Pearl Harbor – the Second World War’s 911 attack

It is 11 years, this year, since the terror attacks on New York. And today it is 71 years since Japanese air strikes on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War.

USS Arizona, 7 December 1941. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg
USS West Virginia, 7 December 1941. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos/images/ac00001/ ac05904.jpg

We need to remember Pearl Harbor. Although war clouds had been looming, the attack came by surprise and was a shock to the United States people – 7 December became a day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted, that would live forever in infamy. The parallels with the 2001 terror attacks on New York are clear, even down to post-fact conspiracy theories.In these respects, Pearl Harbor was the ‘911 attack’ of the Second World War.

The road to it began in Europe with the fall of France in May 1940. That created a power vacuum in former French colonies in modern Vietnam, which the Japanese exploited as a way of encircling China.

That was a concern to the US, but the spectre of a Nazi-dominated Europe was more worrisome and gave Roosevelt opportunity to have acts passed authorising the largest military build-up in the history of the world. New legislation authorised everything from ultra-long range bombers able to hit Europe from US airbases (these became the B-29 Superfortress) to new army divisions, tanks, aircraft – and a massive naval programme.

A few weeks later, planners had a second bite at the naval cherry with the ‘Two Ocean Navy Act’, sometimes also called the ‘Vinson-Walsh Act’. This bumped the US navy up a notch on top of earlier legislation, adding a further 18 new aircraft carriers, 7 more battleships, 6 additional battlecruisers, 27 further cruisers, 115 additional destroyers, 43 more submarines and a whopping 15,000 aircraft. This was on top of existing extra expenditure and programmes, yet debate on 18 June lasted less than an hour and the new Act passed by 316 votes to nil.

Can you imagine that happening today?

The gargantuan naval programme worried Japanese planners, because the Pacific theatre pivoted on naval strength; and Japan – with only around 14 percent of the world’s industrial capacity and reliance on imported raw materials – could not match it. Although US planners had concerns about the capability of American industry to meet new construction, the 1943-44 completion date for these ships became the deadline against which Japanese planning was set.

USS Phoenix after the Pearl Harbor attack. She survived this assault but, as the 'General Belgrano', was sunk in 1982 by a British submarine during the Falklands war. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos /images/h50000/h50766.jpg
USS Phoenix after the Pearl Harbor attack. She survived this assault but, as the ‘General Belgrano’, was sunk in 1982 by a British submarine during the Falklands war. Public domain, OnlineLibrary/photos /images/h50000/h50766.jpg

When that was mixed with US and British concern during 1941 over Japanese conduct in South East Asia, and of their war in China, the results were a rise in tensions – all against the ticking time-bomb of battleships and aircraft carriers taking shape in US yards. In the end, the military junta running Tokyo at the time  decided the answer was to hit the US such a blow, pre-emptively, as to let Japan establish dominance over the Pacific islands and then get a negotiated peace on Japanese terms.

So went thinking in Tokyo. It was quite wrong, and voices such as that of Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, who knew how Americans thought, were lost. From the historical perspective these decisions became pivotal to the shape of world history.

Does anybody remember Pearl Harbor today? Does it still live forever in infamy? Or has it been eclipsed by the “911” terror attacks on New York? What do you figure?

Next post: New Zealand’s Pearl Harbor.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


9 thoughts on “Pearl Harbor – the Second World War’s 911 attack

  1. Matthew, some thoughtful insights here. But first, as a triviaphile, that tidbit about the USS Phoenix becoming the General Belgrano was … er, doesn’t seem quite appropriate to say cool, really, but it’s interesting! I remember seeing a photo of the Belgrano sinking taken by the British sub that sank her. My thought at the time: “Wow, looks just like something out of WW2!”

    Also, that bit about the naval legislation was intriguing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that before (OK, I’m an aviation guy, not a navy guy) even though I’ve studied in some detail the different legislation with respect to the expansion of the US Army Air Corps to become the Army Air Forces. In fact, that shows in sharper relief why we piddled along in 1942, got a little stronger in 1943, then went absolutely berserk in 1944. That was when production hit its peak; and as Tom Clancy once observed, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. Case in point and a nice little bit of history.

    As for Pearl Harbor, over the years I’ve met a handful of survivors. It’s always interesting to talk to them. As for Pearl Harbor being eclipsed by 9/11, I’ve never thought so. To me any comparisons are mostly superficial. There is an essential difference between an act of war (however infamous) and a criminal act (however largely writ), and make no mistake, acts of terror are criminal acts. They might only become acts of war if one could discover an actual, effective link between the perpetrators and a state government. The phrase “state-sponsored terrorism” doesn’t quite seem to cover this linkage for most people (don’t know why) — but that’s a torturous, convoluted argument one could devote a lot of time and energy to without resolution.

    Anyway, good post!

    1. Yes, there were fundamental differences of concept and intent between Pearl Harbor (act of war) and 911 (terrorism/murder) – though at other levels the surprise effect and the practical outcome in the form of suffering and death was similar. The shock in 1941 was the fact that Japan did not declare war first; the attack came out of the blue, though they had done exactly the same thing to the Russians in 1904 to open the Russo-Japanese war.

      Apropos the Belgrano – t’s surprising where a lot of ex-WWII hardware ended up, worldwide. I believe the Israelis were even using Panzer IV’s in 1968 – incredibly.

  2. Anyone who’s visited the memorial in Pearl Harbor can never forget. It was eerie being the platform above the sunken ship where bodies still lay entombed. All war is horrible for everyone on both sides. I just wish humankind would learn from past pain and avoid war all together, Yeah, I know. In a perfect world.

    1. I agree. It’s a sad part of the human condition that we do end up fighting. The worst of it is, every major war becomes the one to ‘end’ war. And a generation later, have we learned? Nooo. The memorials, I think, are a great way to help educate – to just show people the actual cost of this sort of behaviour, in lives, in happiness. I recall a couple of very poignant visits to memorials in Belgium, marking the Western Front; and to Kanchanburi, where the victims of the forced-labour effort to build the Thai-Burma railway in 1942-44 are buried and memorialised. It was heartbreaking to see, to get a feel for the sheer scale of the human cost, and to me these really brought home the truth about war. No matter how politicians strut about, rationalise or justify, at the end of the day it is going to cost lives. A tragedy of the human condition in so many ways.

  3. Really enjoyed this post, Matthew, one your best, I think. A favorite WWII movie, and one I watched this morning is “They Were Expendable,” made after WWII with John Ford directing.

    To me, the comparison to 911 works quite well. Certainly, the surprise and shock of both events unified the US people in a way little else ever has. What has always fascinated me about the US in WWII is its innocence on the eve of the war, which gave way to a cockiness that I don’t think has served us well. To remember Pearl Harbor is to examine the American character during WWII from which I think we Americans can learn a great deal.

    I had to laugh aloud at your question of imagining today’s US Congress being able to make such decisions. Actually, imagine our current congress making any decision….


    1. I have heard that there are issues getting anything actually done in US government just now! Apropos ‘innocence’ pre-Pearl – yes, absolutely true as far as I can tell. I have a fascinating book which, thinking about it, reflects exactly this. It’s a biography of the US ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s. He saw what was happening – saw the war coming – and tried to warn officials back in washington. No dice. Nobody wanted to believe the danger. Isolationism was a very real phenomenon back then; an introversion which, I think, really engendered a sense of innocence.

  4. The other comparison I’ve noticed is the way that the U.S. govt. used the attacks to bolster support for the war effort. Jingoism’s such as “Remember Pearl” on badges, stationary and the like seem similar to items produced post 9/11.

    Both FDR and Bush would use the fact they were attacked first to maximum effect and in both instances I doubt the public support for a war would’ve been anywhere near as strong had the U.S. initiated it.

    1. I agree. There were some pretty sharp parallels at this level. One point I guess we forget about 1941 is that although Roosevelt had been fairly hawkish, there was significant sentiment in the US towards ongoing isolationism. Pearl Harbor gave a lever to shut down the nay-sayers. And I guess in a wider sense Roosevelt and his advisors had their reasons – the other thing we often forget is that in the 1930s, democracy was by no means a certainty for the world. Totalitarianism was rising to displace it. By 1940, Europe’s largest democracy, France, had fallen to it; and Britain was beleaguered. If they had gone, the US would have been pretty much alone as a bastion of the democratic system, and I think that did enter into Roosevelt’s thinking.

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