Sixty-nine years ago today, one of this nation’s greatest disasters laid the foundation for its greatest triumph.
Some 353 Japanese airplanes launched in two waves from six aircraft carriers achieved one of the most lopsided victories in military history on a peaceful Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor.
The surprise, 90-minute attack disabled the American Pacific Fleet and killed 2,402 Americans. The bombers destroyed 188 aircraft on the ground and sank or disabled 18 ships — including five battleships and three cruisers.
The strike proved a brilliant tactical victory by eliminating the American fleet as a factor in a whirlwind Japanese offensive that conquered the whole Pacific.
However, the attack proved a greater disaster for Japan than for the United States, making their eventual abject defeat all but inevitable.
The Japanese calculated perfectly — even though the three U.S. aircraft carriers weren’t in port. Fear of the carriers prompted the Japanese fleet to break off the attack after smashing the battleships, leaving the oil storage and ship-building facilities relatively unscathed.
But that wasn’t their mistake.
The tragic mistake the Japanese made was the calculation that it was fear that had kept the pacifistic and isolationist Americans on the sidelines as Hitler overwhelmed Europe and Japan rampaged through China and Southeast Asia.
Surely the fearful and self-centered Americans would recoil from all-out war if Japan destroyed half our Navy in a single stroke, so thought Japanese military planners.
Instead, that “Day of Infamy” instantly snuffed out the until-then vociferous anti-war faction. Hitler made a similar miscalculation when he immediately declared war to support his Japanese ally.
Pearl Harbor united the American people as nothing else could have done — as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks also discovered. Even militarily, it proved surprisingly ineffective.
The U.S. had already planned to withdraw from the Pacific and deal with Hitler first in the event of war. The loss of its battleships simply made the U.S. military planners rely from the start on our carriers.
This came even before the admirals on either side fully realized what Pearl Harbor itself proved — the battleships that dominated World War I had been rendered a secondary role by the advent of the aircraft carrier.
The 2,402 Americans who died that day paid the ultimate price to rouse their nation to that titanic struggle, which reshaped the whole world.
We must dedicate this day to their memory and to the memory as well of the 50 million who died in that unimaginable war.
Hopefully we will remember the great lesson of their sacrifice, in these times of great challenge and disheartening partisan bickering.
Americans can surmount any challenge, make any sacrifice, face any enemy — so long as we join together with one heart.