TOPICS: Pearl Harbor, 65 years later

Pat M Holt

On December 7, 1941, the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked. The bombing killed 2,388 Americans, put much of the Pacific fleet out of commission, and came while the Japanese ambassador in Washington was preparing for a diplomatic appointment at the State Department.

Among the losses was the battleship Arizona, which went down with nearly all hands on board. It is still there as a national shrine. In president Roosevelt’s speech to Congress the next day asking for a declaration of war, he called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” Congress responded with a declaration of war against Japan. It followed up on December 11 with retaliatory declarations of war against Germany and Italy. World War II was the last time the US has declared war, though it has fought three major wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan-Iraq). It seems worthwhile to reflect on some of their consequences.

The attack unified a country that had been divided over the war in Europe, but it also terrified the country. This was much the same reaction as followed the attacks of 9/11. Just as 9/11 led to unjustified imprisonment of some Muslims living in the US, so Pearl Harbour produced persecution of Japanese-American citizens. Most of them lived in California; they were interned in remote camps in Wyoming and other Western states. Although the Japanese were not tortured, their treatment was as morally bad as what’s happened under Bush’s watch in Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and other prisons. Critics of President Bush should take note. In 1988, Congress apologised to the interned Japanese. It also provided payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee. It marked the faint beginnings of the civil rights movement.

After black Americans had served honourably in the armed forces, the injustice of forcing them back into a segregated society was intolerable. President Truman used an executive order to integrate the armed forces after the war. Other steps followed. The UN was born out of the resolve not to allow a repetition of World War II. The Senate, which refused to approve America’s membership in the League of Nations after World War I, approved US membership in the UN after World War II.

Perhaps the most awesome consequence of Pearl Harbor was the development of nuclear weapons. Two of these were used to end the war against Japan. Historians have argued that these should not have been used, that Japan could have been driven to surrender by bombing. True but at what cost? Both Japanese and American casualties would have been far greater, and the war would have been prolonged. During a visit to Harvard University, Harry S Truman was asked what he was most proud of. His answer was that after America crushed its enemies, it embraced them and turned them into allies.

A final irony: Japanese investors now own much of the island their grandfathers once tried to destroy, and are tolerated by the country they once tried to conquer.