled at the Japanese diplomat that never had such treachery been seen in the affairs of nations. The ultimatum that Yamamoto had meant to be delivered prior to the attack was still being deciphered at the Japanese embassy. In fact, the botched sequence of events was a shabby legalism and Yamamoto knew very well that he had planned a surprise attack. But he missed all the aircraft carriers, on their way back from Wake and Midway, and they were far more important than battleships in the coming Pacific war. His other mistake was to hold back the third wave, which he believed he needed to protect his carriers and which would have hit the supply depots, notably the oil, and the repair shops. The survival of these facilitated the repairs -- all but two of the eight sunken battleships went back into service -- and, according to Admiral Chester Nimitz, saved perhaps two years of recovery time.

Which began immediately. The sleepy ex-peacetime army was deluged with volunteers. War was declared with only one dissenting vote. The America First committee dissolved itself and declared the only goal now was victory.

YOU CANNOT CHANGE human nature, and comparing the events those years with those just behind us, we cannot but be struck by the similarities. We kept the dangerousness of the world at bay, at least in our minds, during most of the years that followed the end of the Russian threat in its Soviet Communist guise. The restoration of international borders in the first Iraq war was treated almost as an update of 19th century gunboat diplomacy, play by the rules or else, pal (which in fact has a lot to recommend it), and we paid remarkably little attention to the time bombs, the several time bombs, in the Islamic world.

Still, unlike in the years before World War II, we had a big national security and foreign policy establishment in place at the end of the competition with the Soviets. And we received terrible warnings: there was the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, there was the assault on the USS Cole (eerily recalling the US gunboat Passan, which the Japanese navy sank in 1937 in the South China sea in an alleged mishap for which Yamamoto apologized), there were murderous aggressions against military and diplomatic installations in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and elsewhere, such as a Marine base in Lebanon in 1983.

The intentions of the Islamic radicals, gradually becoming known as "Islamists" following the French usage to distinguish them from ordinary believers, were broadcast openly, whether they were functioning as freelancers like Bin Laden or as agents of a state sponsor like Lebanon's Hezbollah. They were just as open in their contempt of us as were the Japanese fascists and the German Nazis. Big wars within Islam, with tens of thousands of victims, such as those in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and in Algeria in the 1990s, warned us that the world was dangerous as ever.

Nonetheless, it all came as a surprise. And so, too, was America's response a surprise to our enemies. On September 11 in the evening, EST, President Bush addressed the nation:

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack … Our first priority is to protect our citizens at home and around the world from further attacks. … We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.

And a few days later, addressing Congress on September 21, he explained the situation as he understood it: 

Tonight, we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.

… we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.…

Almost 60 years earlier, on December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt, too, had become a war president and as such addressed Congress:

Yesterday, December 7th, 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.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

… No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

One of the heroes at Pearl Harbor was Doris "Dorie" Miller, cook (and heavyweight boxing champ) on the USS West Virginia (one of the battleships that was sunk but eventually repaired and sent back to the war), who grabbed a fallen anti-aircraft gun and kept firing even as dive bombers were coming at him and putting torpedoes in the ship's hull. Miller was awarded the Navy Cross by Admiral Nimitz personally, who noted he was the first "member of his race" so honored. He died in action in the Gilberts in 1943, aboard the escort carrier Liscome Bay. Manning Kimmel, the admiral's son, went down with his submarine off the Philippines island of Palawan.

Men like these made that "absolute victory," perhaps not inevitable, but most likely, as did the men who went after Osama bin Laden and persisted until they found him and killed him, as they have done to his deputies and his followers. Admiral Yamamoto went down with his aircraft in 1943, ambushed by American fighter planes following a radio intercept. At the crash site he was found gripping his katana.

Today, though, we can give some thoughts to those of our people who were lost on those days of infamy. Nearly 3.000 sailors and soldiers were killed during the two waves of Japanese attacks involving over 300 planes. In the attack on the World Trade Center, 2,600 were killed. Three hundred fifty New York City firefighters and 25 New York City policemen gave their lives to rescue and protect others during the attack. One hundred thirty military personnel and civilian employees were killed at the Pentagon.

We remember the great global war as one in which our nation was united and purposeful, and while this is a fair memory, we should not let the more ambiguous nature of today's conflict enervate us or undercut our will to prevail against our enemies and preserve the last and best hope for a free civilization on this earth. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.