Flashbacks May 2001

Pearl Harbor in Retrospect

Atlantic articles from 1948, 1999, and 1991 look back at Pearl Harbor from American and Japanese perspectives.
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Six decades after Japan launched the devastating Sunday morning attack that startled the United States into assuming an aggressive role in World War II, questions continue to be raised about what happened and why. Over the years, The Atlantic Monthly has published several reflections on the attack and its repercussions.

In July, 1948, Major General Sherman Miles, the chief of Army intelligence between 1940 and 1942, wrote "Pearl Harbor in Retrospect," in which he examined why the base at Pearl Harbor was so dismally ill-prepared for the attack and looked at what was known and communicated at the time among government, intelligence, and military leaders.

It has since been implied that the reason Hawaii was not on the alert was that Washington thought the Japanese would not attack there. That suggestion points up very neatly the crucial issue. For the opposite was true—Washington thought the Japanese would not attack Hawaii largely because it believed Hawaii was alerted and prepared.

That was, admittedly, an assumption, but it was so fundamental an assumption, based on so many years of indoctrination, as well as on issued orders, that it was not questioned by anyone in Washington, from the President down. For guns don't shoot or planes fly by themselves.

Miles likened the events to classical tragedy: for him, looking back, it was as if the disaster arose inexorably from Japan's belief "that the incredible might happen and Hawaii be surprised"—and from dangerous negligence by military leaders in Hawaii.

David M. Kennedy, in his March, 1999, article, "Victory at Sea," traced the dramatic story of how World War II was waged upon the oceans. He began with a look at the attack on Pearl Harbor, through which "a few hundred Japanese pilots enormously widened the arc of naval war, and transformed its very nature." Kennedy contended that, contrary to popular belief, Japan's attack represented not suicidal folly, but a calculated risk.

The plan was hugely ambitious but not mad. Its slender logic resided for the most part in the hope that the isolationist and militarily unprepared Americans would be so stunned by Japan's lightning blows that they would lose the will to fight a protracted war, and would accept a negotiated settlement guaranteeing Japan a free hand in Asia. All the Japanese planners understood that a conventional victory, ending in the complete defeat of the United States, was an impossibility.

In December, 1991, James Fallows's article "Remember Pearl Harbor How?" described Japan's paranoia, in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor's fiftieth anniversary, about a possible backlash of anti-Japanese feelings in the United States.

However the United States responds to the Pearl Harbor observances, it cannot possibly meet the expectations that have been building up in Japan. Indeed, by far the most interesting part of the fiftieth anniversary is the way Japan's opinion-making class—its popular press and foreign-policy specialists—has prepared the public to cringe in dread of U.S. outbursts this month.

Not every recent Japanese article about U.S.-Japanese relations has begun with a phrase like "As the clock ticks toward the anniversary of Pearl Harbor..." But a lot of them seem to start that way.

Fallows pointed out that Japan's intense uneasiness about Pearl Harbor was somewhat surprising, considering that, by contrast, the fiftieth anniversary of the Rape of Nanking "had passed almost unnoticed in Japan." He speculated that part of the explanation may have been that the Japanese anticipated being "victimized"—fifty years later—by a wrathful America as it remembered the sting of Pearl Harbor.

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