It was exactly seventy years ago this day that the United States was attacked by the Naval and Air Forces of Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack caused more American Naval casualties than had been incurred in all of the First World War. The results were devastating: the bulk of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was destroyed or rendered useless. The day occasioned great heroism upon the part of U.S. forces defending Pearl Harbor, yet also raised the question: HOW? How had his enormity come to happen?
In hindsight, it was obvious: a daring, extremely risky exposure of the cream of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s forces far into the sphere of United States Navy control to permit hundreds of aircraft to attack unready and unprotected military targets on Oahu. So obvious, in fact, that for the previous decade such a scenario was taught in classes at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, and at least three major naval war games around the Hawaiian Islands in the 1930’s were based upon that premise.
With diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Japan unravelling in late 1941, and with Japan’s history of unannounced, preemptive attacks followed by a declaration of war (China, 1894; Russia, 1905) the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 certainly seems to have been a foregone conclusion. So why were the U.S. military forces caught off guard?
Over the years there has been a vociferous minority view that the whole thing was a setup by the U.S. government in order to get the United States into the “hot war” of World War II. In retrospect, there are many acts and events that do seem hard to understand, notably the failure to prepare the forces on Hawaii for the real possibility of an attack. But it is never quite explained how the Japanese were gulled into acting as American stooges for their own ultimate defeat. (Unexplained as well is how allowing the vast bulk of the U.S. Pacific fleet to be disabled or destroyed would confer an advantage upon the U.S. in waging a Pacific war.)
However in the past decade, we have a fresh example of how a devastating enormity can happen even in the face of self-evident intelligence data with clearly interpretable information as to an enemy’s intentions. No credible observer has seriously proposed that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were intentionally permitted to occur. It is not believable that the government of a free and open, democratic republic, would blithely allow such a spectacular horror to happen. Whatever the motives, no government would be likely to accept such losses, if only because such a scale of death and destruction would not be needed to justify whatever aims were allegedly being sought.
The notion that the astronomically vast amounts of intelligence data preceding either 9/11 or Pearl Harbor were “self-evident” or “clearly interpretable” can only come form that most well-focussed of lenses, hindsight. Once the inconceivable has happened, it’s obvious. And while both the attack on Pearl Harbor and the possibility of terrorist attacks using commercial aircraft were literally conceived of, the real debility in predicting either attack was simply this: whatever was imagined that our enemies could do was blunted by our expectation of what they would do. Just as very few analysts imagined that terrorists would be so reckless as to attack the Unites States within its borders, very few analysts in 1941 imagined that Imperial Japan would be so suicidal as to draw the United States into a hot war.
The lesson that should be learned from these two catastrophes is that it is insufficient to think about what one’s enemies are likely to do, it is necessary to examine and expect the worst they can do. Not so very pleasant a message for this season when Christians celebrate the birth of The Prince of Peace. But this is the lesson of history, if only we could learn from history.
Flower Mound, Texas