Pearl Harbor attack triggered era of change in America

December 7, 2010


There are lessons to be learned here at Pearl Harbor. Don’t put your aircraft wingtip to wingtip. Don’t cluster the ships of your fleet in one harbor so closely that the group of them acquires the name Battleship Row. Don’t assume that a gaggle of planes headed your way on a quiet Sunday morning is a set of your own B17s flying in from California. Do not discount an intercepted cable that reveals unusual foreign interest in an American military installation just because it is translated by a woman.

All of these are important legacies from the attack on Pearl Harbor that transformed Dec. 7 from the last day of the first week of the last month into a date that would live in infamy. Some 69 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the wounds here and on the American mainland are still deep, still raw. More than Antietem, more than Gettysburg, this may be, perhaps with New York’s Ground Zero, the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial and Pennsylvania’s Flight 93 crash site, the most moving place in the nation.

Memorable date

Even today, Dec. 7 is one of only five dates in American history — the others are July 4, Nov. 11, Nov. 22 and Sept. 11 — that require no year in casual conversation or formal writing.

You might not recognize the significance of Aug. 15, but if it is put down as Aug. 15, 1945, you will immediately identify it as V-J Day. You may not remember Aug. 9, but if it is expressed as Aug. 9, 1974, you’ll know it was the day Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency. And perhaps the most important date in American history (April 19) has been obscured in the American mind because — please don’t break my heart and tell me schoolchildren don’t read this anymore — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow opened his beloved poem by speaking, in the third line, of “the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five,” when Paul Revere made his ride, rather than of the 19th of April, 1775, when the shots rang out at Lexington and Concord.

But you know what Dec. 7 means, and so will your grandchildren.

The tragedy of Pearl Harbor began when six Japanese carriers with heavy escorts sailed 4,000 miles of open seas without being detected by the Americans. The modern mind asks: How can that be? The answer is simple: For the same reason that the French did not detect the British soldiers mounting the Plains of Abraham in 1759 before the Battle of Quebec, or the British did not detect George Washington’s forces preparing their Christmas crossing of the Delaware in 1776.

Years of great change

The modern mind forgets: There were no satellites then.

The age of the satellite wouldn’t dawn for another 16 years. For the entire sweep of history until 1957, humankind slept under only natural satellites like the moon, or planets or stars, which is why the launching of Sputnik (another signal date for you: Oct. 4) was so disquieting to Americans, and why Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev knew how unsettled he would make his ideological rivals by braying that “America sleeps under a Soviet moon.”

But in those 16 years — from Pearl Harbor to Sputnik — the world would change at a dizzying rate.

The United States would be transformed into the strongest military power and most powerful banker in the history of the globe. Soviet Russia would be transformed from a largely agrarian despotism into a mighty industrial power with nuclear weapons and rocket boosters capable of achieving Earth orbit (but not, as Richard Nixon would make clear in his blustery “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow two years later, able to produce a decent dishwasher).

The Cold War would break out with crises in Greece, Korea, Vietnam, Hungary and elsewhere. A new scramble for influence would begin in the Caribbean and Africa. McCarthyism would rise in America and a re-examination of Stalinism would roil the Soviet Union.

In those 16 years, the United States would end segregation in the armed forces and begin to integrate its schools, lunch counters and public accommodations. John F. Kennedy would be transformed from an obscure officer in the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center into a national political figure. The Dodgers, pennant winners in Brooklyn when Pearl Harbor was attacked, would be Los Angeles-bound by the time Sputnik was launched

The British Empire would be gone, Israel would be born. So, too, would many other new nations, some of whose names, like Transjordan and Ceylon, already have disappeared. Within a month of Pearl Harbor, Country Joe McDonald and Charlie Rose would be born. Within a month of Sputnik, Louis B. Mayer and Christian Dior would be dead.

The surprise attack still aches in the American memory. But it spawned a great American awakening.

So the next time you think that you are living in an era of unprecedented change, ponder how much happened in the 16 years after Pearl Harbor. Consider that programmable computers have been around for 74 years, that computer games have existed for 48 years, that Ethernet networking has been here for 37 years, that IBM first produced a home PC 29 years ago, that the Macintosh was available 26 years ago and that Windows came out 25 years ago.

Pearl Harbor was beginning

So perhaps the great lesson of Pearl Harbor as we approach its 70th anniversary is more than military.

Never again will we present so easy a target to potential adversaries. But now we need to revise our perspective, and consider that for all of the great change we are experiencing now, the greatest change in our history may have begun when 354 Japanese planes arced toward Hawaii, destroying 188 American aircraft and sinking or damaging 18 American warships in a great American tragedy and military defeat.

“Pearl Harbor continues to haunt its survivors, as well as their descendants,” Thurston Clarke wrote in the evocative volume “Pearl Harbor Ghosts.”

But as we consider what happened here, let us remember, too, how almost every ship — though not the USS Utah, USS Arizona or USS Oklahoma — was put back into service, and that America recovered, and then some.

Remember Pearl Harbor, but remember its other lessons, as well.


cato_the_elder 7 years, 5 months ago

Another outstanding Shribman column, with a boatload of information that anyone interested in history will relish.

Every American who has the opportunity to visit Pearl Harbor should do so. It's a unique and profoundly moving experience.

And, Shribman's admonition notwithstanding, I'll say it anyway: It's a damn shame that most schoolchildren don't read "Paul Revere's Ride" anymore. At least parents are still free to read it with their children. Longfellow's "Evangeline," one of the most beautiful English language poems ever written, is also a great joy to read aloud with children and grandchildren.

oldvet 7 years, 5 months ago

"But you know what Dec. 7 means, and so will your grandchildren. "

I wish that I could believe that, David, but when I look at their textbooks today, I think that educators either don't want them to know or simply don't care anymore about the lessons from WW2. Mine will aways know about December 7 and June 6. They will know about places like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach. They will know the names of the 6 men who raised the flag over Iwo and they will know about Jimmy Doolittle and John Basilone and their devotion to duty. But I fear that they will be the only ones in their class...

cato_the_elder 7 years, 5 months ago

Oldvet, excellent post. We did the same with our children. As an aside, the outstanding series "The Pacific" did a great service in educating many more Americans about John Basilone.

Abdu Omar 7 years, 5 months ago

We may be in financial woes today, but this, too, shall pass. The history of the American People is most compelling when viewed in the way this author wrote. Mr. Shribman, thank you for reminding us about our glorious past and how our failures produced some of our greatest work,. Robert E, Lee once said: "it is good that war should be so terrible, else we may become too fond of it". Is true. We hate war but sometimes war teaches us more than peace. The commrads in arms that perished on this day will rest in peace knowing that a great nation sprung from their sactrifice.

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