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.
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.