Remember Pearl Harbor

“Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address to Joint Session of Congress, December 8, 1941





Something for the weekend.  Remember Pearl Harbor, one of many ephemeral songs written in the wake of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, seventy-eight years ago today, which propelled the nation into World War II.  There are many reasons to remember Pearl Harbor that go far beyond simply recalling it as a historical event.  As 9-11 amply demonstrated, sneak attacks never go out of fashion.


Less than 1500 of the 42,000 sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen stationed there that fateful day are still with us.  Time has done what the forces of Imperial Japan could not, and soon the memories of that attack will be only a page in history.  The lessons of Pearl Harbor are however as timely today as they were on December 7, 1941:

1.  It Takes Two to Avoid a War-Today, too many people speak the most dreadful rubbish that boils down to the contention that the US can avoid war if it simply adopts a peaceful policy to all other nations.  Nations, like people, have their own goals, and they will pursue those goals as they will, whether the US adopts a “smiley-face” foreign policy or not.

2.  Peace Time Mentality-Pearl Harbor was such a disaster largely due to a mindset that gripped too many in the military that it was sufficient to simply go through the motions.  This is a common enough attitude in the world, and in peace time it becomes all too common in the military.  Pearl Harbor teaches us how disastrous this mentality is in war-time.

3.  Peace or War can be a Matter of Seconds- Throughout its history the US has often had wars start quite quickly:  The Revolution, The Civil War, Korea, World War II and 9-11.  George Washington warned us that: To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.   Too often in our history we have forgotten that sage advice and paid for it at our peril as we learn the old lesson that war can come upon us with the speed of  summer lightning, especially in our modern age.

4.  Assumptions-Behind every great disaster there are usually a string of bad assumptions.  We assumed that the Japanese if they attacked would likely not attack Pearl Harbor.  We assumed that a Japanese fleet could not sail from Japan to Hawaii unnoticed.  We assumed that our air power, especially with the new-fangled technology called Radar, would be on alert, and that in any case our fleet could defeat anything that Japan could send against it.  Pile enough bad assumptions on top of each other and a debacle is in the making.

5.  Killing More People Won’t Help Matters-That quote comes from Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the lone dissenting vote in the House against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  A Republican from Montana, Rankin is an interesting figure.  The first woman elected to Congress, she served two terms.  In her first term she voted against declaring war on Germany in World War I and in her second term she voted against declaring war on Japan.  Both votes stemmed from her deep-seated pacificism, both votes were immensely unpopular and both votes effectively ended her political career at two different points in her life.  I give her the courage of her convictions.  However, her stance after Pearl Harbor illustrates the folly of pacifism as a national policy.  The sad truth is that in this vale of tears it is sometimes necessary to take up arms to avoid greater evils than war, and those peoples who forget that truth of the human condition will experience such evils sooner or later.

6.  Nations Sometimes Act Irrationally-Japan is slightly smaller than the state of Montana.  It lacks much in the way of natural resources.  A common question among American troops occupying Japan after the War was how in the world Japan thought it could ever beat the United States of America.  A very good question, and one many Japanese were asking themselves.  It was an irrational decision for Japan to attack the US and embark on a war it could not win.  One should never assume in making foreign policy and defense decisions that opposing nations will act rationally, at least rationally as we define it.

7.  Heroism-15 Medals of Honor were earned during the Pearl Harbor attack, ten of them at the cost of the life of the man earning it.  Acts of valor and self-sacrifice were common that day and indicated that Americans, as a whole, were neither weak nor decadent, as our enemies, to their cost, mistakenly believed.

8.  Rousing a Sleeping Giant- Although the statement is apocryphal, the words put into the mouth of Admiral Yamamoto in the film Tora, Tora, Tora are an accurate reflection of the main effect of Pearl Harbor:   “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” 

9.   American Resolve-My father was 8 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor.  He recalled the next day the long line of men and older teenage boys waiting for the recruiting offices to open up so they could enlist.  He wished that day with all his heart that he had been old enough to sign up himself.  That type of resolve lasted the entire war.

10.  American Power- One of the world leaders at the time instantly grasped what Pearl Harbor meant.  Winston Churchill was half-American, and he had studied American history closely.  He had a keen grasp of the American character, understanding us perhaps better than we understood ourselves.  He later recalled what his thoughts were after he learned of the attack:

“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war — the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand’s breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force. The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and now the United States, bound together with every scrap of their life and strength, were, according to my lights, twice or even thrice the force of their antagonists. No doubt it would take a long time. I expected terrible forfeits in the East; but all this would be merely a passing phase. United we could subdue everybody else in the world. Many disasters, immeasurable cost and tribulation lay ahead, but there was no more doubt about the end.

Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”


More to explorer


  1. Saddest story I heard from a list of sad stories from that day is that the band for the Arizona had competed the night before in a base-wide music contest. The prize? They were allowed to sleep in the next day. So none of them made it out when the Arizona was hit and sank so quickly. The veteran who relayed that story was unable to continue as he thought about it.

  2. My college roommate’s dad was an army air corps pilot in Hawaii. On the night of Dec 6th he was on liberty and did some serious drinking. The morning of Dec 7th he was so hungover he couldn’t could not face breakfast so remained in quarters. Which was providential since the dining hall full of diners was flattened by a Japanese bomb shortly after 0800.

  3. Point #6 is lost even on many sensible people, like Tucker Carlson, who wonders why we should fear Russia at all when it’s so weak. The danger of an opponent is not how strong we gauge him to be (however objective our metrics), but how strong he regards himself (and how lucky). No one would be happier than I to pull more our forces back home, but I don’t want to give Putin and the rest ideas.

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