A Date Which Will Live in Infamy
December 7. When I was growing up, everybody called it Pearl Harbor Day. I have not heard anyone use that term for a long time, but a Web search shows me that some people still do, at least in that quintessential Navy town, San Diego. The ranks of the World War II veterans are dwindling quickly, but as long as some of them survive, commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor will probably continue to be an annual event.
The men of my father’s generation made up the great bulk of the sixteen million Americans who served in the armed forces at some time during the Big One. Although my father, who had been in the Army in the late 1920s, did not serve during the war because the authorities considered his efforts more valuable in the Oklahoma oil fields and later in an Oregon shipyard, many of his friends did serve, and I remember listening in as a wide-eyed little boy on their conversations about the war in the late 1940s. For most of them, it was the defining event of a lifetime, overshadowing even the Great Depression.
As I grew up, it never occurred to me that the “infamy” to which President Roosevelt referred in his famous speech of December 8, 1941, pertained to anybody but the Japanese. After all, as the president said when he asked Congress for a declaration of war, the United States had suffered an “unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan,” so the responsibility for starting the war appeared to belong indisputably to the Japanese – and, of course, it also never occurred to me that I should make any distinction between the Japanese people and the Japanese government in this regard.
Just as old dogs can learn new tricks, however, grown men can learn historical facts they were never taught in school, and over the years I have learned a great deal about the wider context and the important antecedents of the December 7 attack. I have even ventured to write a little bit about how U.S. economic warfare provoked the Japanese to take the desperate gamble of launching a war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Dutch government in exile in the East Indies in order to gain access to essential raw materials, especially oil, that the U.S.-British-Dutch embargo was denying them. Their attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet conveniently concentrated at Pearl Harbor was aimed at protecting their left flank as Japanese forces moved to take control of strategic locations across a wide expanse of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.
A short comment is no place to settle the controversies that have raged ever since the attack about what Roosevelt and his chief subordinates knew in advance, but one thing has been known for a long time: however “dastardly” the attack might have been, it was anything but “unprovoked.” Indeed, even admirers and defenders of Roosevelt, such as Robert B. Stinnett and George Victor, have documented provocations aplenty. (See the former’s Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor and the latter’s The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable.) On December 8, the same day that Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, former president Herbert Hoover wrote a private letter in which he remarked, “You and I know that this continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bitten.”
On the basis of facts accumulated over the past seven decades and available to anyone who cares to examine them, we are justified in saying that Hoover’s characterization of the war’s provocation was entirely accurate – both with regard to the Japanese imperial government as “rattlesnakes” and with regard to the U.S. government’s “putting pins in.” Indeed, we now have a much firmer basis for that characterization than Hoover could have had on December 8, 1941. Countless lies have been told, massive cover-ups have been staged, propaganda has flowed like a river, yet in this one regard, at least, the truth has undeniably been brought out.
Most American historians, of course, no longer bother to deny this truth. They simply take it in stride, presuming that the Japanese attack, by giving Roosevelt the public support he needed to bring the United States into the war against Germany through the “back door,” was a good thing for this country and for the world at large. Indeed, some actually shower the president with approbation for his mendacious maneuvering to wrench the American people away from their unsophisticated devotion to “isolationism.” In no small part, Roosevelt’s unrelenting dishonesty with the American people (Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy tactfully refers to the president’s “frequently cagey misrepresentations”) in 1940 and 1941 – plain enough if one reads nothing more than his pre-Pearl Harbor correspondence with Winston Churchill – is counted among his principal qualifications for “greatness” and for his (to my mind, incomprehensible) status as an American demigod.
I have noticed, however, that in polls of historians or lay persons to determine which presidents were “great,” the dead never have a vote. Lucky for Roosevelt.