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The Real Meaning Of Pearl Harbor

July 2024
6min read

The Japanese planes that came screaming down on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, changed the whole course of history. The United States was plunged into a long, grueling war. But more than that, the lives of most Americans were to be altered radically not just for the duration of the war, but forever.

Looking back after forty years, Pearl Harbor stands out as a moment of high drama—a turning point in history for the United States and the world. Things were never to be the same again. History has become divided by a clear prewar and postwar line of cleavage. This had happened to Europe in World War I. Now it was happening to the United States and the rest of the world, with Pearl Harbor the moment of sharpest transition.

On that Sunday morning most Americans sensed that a great change was taking place, but they had little concept of what was really happening. There undoubtedly would be a terrible war, they knew, but beyond that most assumed that the eventual defeat of Japan and Germany would give birth to a new world order that would permit the United States to continue in its old semi-isolated calm. How many foresaw the collapse of all overseas empires, the cold war between the communist and noncommunist nations, and how these developments would split the world into at least three major segments? Who realized that America itself would have to serve for a while as the main support of world order, and that even after the other great nations had recovered, American military power would have to continue to play a major stabilizing role? Who foresaw that economic and technological advances would make even a rich continental nation like the United States economically dependent on the rest of the world and banish for good the dream of splendid isolation? Finally, who for a moment could have imagined that in this strange new world it would be America’s erstwhile enemies, Japan and Germany, who would prove to be its most stalwart supporters and allies?

Pearl Harbor marked a shift in the course of American and world history so sudden and sharp as to be almost unbelievable. But a long history led up to it that makes this abrupt change more comprehensible. One might compare this history to that of the Yellow River in North China. Over the centuries this mighty silt-laden torrent has built up its bed until it runs between man-made dikes high above the flat North China Plain. Then some sudden catastrophe breaches the dikes, and the vast flow rushes out onto the plain in a radically new direction, entering the sea hundreds of miles north or south of the old mouth and changing the geography of all North China in the process. Pearl Harbor did this for America and the world.

One layer of sediment was the growing economic interdependence of the whole industrialized world in its need for energy, raw materials, markets, and advanced technology. This would have come regardless of Pearl Harbor, but it struck the world with more sudden impact as a result of the war.

Another and more crucial layer was the rise of the non-Western parts of the world, particularly East Asia, and their challenge to the military, political, and economic dominance the West had established in the nineteenth century. Here the imbalance between old accepted patterns and current realities had become so great that, once Pearl Harbor shattered the dikes, the flow of history rushed off permanently in a new direction.

The United States had always faced east toward Europe, from which most Americans had originally come. The Pacific remained a remote frontier—a back door into a different world of little concern to the average American. But involvement with Asia had been growing slowly and steadily nonetheless. In the early days Americans had merely ridden on the coattails of British imperialism in order to participate in the fabled China trade, but by 1853 the United States had taken the lead in opening Japan to intercourse with the West. And by the end of the nineteenth century the United States had itself stumbled into an experiment with imperialism in the Philippines and, as the foremost industrial power, was beginning to take the lead in trying to keep the doors of China open to the trade of all comers. In the twentieth century a naval rivalry grew up with Japan as the only other major naval power in the Pacific. An even sharper rivalry also arose over Japan’s attempts to expand its empire in China and close China’s doors to everyone else.

In this last clash two distinct elements were involved. One was the fact that Japan, having modernized its military and economic institutions in imitation of the West, now found that it depended on foreign resources and markets to live but lacked the base of a broad overseas empire or a vast continental expanse such as the leading powers of the West possessed. Its push into China was a belated effort to make up for this weakness. (Germany and Italy made parallel moves in the West, in part out of similar motives.)

The second factor was the rise of nationalism throughout Asia and the whole non-Western world, partly inspired by the success of the Japanese and especially their defeat of Russia in 1904-5. Native passivity, the sand on which the structure of Western imperialism had been erected, was starting to be washed away by new intellectual currents. The rise of Chinese nationalism also meant that the Japanese had to act fast if they were to carve out their empire before it was too late. This set the time for the Japanese war of conquest in China that finally led to Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor would not have been such a shattering blow to Americans or such a disastrous blunder for the Japanese if both sides had not been blinded by historical stereotypes. Americans were so deeply instilled with nineteenth-century concepts of Western racial and cultural superiority that they could not really believe the “little” Japanese would dare attack them, even though, in the weeks preceding Pearl Harbor, American intelligence had gathered clear evidence of an impending strike. The Japanese, for their part, thought Americans so decadently soft in their splendid isolation that they would not have the perseverance to try to pierce the far-flung defense lines Japan established for itself through its smashing early victories. Nor did the Japanese realize that the shock of Pearl Harbor would unite a deeply divided America; nor did they comprehend that the nations of the world had become so economically interdependent that American leaders could not tolerate its being divided into great Japanese, German, and Soviet zones of hegemony.

Once Pearl Harbor breached the dikes, the river of history rushed off on a startling new course. The liquidation of the Japanese empire was soon followed by the collapse of even the oldest of the overseas Western empires. The resulting welter of poor, weak, new states—together with some similarly backward units left over from the old order—produced a so-called Third World, united in resentful defiance of the customary leadership of the West.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world had split between the First World democracies of the West and the Second World of communism, now greatly expanded through the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the Chinese communists over the Kuomintang. The United States found itself to be the military mainstay of the First World in the cold war that grew out of Soviet ambitions to further spread communism and the American tendency to interpret instability anywhere in the world as the result of Soviet machinations. Significantly this situation led to major hot wars for the United States, not across the Atlantic but across the Pacific in Korea and Vietnam.

In a more constructive vein, the United States, which was the only major power to survive the war without serious injury, used its position of temporary economic dominance to take the lead in creating a worldwide system aiming at free trade and international economic cooperation. It is to America’s credit that it accepted the inevitability of economic interdependence and used it to build an economic system that is more likely to provide the real basis of a new world order than is the theoretically admirable but practically impotent United Nations.

In this new age of rapid international economic growth, the brilliant economic success of Japan soon made it America’s chief overseas trading partner. Much of the rest of East Asia, specifically South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, followed Japan’s lead in spectacular economic growth, with the result that America’s trans-Pacific trade began to overshadow its trade with Europe. World geography was changing: the economic center began to shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (China’s current attempt to free itself from the shackles of dogmatic reliance on a planned economy gives promise of an even greater geographic shift of economic power in the future.)

America’s strong partnership with Japan has been one of the least expected but most significant results of the changed course of world history. Cataclysmic defeat convinced the Japanese that economic security could never be built through empire but could only be maintained by world peace and free trade. They also became persuaded that dictatorial rule, especially by the military, had brought disaster and that democracy was the only safe alternative. Building on their own experience with parliamentary government between 1890 and 1931, and with the vigorous encouragement of the American occupation, they have established one of the most efficient and stable democratic systems in the world. Though less recognized, this achievement probably surpasses their construction of the world’s most efficient industrial system. In any case, this remarkable transformation of Japan has inevitably made her our close partner in approaching world problems.

Somewhat the same shift in attitudes and a similar course of events accounts for Germany’s change in its relationship with us; Japan’s transformation is far more significant. Not only is Japan the second largest unit among the countries of the First World, in both economic strength and in population, it is the only nation of non-Western race or cultural background to have become a member of that group. As a result, the old term “the West” has been given less racially restrictive meaning. Thus Japan holds out hope for a world order that will in time transcend the racial and cultural divisions that defined the international system of the nineteenth century.

When the Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many people may have realized that the world would never be the same again, but none could have imagined how different it would be just four decades later. There can be no doubt that it has abandoned the old nineteenth-century riverbed, and while its final destination may not yet be clear, it obviously will be far removed from the old river mouth.

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