Today marks the 71st anniversary of one of the most notorious and momentous days in the history of our nation, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a day that was perhaps one of the worst in the nation’s history, but still serves to remind us of the strengths of our nation.
In the early morning hours of that sleepy Sunday morning, waves of Japanese fighters and bombers descended on the unsuspecting U.S. Pacific fleet and the hundreds of aircraft parked on naval and Army Air Corps airfields. Complete surprise was achieved by the Japanese.
By noontime, more than 2,400 American servicemen were dead, 1,200 more wounded, seven of the largest warships ships in the harbor were sunk or damaged, more than 300 American aircraft destroyed or damaged, and numerous other ships and military facilities were destroyed or damaged.
It was an attack that packed a ferocious level of devastation. It was intended to hobble the United States fleet and allow Japan to launch a series of attacks across the Pacific. Indeed within the coming weeks, American and British bases and territories throughout the Pacific fell — Guam, Wake Island, the Philippines, Singapore and others. For our nation, each week brought a fresh defeat.
Four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States. German submarine attacks commenced on American shipping in the Atlantic. Germans found easy pickings off our East Coast cities at night, as the blaze of city lights silhouetted merchant ships.
It seems unconscionable today that within the scope of a few days, America went from a nation at peace to one imperiled on both coasts, with the West Coast anticipating an imminent attack.
But as we look back, Pearl Harbor gives us insight into an inherent strength in our society.
Leaders in Japan and Germany were convinced that a nation based on what they considered to be a weak founding principle — democracy — could not stand up to fascism. Democracy was too unfocused and undisciplined to face societies rooted in militaristic principles, led by centralized governments that do not tolerate dissension and nonconformity.
Fascist nations failed to understand the inherent strength of a society based on individual freedom and free enterprise. Those strengths would allow America to mobilize for war far faster than Germany or Japan expected. Ingenuity and industrial production soared to levels the fascist nations never predicted. And instead of collapsing under the weight of defeats, the nation demonstrated a resolve and commitment that was not expected by the Axis powers.
Six months after the Pearl Harbor attack, an American naval task force would do what no other nation had been able to do in more than 350 years — decisively defeat the Japanese navy. In the waters off Midway Island, an outnumbered and outgunned American force turned the tide of war against Japan. In just six short minutes, a battle that appeared to be an imminent American defeat transformed into a stunning victory.
The turn of the tide against Germany would play out in a more methodical way, as the Allies gradually gained the upper hand through lengthy campaigns on land, air and sea. America’s industrial might and determination, and the bravery and commitment of millions of American servicemen and servicewomen, would serve as the backbone.
In those dark days after Pearl Harbor, there was only hope and resolve serving as the nation’s guiding lights. All these years later, we can look back and see that in times of despair, they are a solid foundation for our nation. May they always be as strong.