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U.S.: Pearl Harbor Attack 60 Years Ago Roused The Nation

  • Don Hill

Sixty years ago, the United States was in painful recovery from a severe economic depression. Its president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, though popular, was vilified by some Americans. Many U.S. citizens, preoccupied with their own concerns, had grown increasingly insular. In December 1941, a huge Japanese air armada subjected U.S. forces to the worst surprise attack in the nation's history. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill recounts the U.S. reaction that followed. He reports that if history is any guide, the terrorist attacks yesterday, which some compare to Pearl Harbor, will rally Americans -- not weaken or divide them.

Prague, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the fire, smoke, and shrieks rose from yesterday's attacks on New York and Washington, many Americans inevitably recalled their World War II slogan: "Remember Pearl Harbor!"

Pearl Harbor was and is the site of a U.S. naval base in the Hawaiian islands. When Japanese air forces attacked it almost 60 years ago with overwhelming force, they caught U.S. security agencies by surprise -- in a snooze, looking the other way. Destruction was immense. More than 2,000 people died.

In the continental United States, the populace was engaged in humdrum Sunday afternoon activities. Although the war in Europe had been going on for two years, international affairs did not dominate America's agenda in 1941.

Michael Mihalka is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

"Well, prior to Pearl Harbor, there was very little interest in the United States -- except among certain members of the political elite -- to become involved in Europe, and what happened with Pearl Harbor is that everything changed."

After the Pearl Harbor attack, people around the world, and some in the United States, feared that the American people -- complacent and accustomed to ease -- would certainly collapse.

"Well, this is the reason the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor. They believed that the Americans were weak -- much as these current terrorists believe that Americans are weak -- and that therefore they would disappear from the international stage and they would simply give up."

That is not what happened.

Almost from the moment President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on the radio to report to the people about the attack, U.S. society began to coalesce into a fighting machine.

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941, [is] a date which will live in infamy."


"Political opinion was galvanized in support of the war, against the Japanese and also against the Europeans, the Germans." In the 19th Century, French traveler and author Alexis de Tocqueville, after a penetrating -- and frequently critical -- close-up look at Americans, wrote that they had a genius for association, for coming together for a common purpose.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, men of all ages swamped the armed forces' recruiting stations. Within months, women who had never held a job or expected to, underage and overage men, and others formerly unemployed surged through factory gates. In January, Roosevelt announced that U.S. industry would build 60,000 war planes a year. The world scoffed. In 1944, U.S. industry produced 96,000 war planes.

Before the war was over, industry was producing more war materials than all the country's enemies combined, and providing billions of dollars worth of material to its main allies, the USSR and Britain.

The government raised taxes, but not severely, and established collection by payroll withholding. Citizens voluntarily provided most of the money to support the war through war bonds and other federal borrowing.

In June 1942, U.S. forces handed the Japanese their first defeat at Midway Island. In November, Britain and the United States invaded North Africa. By December, scientists in a secret laboratory at the University of Chicago produced the first nuclear chain reaction, presaging the atomic bomb.

The invasion of the French coast at Normandy came in mid-1944. By the end of September 1945 both German and Japan has unconditionally surrendered.

What occurred next in the 20th century -- American booms and recessions, long periods of unparalleled prosperity, the Marshall Plan that helped revive Western Europe, the MacArthur supervisory that established democracy in Japan -- left the United States the single-most powerful nation in world history.

It also left the country subject to accusations of arrogance, complacency, and international officiousness. It left the country open to envy, and vulnerable to the kind of attacks that occurred yesterday.

But history suggests that it probably did not render the country helpless to respond. U.S. President George W. Bush:

"The search is under way for those who are behind these evil acts. I've directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

As the Marshall Center's Mihalka said: After the attack, everything changed.