Have the Lessons of Pearl Harbor Been Forgotten?

As America remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor that occurred 75 years ago today, I have to wonder how well we remember the lessons of that day of infamy. Everyone remembers the Japanese sneak attack that Sunday morning, but not everyone remembers the events that led to war.

Two of the factors that resulted in the destruction of the American Pacific fleet are rearing their heads in modern American policy. First was American military weakness that was not widely recognized at the time. Second was an attitude of isolationism that was brought on by the economic malaise of the Great Depression. There are parallels to both in 2016.

After WWI, the “war to end all wars,” the American military was placed on the back burner. Particularly after the onset of the Great Depression, the US military was placed behind FDR’s public works projects in importance. While the federal government built national parks and post offices, the army and navy languished.

As Japan and Germany built up their armed forces in the 1930s, the New Deal gave them a head start of almost a decade. At the beginning of WWII, the US Army was smaller than the army of Portugal at about 180,000 men. The air force, which was then part of the army, had only a few hundred planes, many of which were already obsolescent. In 1941, the US Navy had only six aircraft carriers to split between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They faced a fleet of 10 new Japanese carriers.

The situation is analogous to today’s American military. The Heritage Foundation recently found that the US armed forces were understrength and weak after years of protracted wars and budget cuts. Modernization has been sacrificed to maintain current strength while potential adversaries like Russia and China have both expanded and modernized their forces.

Isolationism grew from the Great Depression as well, but had roots that ran deeper. After WWI, Congress rejected American membership in the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. While the US actively intervened in Central America, Americans did not want to involve themselves in European or Asian politics. Protectionist policies like the Smoot-Hawley tariff served to both further isolate America from the world while at the same time preventing economic recovery.

America first,” a slogan heard on both sides of the political aisle this year, was also a popular phrase in the 1930s. When President Roosevelt felt it necessary to intervene against Japanese aggression in China and Nazi aggression in Europe, he could not do so openly due to opposition at home. Father Charles Coughlin and aviator Charles Lindbergh were among the celebrities who whipped up isolationist sentiment against American involvement overseas.

Today, political figures on both sides of the aisle have argued against American involvement against aggressive and expansionist governments. It was Republican opposition that derailed President Obama’s plan to intervene against Assad in Syria, a failure that led to the protracted civil war and more instability in the region. Donald Trump removed the plank from the Republican platform that called for lethal aid for Ukraine in its fight against insurgents backed by Vladimir Putin. China is building islands in the South China Sea that will become military bases while the United States does nothing.

Pearl Harbor was the result of a perfect storm of military weakness and inward-looking policies that allowed dictatorships to flourish. When tyrants like Hitler thought that no one dared oppose them, they decided to expand their borders. The desire to avoid war at all costs while failing to maintain military readiness eventually led to a war that cost millions of lives. Tragically, these lessons of Pearl Harbor appear to have been forgotten.





Do Not Forget Pearl Harbor

Seventy-five years ago on this date, on a bright Sunday morning in the island paradise of Oahu, Japanese warplanes bombed, torpedoed and strafed American ships, aircraft, sailors, soldiers, Marines, civilians and facilities in and around Pearl Harbor. A total of 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded. From a legal perspective, none of the casualties were combatants, since the attack occurred before a state of war existed.

Before the aircraft did their deadly deed, the Japanese delegation was supposed to deliver Japan’s Final Memorandum to the United States, an ultimatum required by international law. The memorandum was in fact delivered at 2:20 p.m. Eastern time, well after the attack had begun.

Common history has the reason for the delay as administrative incompetence, but at least one researcher believes the delay was intentional.

“Study on Pearl Harbor diplomacy has been neglected, to my surprise, for half a century,” [former Japanese Ambassador Takeo Iguchi] said. He called for a “reinvestigation, a reappraisal, a search of original materials.”

Iguchi, known as a scholar and serious researcher into Japanese war and diplomatic history, made those remarks in 2006.

The Japanese memorandum, a response to the American proposal of November 26, ends thusly:

Thus, the earnest hope of the Japanese Government to adjust Japanese-American relations and to preserve and promote the peace of the Pacific through cooperation with the American Government has finally been lost.

The Japanese Government regrets to have to notify hereby the American Government that in view of the attitude of the American Government it cannot but consider that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.

In fact, on the very day the Japanese received the American proposal, their fleet, which had been preparing for months, left port for Hawaii. Supposedly, should negotiations succeed, the fleet would “immediately put about and return to the homeland.” Of course, no negotiations were conducted until 2:20 p.m. on December 7th. The bombs falling on our fleet was the Japanese answer.

We must not forget when dealing with foreign powers, that they do not choose to play by our “rules” or the international order of things when they decide to take on the sleeping giant.

America must not fall to the smug belief that we are somehow superior, better informed, and supernaturally defended against treachery of the highest order. The world is decidedly a less safe place than it was eight years ago, and less safe than we thought it was on September 10, 2001. Yet we navel-gaze and focus on our “rights.”

Those rights do not exist in a vacuum. They were secured by the blood of every American soldier who fought and died in battle from Lexington Green to Appomattox Court House, to Iwo Jima, to Fallujah and Bagram. They are enshrined in the still-oily water above the U.S.S. Arizona’s sleeping hull, where 1,102 sailors and Marines rest.

We must not forget the lessons learned on this day 75 years ago. In a world where nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are being developed by rogue states and nations who consider America the “Great Satan,” we cannot forget that the spectacular play, the knock-out swing, the sucker punch, is typically the strategy of choice for those who wish to take on the world’s super power.

And when that happens (not “if” in the sense of they don’t stop trying simply because we keep foiling their plans), we should be prepared better than Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was on a bright sunny Sunday morning on the island paradise of Oahu.

I took the photo at the top of this post on November 28, 2008. It was the day after Thanksgiving. The photo is of the American flag flying above the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, taken through the skylight. As I took the picture, I noticed in the distance, over the Ford Island Bridge, a rainbow in the sky. God keeps His covenant to never again destroy mankind. We must be responsible to keep our own covenant to oppose evil.

President Obama, You Remembered Hiroshima, Do Not Forget Pearl Harbor

The American presidency has developed influence beyond those enumerated in our Constitution. As America’s power and prestige has grown, so has a president’s ability to color world opinion. It’s the bully pulpit that Theodore Roosevelt was fond of referring to. President Obama used the power and prestige of his office this past week to bring attention to Hiroshima, the place where the United States dropped an atomic bomb and hastened the end for Japan in World War II.

Presidents bring a view of America and the world to office with them. President Obama has spent his presidency nurturing his view of America as an oppressive power and has taken every opportunity to make amends for this characterization.

The president danced carefully last week not to advertise his visit as an American apology for our use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end that terrible and costly war, but here in New Hampshire, it sure did feel like an apology to me.

President Obama and I are the same age, our birthday only two weeks apart. It has surprised me since I first became aware of the junior senator from Illinois, that his and our view of America and the world could not be more different. I grew up believing that the American people were good and generous and that democracy, free market capitalism, and rugged individualism were the genuine best path to peace and prosperity.

With this year’s Memorial Day remembrance upon us, it is sad that I wonder if our president has any plans to bookend his Japan tour with one to Hawaii to commemorate the 75’th anniversary of Pearl Harbor this December.

World War II became real to our people on the first Sunday in December, 1941. It is an honor and duty for a sitting president to remember and commemorate the heroics and sacrifice demonstrated by our service men and women and citizenry at that time and place.

There are a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors left.

During the 50th anniversary of Japan’s attack, then-President George H.W. Bush offered heartfelt remarks honoring the young men of his generation who demonstrated great valor at Pearl Harbor. He spoke of a “bright Sunday morning” where “thousands of troops slept soundly in their bunks. Some who were awake looked out and savored the still and tranquil harbor”. He spoke of how a far away war becomes real, in “one horrible instant”.

He spoke of the Arizona.

Every 15 seconds a drop of oil still rises from the Arizona and drifts to the surface. As it spreads across the water, we recall the ancient poet: “In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God” With each drop, it is though God Himself were crying.

Only 334 of a full complement of over 1500 officers and crew of the Arizona survived that day. The last surviving officer of the Arizona, Ensign Joseph Langdell, passed in 2014. He was 100 years of age. His obituary said he was born in my home state of New Hampshire. He was born the same year the hull of the Arizona was laid down in the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard.

Mr. Langdell started his career as a junior accountant in Boston before patriotism got the best of him and he enlisted in the navy in 1940 in response to the war raging in Europe. His decision to serve brought him to Pearl Harbor and the battleship Arizona.

You can count on one hand the number of surviving crew of the Arizona.

Last Thursday another survivor passed. Adolph Hengl, an aircraft maintenance officer aboard the Tennessee left us, aged 99. His ship was moored next to the Arizona. As he tells it, he came out to the Quarter Deck as a bomb exploded sending him flying into a metal wall.

Bush concluded in his remarks twenty-five years ago at Pearl Harbor with the following.

The heroes of the Harbor … fought for a world of peace, not war, where children’s dreams speak more loudly than the brashest tyrant’s guns. Because of them, this memorial lives to pass its lessons from one generation to the next, lessons as clear is this Pacific sky.

If I were in the president’s place, I would not have toured Hiroshima last week. Any person with an ounce of humanity would regret the terrible loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and wish that it were not so. The Japanese Empire acted as the brashest of tyrants leading and all the way through World War II. President Truman ended the war in the Pacific swiftly and saved American lives. That was a moral decision and action.

Mr. President, please do not forget to honor and remember “the heroes of the harbor” with the grace and honor they deserve before they pass from this place.

Photo credit: Steve Berman took the photo from the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in 2008. It is looking up through the “bridge” over the ship’s sunken hull where oil an oil slick still marks her final resting place. The photo below was taken from the same location on the same day.



Trump’s Pearl Harbor

Donald Trump held a Pearl Harbor Day rally aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown in South Carolina on Dec. 7, 2015. Seventy-four years earlier, the Japanese surprise attack on Oahu took the lives of 2,403 men and women.

Of these, 2,008 were sailors, 109 were Marines, and 218 were Army soldiers. Only 68 civilians were caught in the carnage. The worst tragedy is the 1,177 dead from the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, many of whom were entombed (and still are) in its sunken hull.

Trump paid tribute to these, and the “Greatest Generation” that “beat back the Nazis and Japanese Imperialists” in his foreign policy speech delivered in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. He then, as he has in the past, claimed that the 9/11 attacks were worse than Pearl Harbor (the comment was not part of his “official remarks” but half his speech was off-script). While I don’t think comparing the two events is useful in any way*, there are some lessons from Pearl Harbor that Trump supporters might consider about their candidate.

Let’s look at what caused Pearl Harbor. Yes, it was an intelligence failure, and a failure to act on known intelligence. But the very underpinnings of our vulnerability came from the doctrine Trump proposed. “America First” is not new.

America First

The America First Committee was formed as an anti-war non-interventionalist pressure group to keep America out of the “European war” that became World War II. Its members read like a who’s-who of future American leaders, notable patricians, business tycoons. Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, William H. Regenery, Smith Richardson, Robert E. Wood (Sears Roebuck), Joseph M. Patterson (New York Daily News), Sterling Morton (the salt magnate), all participated or funded AFC. John F. Kennedy even sent $100 (that’s a lot of dough in 1940).

All of them were wrong. Pearl Harbor was attacked on a Sunday. The following Wednesday, the AFC was dissolved. Many of its student founders and supporters went to war and fought for our freedom.

After WWII, the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe with American money. We also rebuilt Japan. They never paid us back because we didn’t ask them to. Spreading Democracy (capital “D”) around the world has yielded the biggest peace dividend in the history of history.

So Trump’s foundations are simply wrong, leading to a strategy and goal that has been debunked by 50 million lives lost. I won’t go too far into the original AFC’s motivations for its stand for non-intervention, but many of those motivations are echoed by certain Trump-supporting nativist groups. Let’s just say that lots of anti-Semites and anti-Semitic sympathizers were among them.

The same claims Trump has glanced upon about 9/11 and Bush were echoed by another popular hero and America First supporter Charles Lindbergh, who blamed Roosevelt for manufacturing “incidents” to get us involved in war. He also said that Jews are America’s greatest danger and enemy. Don’t kill the messenger, I’m just finding the parallels remarkable.

Trump’s Pearl Harbor

So Trump is wrong, strategically, but he’s also wrong tactically, and his campaign is a model of the Japanese loss in the Pacific in WWII.

To win the nomination, Trump had to take out all the GOP candidates in a surprise attack. He has been largely successful. But he didn’t take them all out. To win the Pacific war, the Japanese put all their eggs in Pearl Harbor. They took out 8 battleships: U.S.S. Arizona and Oklahoma were total losses; the West Virginia and California were out of commission for nearly 3 years; the Nevada was back on line in 10 months; the Tennessee and Maryland were relatively barely scratched and out to sea within 3 months.

Trump took out the GOP but in comparison Cruz is like the Tennessee and Maryland. But the Japanese lost for sure when they missed the aircraft carriers, which were out to sea. Because it wasn’t bravery that won WWII. It was logistics.

We can’t out-brave ISIS. They are fanatical to the death (many of them). Killing their families just gives them more reason to die killing us. It’s stupid and immoral. In WWII, the Japanese Imperial forces were similarly racially and religiously motivated, and beyond brave–they were foolhardy and suicidal in their attacks. We could not out-brave them, only root them out of caves and holes with flame-throwers.

We beat Japan in WWII because we produced 56,695 Navy and Marine combat aircraft. We built 124 aircraft carriers, 8 battleships, 48 cruisers, 349 destroyers and 245 submarines. We out-built the Japanese and they knew we would out-build them.

Trump cannot win, and America First is delusional

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they believed America lacked the will to fight or engage in the war. They thought they could take out the fleet with one giant punch and America would withdraw within its borders (“America First”) and leave Europe to its doom. They knew they couldn’t win if America fought back.

Donald Trump entered the GOP race because he believes that Republicans (and conservatives) lack the will to fight for their own party. He thought he could take out all the other candidates with one giant punch and the party would withdraw and form up behind him. He knew he couldn’t win if Republicans fought back.

Trump has won less than half the delegates to the convention. He has received far less than half the votes cast in primaries. He has no ground game to speak of. The delegates he has pledged are bound for only one vote, and in general do not support him. The states he won by the largest margins have the lowest percentage of Republicans versus Democrats–they are deep blue states that do not help in the general election.

Trump cannot win the general election by any of the measures we use to determine such results. Of course we may be wrong. Europe and Russia could have overthrown Hitler without us, so America First could have been right too. The resource-poor Japanese could have burned out on their own or China could eventually have beat them.

South Korea could possibly defend itself from the North (even with China against them). Japan could possibly develop nuclear weapons, alter their constitution which prevents them from having an offensive military capability and stave off China. Western Europe could potentially build enough of a military to counter Russia’s military adventurism. All without America.

But history shows that these things don’t happen on their own. It’s a delusion to think that.

Now is the time to shut down the Trump America First committee and fight for our country and our party. It’s time to see Trump’s Pearl Harbor for what it is, a failed sucker punch. On history, doctrine, strategy, policy, and politics, Trump is wrong, and wrong for America.

*Comparing a sovereign nation sending its fleet to attack another nation concurrent with a declaration of war versus a terrorist organization exploiting security weaknesses in our commercial air system is meaningless. We can focus on intelligence failures, missed cues, and failures to act but ultimately the two events are completely and utterly incomparable.

For the sake of argument, if we do compare them, the response America made in WWII is similar to the response to 9/11. We went to war to defeat the enemy. We did what we thought was needed at the time. What we did after the fighting is totally different. We rebuilt Europe and Japan, defended South Korea and checked Russia. Trump is right in condemning Obama for pulling the plug on Iraq. But the comparisons end there.