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Lessons

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

I've just finished reading At Dawn We Slept perhaps the definitive work on the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years ago. I didn't take notes and I don't have a trained memory (and I certainly don't have a photographic memory), so I will undoubtedly get a few details wrong and tend to oversimplify things. None the less, I found the book to be very interesting reading, even more so after September 11, 2001.

The first thing that strikes me is how remarkably accurate the movie Tora, Tora, Tora seems to be in covering the central events of this engagement. Nearly all movies are forced to condense the events they relate and to leave out or merge details, so this movie also leaves out or simplifies some aspects. The general impression, however, seems to be quite accurate.

The Japanese developed a bold, daring, if not entirely original, plan that depended heavily on the element of surprise. They trained long and hard. They modified weapons to make them more effective. Their espionage efforts allowed them to learn that the vast majority of the Pacific fleet ships would be in harbor on Sunday morning. They maintained a high level of secrecy, even more surprising based on the number of people who knew of the plan months before it was even officially approved. They maintained radio silence to the point that U.S. intelligence had no idea where their six aircraft carriers were. They caught the U.S. completely by surprise and their training and preparation made their attack even more successful than its planners dared hope for.

The United States made the mistake of preparing for what it believed the Japanese were likely to do rather than what they were capable of doing. Few U.S. military or intelligence personnel believed the Japanese would attack Pearl Arbor. The U.S. had the capability, through "Magic", of decoding most of Japan's coded diplomatic messages. But the U.S. was so paranoid about keeping this ability secret from the Japanese that they did not always share their knowledge with personnel who should have been told. While the U.S. forces in Hawaii were well trained and prepared, they were not "alerted". The commanding officers on Hawaii, Admiral Kemmell and General Short, were well qualified for their positions, but, appear to have been victims of the business dictum: they were promoted to a position that they lacked the ability to fulfill completely. That's not entirely fair. They were very capable men, but both seemed to lack the same traits: intuitiveness and that certain something we often refer to as "gut instincts". Although they both received "war warning" messages from Washington, neither interpreted the message to mean that a possible attack was imminent. They also failed to communicate properly with each other or to seek clarification of orders that did not seem clear. They also failed to ensure that their subordinates communicate properly. Because they did not have sufficient resources to conduct long-range reconnaissance in all directions from Hawaii, they did not send what planes they had. General Short distrusted the new technology, called radar, that had recently been set up. As a result, he had the installation manned for only a few hours a day as a "training" exercise rather than as the early warning system it was.

Did the U.S. know that Pearl Arbor would be attacked before it was? The evidence says no. The U.S. did know that Japan was cutting diplomatic relations with them and had ordered code books and other sensitive materials at their embassies destroyed. But the U.S. did not know the exact target nor when it would be hit. They did know that Japan had ordered its last message to be delivered to Secretary of State Hull at precisely 1:00 p.m. Washington time, about half an hour before the attack was scheduled to begin. They were lots of clues to be gleaned from various Japanese transmissions, and it is hard to believe that no one put two and two together.

Japan had virtually everything going for it: effective planning, good intelligence, perfect weather, and the element of surprise. Japan may have made some of its own good luck, but some items were completely out of its control. In contrast, the U.S. was completely subject to Murphy's law: everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong. Nobody put all the pieces together, war warnings were misunderstood, a force that was trained and prepared was not on alert. In fact, the defenders had no ammunition in their weapons, the ammunition was stored in a secure bunker to prevent any possibility of sabotage. A message that might have finally alerted Hawaii didn't arrive until after the attack. Because of atmospheric problems, it was sent by telegraph, but it was not marked "urgent". The radar picked up the incoming Japanese planes, but no one at the communication center knew what to do with the information. Then it was assumed that the sighting was of a group of U.S. bombers being ferried to the islands. A destroyer detected and probably sank a submarine outside the harbor, but even this warning failed to make it to the decision makers. There were plenty of people in the U.S. who could share the blame for the fiasco, but no one in particular can be totally singled out.

Okay, that's what happened. But why did the Japanese consider attacking Pearl Arbor in the first place? Did they believe that they could defeat the U.S. which had vast reserves of resources? No. They felt that war with the U.S. was inevitable, unless the U.S. caved in and accepted their terms. The U.S. did not cave in, so Japan decided that their best course of action was a preemptive strike that would effectively put the U.S. out of the war for six months or so. By that time, the Japanese hoped to have acquired the resources and "breathing space" they desired. They also hoped that the U.S. might be willing to sign a peace treaty rather than continue a long and costly war. The Japanese considered the Americans to be decadent and weak. They felt Americans lacked the will to carry on a long war with heavy casualties. They banked all on this conviction. The U.S., for its part, did not think that Japan was capable of such an audacious attack. As was normal for the time, they considered that other nations and races were not their equal. Both sides made tragic miscalculations.

Instead of demoralizing a divided nation, the attack on Pearl Arbor galvanized and united the nation as few events had done previously. Although most Americans probably conceded that they would eventually be drawn into the war, it took Pearl Arbor to give them a reason for fighting. Of all the vessels attacked that day, only three were permanently lost. One would never have seen battle in any case, so, only the Arizona and the Oklahoma failed to "live to fight another day". The attack simply forced the U.S. to modernize its navy around the aircraft carrier. Certainly the U.S. was severely limited in its actions for just about the six months the Japanese hoped for, but thanks to its intelligence and the perseverance if not the skill or superior weaponry, the U.S. handed the Japanese their first, and most significant, loss at Midway, almost exactly six months after Pearl Arbor.

Flash forward sixty years. Osama bin Laden hates the United States. He feels Americans are decadent and weak. He believes he can exploit these weaknesses, demoralize the people and permanently harm the U.S. with the right sort of sneak attack. On September 11, 2001, his followers commandeer a number of commercial planes, bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and smash into the Pentagon. Over three thousand civilians are dead - more than the casualties in Hawaii at Pearl Arbor. The nation trembles, but it does not panic. The citizens unite and vow to defeat their new enemy. The stock market plunges, but life goes on. As the sixtieth anniversary of Pearl Arbor draws near, Osama bin Laden's protectors, the Taliban, are being routed in Afghanistan, some of his top leaders are dead, and the stock market has regained its losses. The world may never be the same, but it will go on.

Once again, the lessons of history go unlearned. The United States was not prepared or alerted for this attack. Had it been a major nation, such as China, launching the attack, the U.S. might not have survived to fight back. After some ten years without any domestic plane hijackings, Americans got complacent. As long as fanatics, extremists or world dominators exist, no one in the free world is safe. We must remain diligent. This is the lesson of history.

But Osama bin Laden also forgot the lessons of history. He forgot that Americans are not quite as they may seem - or as Hollywood might paint them. Americans have a deeply engrained love for freedom. Americans also have a deeply engrained hate for injustice and the slaughtering of innocents. Americans value human life - crime statistics and gun proliferation to the contrary. Bin Laden should have realized that terrorism is doomed to fail. Once again, America was galvanized, a new president was tested and found worthy. Adversity brings out the best in people. That too, is a lesson of history.

Copyright © 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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