THE DECEMBER 7, 1941 Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour swiftly entered the realm of national mythology and for many years subsequently abetted the work of war propaganda and, after 1945, the projection of American power abroad — on the conviction that American interests were at stake. Only September 11, 2001 rivals this date as a rude interruption of American exceptionalism, the idea that America is somehow exempt from the European business of invasion and attack.
As with all mythology, the principles of condensation and streamlining operate, so that a series of events and attacks (including the roughly simultaneous Japanese assaults upon their prime target, the British, in Malay and the Philipines and the German declaration of war against the US on 11 December) are summarized in the date December 7, 1941 and the location of Pearl Harbour. The attack was only a surprise in the sense that the precise date and location was not known to the American military leadership. However, that an attack was on the way, many in a position to know knew well. Months of diplomacy, culminating in Roosevelt’s November 1941 conclusion that the Japanese were negotiating the peace on false pretenses, preceded the attack. It would not be unfair to suggest that the American government’s final diplomatic offer of peace terms was calculated to force Japan’s hand. Japan wanted access to the British and French colonies of southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies, and needed the Americans to stay out as it undertook this colonial transition by force. The German occupation of France provided to the Japanese their opportunity, and thus the Pearl Harbour attack was calculated as a weakening of American power in the Pacific theatre.
It would be no overstatement to say the American people were shocked by the attack. It is possible today to see the footage of American streets filled with citizens, the newspapers in their hands, stone silent with incredulous grief. One needs to understand that prior to this moment, war was seen as a European affair from which America was best served by abstention. A kind of covert support had been given to Britain in the years 1939 to 1941, but the prevailing political sentiment was isolationism as it is today among the critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Pearl Harbour was the beginning of the American role in defeating and discrediting the twentieth century’s fanatical experiments in industrial mass murder and Nordic race mythology, and it was the end of the idea that the new world could turn away from the ancient inheritances of the old.
Over the next four years, American soldiers were mailing back to their fiancées the polished skulls of their Japanese victims for proud display on the mantle and night stand. It is probable that the German army would have yielded to the Russian advance had the Americans never entered the war. One should never overlook the fact however that a considerable exodus of German, and in many cases Jewish, scientists made their way to America, and that this led soon enough to the US’s first-to-the-finish attainment of atomic weapons — the development of which the Nazis had for years been pursuing. In other words, it was indeed on Japanese soil that the ultimate legacy of Pearl Harbour was materialized. One of the many unforeseen and unforeseeable outcomes of wartime disruption and diaspora, the German bomb became the American bomb, as the would-be victims of the Final Solution fled to a land more welcoming.
It would be callous in the extreme to assert that the twin uses of the atom bomb, in August 1945, were “a good thing,” but consider: this shortened the war by years and prevented the certain deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, both Japanese and American. It also broke a fascist and racist death cult centered on a rabid emperor-god. The Japanese version of twentieth-century totalitarianism has been overshadowed by German national socialism, and so we fail to appreciate just how vicious this empire was and how much worse the colonies would have fared once removed from the control of the British and the Dutch. The war defeat completed Japan’s century-long transformation from its essentially medieval character to its modern, precisely as had been the case in Germany. In the one instance this reality is amply acknowledged and memorialized, and in the other a moral ambiguity, whose focus is the bomb, prevails.