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 — which, as Churchill put it, would have led to “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 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes all but wiped out the U.S. Pacific fleet of eight battleships (sinking four and damaging four others), sank or damaged three cruisers and three destroyers, destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft, 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 September 11, 2001.
On the eve of the 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 Greece, Crete, and northern Africa in 1941. “Evacuation going fairly well — that’s all we’re really good at!” Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary of the British Foreign Office, sardonically 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 camped on the outskirts of Moscow. Germany had invaded Russia in late June. In three parallel offenses, German forces swept across Russia with the same lightning speed that marked the earlier invasions of Poland and Western Europe. Desperately short of every kind of war material from boots and rifles to tanks and planes, the Russia army was on the brink of defeat — saved only 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. Lindbergh begged Roosevelt for a chance to serve in the Army Air Corps, and though the president refused to help him, Lindbergh found a way to become involved in training U.S. airmen and he managed to join them on bombing raids later on in the Pacific.
Within days of the “infamous” attack, 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 newspaper man in Kansas City, 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 seacoast and later off 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.