Pearl Harbor Attack: 80th Anniversary of Infamy

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Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at the Ford Island seaplane base as the destroyer USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. (U.S. Navy/National Archives/Handout via Reuters )

Eighty years ago today, out of the clear blue sky of an Oahu Sunday morning, the navy of the Empire of Japan launched a pre-emptive surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in what was then the territory of Hawaii. The attack commenced at 7:48 a.m. local time, which was mid-day on the East Coast. Before Pearl Harbor’s defenses could be roused — there had been a party the night before, as nobody expected trouble — Japanese planes descended raining bombs; 2,335 Americans were killed in a war in which they thought their country was still neutral. The dead were mostly sailors, half of them on the USS Arizona, one of four battleships sunk that morning. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost 64 men. It was, as Franklin D. Roosevelt branded it, “a day that will live in infamy.” The infamy lives on.

Pearl Harbor has, like many such pivotal turning points, attracted its share of controversies:

  • Japan attacked without advance notice, and only delivered its notification of breaking off diplomatic talks after the battle had started. That notice was lengthy and delayed in translation and transmission. Was the delay just a foul-up, or did elements of the Japanese government purposely seek to catch Americans entirely by surprise?
  • FDR was tightening the screws on Japan, including an oil embargo imposed in the summer of 1941. He was increasingly pushing the United States towards more involvement in the war in Europe. Did the U.S. government know more about the looming Japanese threat than it let on from the fragmentary intelligence it had available? Did it share some responsibility for the onset of war, or was it at least negligent in not having Pearl Harbor on higher alert?
  • Was Japan’s war with the United States, which proved ruinous, avoidable, such that Pearl Harbor should be seen as a catastrophic mistake? Or was a confrontation inevitable — and if so, was the military advantage of a surprise attack outweighed by the cost of convincing the world that Japan was wholly in the wrong?
  • Was Nazi Germany foolhardy in declaring war on the U.S. immediately in solidarity with its Japanese ally, or would FDR have been able to get Congress to add a declaration of war against Hitler as well?
  • Was it necessary for the Japanese Navy to retreat from the scene so quickly, having failed to destroy the American carrier fleet or the fuel tanks at Pearl Harbor?

The historical what-ifs and who-knew-what-and-whens, however, are beside the point to the instant, world-changing impact of the battle. Japan’s war in Asia, already four years old, suddenly took on a dramatic new character. American public opinion was galvanized, with recruiting stations mobbed the next day and dissent from the decision to join the war having all but evaporated in a day. American thirst for retribution against Japan was not satisfied until the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Few of the victors at Pearl Harbor lived to see the end of the war. Four of the six Japanese aircraft carriers involved in the attack were sunk or permanently disabled at the Battle of Midway seven months later. The attack’s architect, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was shot down by American planes in April 1943. The fifth carrier, the Shōkaku, was torpedoed and sunk in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. The sixth carrier, the Zuikaku, was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. The bulk of the Japanese pilots were lost with their carriers or shot down in combat.

With Bob Dole’s death at age 98 on Sunday, the generation that fought the Second World War has almost entirely left us. Dole was the most prominent combat veteran of the war still living; a few others remain, such as Henry Kissinger, Mel Brooks, and James Buckley. Col. Edward Shames, the last of the “Band of Brothers” of the 101st Airborne immortalized by Stephen Ambrose and the HBO series, died Friday at 99. The number of living Pearl Harbor veterans is dwindling. Even the people with living memories of the war from their childhoods have been departing in their eighties and nineties. Before long, the war will have entirely departed living memory. But the infamy will remain.

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