“Don’t Bother Me, I’m Shopping.”
Well, I was going to post on the Sudan and Somalia today, but my Internet connection is shaky this morning and I’m not sure I could do the research I need to do. Plus the mess in Africa if anything is as unpleasant and depressing as the mess in the Middle East, it just gets less media attention. Im sick of depressing current events. So what the hell, it’s Pearl Harbor day, I can blog about a depressing historical event instead! Yes, 66 years ago this day Japanese planes swooped out of the sky and attacked the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A day that changed history forever, arguably for the worse, since it’s the day that launched the great modern myth of the USA being the world’s great benevolent superpower. A day that most Americans may honour, but actually know virtually nothing about. To my way of thinking, honouring something while remaining in complete ignorance about it isn’t exactly showing it much respect, is it the thought that counts?
In any event, a few inconvenient truths about Pearl Harbor, what really happened that sunny Sunday morning? The basic facts aren’t in dispute, 350 aeroplanes launched from a secret task force of Japanese ships attacked the American military installations in and around Pearl Harbor. The American defenders were caught completely by surprise, more than a dozen warships were badly damaged or sunk, nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed, and about 2300 American servicemen were killed. Japanese losses were about 30 aircraft, 5 midget submarines, and about 65 dead. A devastating and successful surprise attack by almost all measures, though it did have the unanticipated effect of uniting America and ending the “isolationist” thinking that had been so prevalent before the war. Which ultimately was Japan’s undoing since it gave Roosevelt the political means to pursue the war to the bitter end, instead of negotiating an end as the Japanese had wanted.
What? Negotiate an end to the war? Japan was out to conquer the world, there was no way to negotiate with them! Nowadays we would just have labelled them terrorists and sent every American of Japanese descent to Guantanamo and had them waterboarded. I digress. Yes, in High School they even tried to tell me that Japan was out to “conquer the world.” No, the truth was far more complicated than that. And since I appear to be on a roll here, there are a few things about Pearl Harbor worth bringing up.
The first thing is the outrage that so many still express about the whole thing, as if this was some terrible crime to attack us without technically having declared war. First off, how many times has the US attacked someone without declaring war? (Hint: It would be quicker to count the few times we have declared war.) Secondly, and more importantly, they didn’t catch us by surprise because this was some sort of perfidious stab in the back, they caught us by surprise because our military was asleep at their posts. Not only had war with Japan been on the horizon for years, in the months before the war tensions had been extremely high, and people expected war to break out any time. Um, when a war breaks out that you had been expecting and preparing for, it’s disingenuous at best to claim you were caught by surprise. The truth is the USA military had such little regard for Japanese capabilities that our defences in the Pacific were hopelessly outmoded and ill prepared. The government couldn’t have people then realizing that their defence dollars had been squandered any more than we can today, and thus the myth of the “day of infamy” was born.
Secondly, and in some ways more importantly, the Pearl Harbor myth utterly ignores the fact that Roosevelt had done everything in his not inconsiderable power to provoke war with both Japan and Germany. He very much wanted to get the USA into the war, but this was an era when large numbers of Americans still were functioning as citizens of the republic, and they were very much in favour of letting people on the other side of the world blow themselves up without us getting involved, thank you. Isolationism was a powerful force then, and Roosevelt couldn’t just overtly take the country to war. So he took numerous steps, many of which were blatant acts of war that belied our claim of neutrality. And in Japan’s case, embargoing their oil, sending them an ultimatum, and refusing to negotiate with them did the trick.
And no, I’m not defending Japan’s Imperial aggressions. I’m just saying their Empire would have come to grief without our being involved. Japan was trying to conquer China for God’s sake, that alone would have eventually led to their ruin. However, Roosevelt’s gambit worked, better than he ever could have expected, and the USA was on its way to super power status and a whole new world of international bases and intrigues.
Of course today, it’s all so much simpler for the Roosevelts of America. Over the last fifty years most Americans have been transformed from concerned citizens to placated consumers, and isolationism has been replaced with “Don’t bother me, I’m shopping.” The media tells us what we want to hear, and the president does what he pleases.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image of the USS Shaw exploding during the attack on Pearl Harbor is public domain under US copyright law, it was taken by a Federal employee in the course of his duties. It’s such a grand and terrible image I loaded it full size, just click on it to see the full version. The Shaw was already being abandoned when the forward magazine exploded, 24 of it’s crew died during the attack. God rest the souls of all who died that day.)