War historian says lessons from Pearl Harbor resonate in today’s world

The U.S.S. Arizona burns after being attacked the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

On the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a University of Kansas war historian says it’s important to remember that the deadly ambush was not isolated.

Complex events surrounding Pearl Harbor have “contemporary resonance” as the United States faces unsettled relations among Pacific nations, said Foundation Distinguished Professor of history Beth Bailey, who directs KU’s new Center for Military, War and Society Studies.

“It’s a moment where many people’s lives were lost. It’s a moment that launches the United States to become a key player in an ongoing war in which millions die. It’s a very powerful symbolic moment,” Bailey said. “Pearl Harbor as the focus also hides many of the ongoing power struggles that were taking place.”

Beth Bailey

The world also will be watching later this month when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to become the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor since the attack. He and President Barack Obama are scheduled to appear there Dec. 26 and Dec. 27. In May, Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in 1945.

Bailey said Abe’s planned visit, too, presents a simplistic picture of two nations reconciling and accepting the tragedy of past events.

“It’s an important symbolic moment, but it also in some ways treats the conflict primarily as a war between the United States and Japan, and it was in fact a much broader conflict,” she said.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,000 Americans died in the attack, and more than 1,000 were wounded. On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

Bailey said most Americans probably do not realize that also in the hours following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked the U.S.-held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island — and captured them.

“Pearl Harbor is important because it was the proximate cause of the United States going to war, and it effectively joined two ongoing major regional conflicts into a global war,” she said. “It wasn’t only an attack on Pearl Harbor but on a range of colonial possessions throughout the Pacific.”

Tensions had built for years, including those driven by Japan’s ongoing war against China, related U.S. economic embargoes and WW II in Europe. Bailey said that though not on Hawaii, a Japanese attack in the Pacific had been anticipated.

“Its important that we look as scholars and citizens at the factors that led to war and the ways the war was conducted, especially in a period where there are great tensions in the Pacific world and the Pacific Asian world,” Bailey said.