In The Media

How Pearl Harbor attack shaped the modern world

by Jonah Engel Bromwich (feat. Steve Saideman)

The Seattle Times
December 7, 2016

Seventy-five years ago on Dec. 7, shortly before 8 a.m., hundreds of Japanese aircraft dived from the sky in a surprise attack on a U.S. naval base in Hawaii, killing more than 2,400 Americans.

The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked and outraged the nation and led it into war at a time Congress and the American people had been split on the response to an already embattled world.

News articles from Dec. 8 reflected a sudden shift in the national mood. According to New York Times articles from Dec. 9-10, 1941, thousands of men rushed to sign up to serve in the U.S. armed forces, pushing enlistment to new highs.

Congressional leaders debated whether to declare war, not only on Japan but also on Germany and Italy.

Sam Rayburn, who became the longest-serving speaker in the history of the House, was asked that day whether Congress would support war.

“I think that is one thing on which there would be unity,” he was quoted as saying in The Times.

Calling it “a day that will live in infamy,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, and three days later, Germany declared war on the United States.

World War II would see the first and only wartime nuclear strikes, after President Truman ordered attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing more than 125,000 people. More than 50 million died in the war overall.

Decades after Pearl Harbor, nationalist parties are on the rise in the West and East. With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, the British vote to exit the European Union and the onset of nationalism in Hungary, France, Austria and Greece, among other nations, some see a world more fractious now than in a long time.

“Seven decades after Pearl Harbor, the guilt, reflection and self-questioning that followed the Second World War have been replaced by resurgent nationalism on both sides of the globe,” Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

The passage of time has also buried old enmities. President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a memorial of the bombing in Hiroshima. This month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said he would visit Pearl Harbor with Obama during a trip on Dec. 26-27. He will be the first sitting Japanese leader to travel to the site of the attack.

The U.S. entry into World War II led to a postwar order in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged as dual superpowers, with Europe left to rebuild.

Today, the spread of populist movements has disrupted politics on a global scale, and some experts see parallels between the world’s mood before the Pearl Harbor attack and the current atmosphere.

Stephen Saideman, a professor of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and an author of the book, “For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism, and War,” pointed to macroeconomic factors.

“Reactions to the Great Depression bred protectionism and authoritarianism,” he said. “The advent of Trump and of far-right populist movements around the world makes us all feel déjà vu.”

Trump has argued that the United States needs to protect its own interests first. He says he is willing to withdraw U.S. forces from Asia, and to renegotiate the nation’s alliances.

In June 1941, the summer before the Pearl Harbor attack, an unsigned analysis in The New York Times explained why many Americans were tending toward pacifism in the face of Adolf Hitler’s rise. It said one reason was the “abiding memory” of World War I, during which many Americans died.

Today, historical memory and first-person recollections of World War II are fading. Only about 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are alive, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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