Pearl Harbor: The day America woke up

It was a clear, sunny morning seventy-five years ago today in Pearl Harbor, HI when the sounds of piston engines and torpedo explosions shattered the calm of the island and the peace of the nation.

Within a few, short, harrowing hours, 2,403 American service members and civilians lay dead, with hundreds more injured, and the United States was violently shaken from its slumber. 


While Dec. 7 is rightfully remembered as a day of infamy, it was also the day that America woke up and in one unified voice began organizing to oppose the twin existential threats of hyper-nationalism and xenophobia. Until the moment hundreds of Japanese planes appeared as little black dots against a bright blue sky, America had been content to allow two of the most racist and authoritarian regimes in modern history to run rampant throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia.

The genocidal legacy of the Nazis is well known, but often lost in the glare of  their crimes against humanity were the horrors the Japanese military machine visited on the civilian population of China whom they viewed as subhuman just as the Nazis perceived Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and anyone not of sufficiently Aryan heritage.

The Rape of Nanking was only the most famous of the systemic abuses suffered by the people’s of China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and many others under Japanese occupation dating back to the early Thirties.

And before we become too smug in our recriminations of the evils perpetrated by the Axis powers, it’s important to remember that before Pearl Harbor, the very same forces of bigotry and intolerance were resurgent in our own country. 

In the years following World War I, the KKK was an ascendant political force in America, boasting millions of members at its zenith.

The German American Bund, an explicitly Nazi organization boasting thousands of members, held summer camps and rallies in major American cities throughout the mid to late 1930s.

It took Pearl Harbor to snap the country out of its complacency. It took hundreds of dead Americans before we took notice and elected to do the right thing. 

But America did the right thing with the sort of unbridled fury that only the furnaces of a powerhouse of industry and innovation can forge. As our indomitable British ally, Winston Churchill, once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all possible alternatives.”

The grand architect of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew the end result of provoking America would be even before launching the attack. He had lived in America, studying at Harvard University and traveling the country as a naval attaché. He had once said that the industrial capacity of Detroit Michigan alone would be enough to defeat Japan. His superiors disagreed, and he was eventually killed by the very machines of war he warned against when his transport bomber was intercepted and shot down by a flight of American P-38 fighters on April 18th, 1943, this writer’s birthday, as it happens.

In the final tally, the racist regimes of both the Nazis and Imperial Japanese were soundly and totally defeated by America and her allies, while the U.S. survived virtually unscathed and went on to help rebuild both Japan and mainland Europe, providing political and economic stability and military protection to millions of free citizens of democratic nations against the rising power and aggression of the U.S.S.R.

Both Germany and Japan went on to make incredible recoveries and now stand as two of our most stalwart and powerful allies anywhere in the world.

Now, seventy-five years and many generations later, we’re remembering another anniversary of the attacks that upended the world order. The voices and memories of those brave patriots who fought that war grow weaker and fewer with each passing year.

I have been a bit of a WW:II buff for most of my life. I traveled to Hawaii when I was only nineteen to visit my best friend who was stationed there. Somewhere in between the beaches, girls, and under-aged drinking, I managed to find my way to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.

I stood only a few dozen feet above her deck, watched little rivulets of fuel oil leaking out of her like blood from a wound that still hadn’t closed decades later. Read the names of those who died that morning.

And then I found myself on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. Standing at the plaque in the wood where the table had sat when the Japanese Emperor signed the documents that made their surrender official. 

I stood where the war started, and I stood where the war ended that day.

Back on the shore, I encountered an elderly Japanese man with many generations of his family sitting on a bench. He was crying. Being young, I asked one of the adolescents why he was so upset. I thought it might be because of the humiliation his country had suffered on the deck of the Missouri.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was crying because, since he had been a young man no older than I was then, he’d tried to tell his family about the attack, insisted that Japan had started the war.

No one believed him, because Pearl Harbor was left out of history in their schools. But he knew, because he’d been a crewman in one of the torpedo bombers in the second wave. He’d been there, and for almost fifty years, he’d carried that knowledge until he could finally afford to bring his family and show them the truth. He saw me talking to his grandson and wanted to apologize. I told him it was okay, we were allies now, friends. I lied and told him I owned a Honda. What else was a nineteen-year-old supposed to say?

Maybe it’s because we’re losing the men and women who actually lived through the horrors of nationalism and xenophobia imbued with the power and resources of nation states that their ugly heads are beginning to rise again. Russia is resurgent, aggressively posturing itself to reclaim territory lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union. White supremacy is on the rise, right here in America. Nazi propaganda is being openly spoken in our cities.

Symbols of hate and intolerance are appearing with frightening regularity on our walls and bridges. The KKK and other nationalist organizations are emboldened by the people being appointed to our halls of power.

The free press is under attack for reporting the truth. Hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, women, and the LGTBQ community have spiked.

Once more, we are staring into the abyss. Once more, we face a stark choice about who we are as a nation and what values we represent to the rest of the world. Dec 7 marks the day that, seventy-five years ago, America awoke and confronted the threat humanity faced from xenophobia, racial-purity, and fascism with a single, unified voice.

May it do so again. We owe the memories of our dead nothing less.

Patrick Tomlinson is an author and regular contributor to the Hill on state, local and national politics. Follow him on Twitter @stealthygeek.

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