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Day Of Infamy Essays

Why, with $30 billion a year spent on intelligence, couldn't our F.B.I., C.I.A. and N.S.A. prevent this well-coordinated, two-city attack?

Airline security at Washington-Dulles and Boston-Logan broke down, but was there no communication among conspirators that our satellites or computers could detect?

Did cardboard cutters outsmart airline security? Now our aircraft will include armed guards as passengers, and our supertech spooks will be forced back into planting human spies and suborning enemy contacts with money and blackmail.

When we get solid information about the centers and resources of the terror network, how do we retaliate?

Five years of investigation and trials and appeals, as after the first World Trade Center attack, deter nobody. Lobbing a few missiles at possible training sites, as President Clinton hastily and ineffectually did, is a demeaning pretense.

Lashing out on the basis of inadequate information is wrong, but in terror-wartime, waiting for absolute proof is dangerous. When we reasonably determine our attackers' bases and camps, we must pulverize them -- minimizing but accepting the risk of collateral damage -- and act overtly or covertly to destabilize terror's national hosts. The Pentagon's rebuilt fifth side should include a new Department of Pre-emption.

Did our national leadership respond well in the first hours of crisis, when nobody knew what would follow the devastation in New York and the attack in Washington?

Stopping air and rail transportation was necessary, and blocking access to national monuments and federal offices was prudent. New York's governor and mayor did their duty by sticking to their posts and reassuring their fellow New Yorkers live on television, recalling King George VI during London's blitz.

But the Secret Service took full charge of President Bush, who was in Florida, running him secretly around the country making a nervous tape. Even in the first horrified moments, this was never seen as a nuclear attack by a foreign power. Bush should have insisted on coming right back to the Washington area, broadcasting -- live and calm -- from some secure facility not far from the White House.

In the president's absence from the city, Vice President Dick Cheney hurried to the Situation Room. No Haigian ''I'm in charge'' was needed, but an earlier and more visible sense of steadiness would have helped. Despite the evacuation of executive and Congressional offices, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited his wounded Pentagon troops and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, remained in place.

What comes now?

Along with the funerals, the grieving and the intelligence shakeup comes a grim recognition that America is at war and this time our land is one of the battlegrounds. The next attack will probably not be by a hijacked jet, for which we will belatedly prepare. More likely it will be a terrorist-purchased nuclear missile or a barrel of deadly germs dumped in a city's reservoir.

Which poses the most pertinent question: What are we doing to protect our skies, to develop innate immunity and multivalent vaccines, and to carry the war to the enemy?

Continue reading the main story

    If we are to have war with America, we will have no hope of winning unless the U. S. fleet in
    Hawaiian waters can be destroyed.
           -Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet

    ...Admiral Yamamoto radioed the task force: 'Climb Mount Niitaka.'  It was code for 'Proceed with
    the attack.'
        -Day of Infamy

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America
    was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan . . . .
        -President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the rare historic events whose significance and continuing ramifications it is probably impossible to overstate.  What If? games are inherently silly, however fascinating, and they can't produce any certain answers, but consider the course that history might have taken had the attack (or another like it) never occurred.  To an extent that Americans no longer seem willing to concede--witness the hysterical reaction to Pat Buchanan's musings on the subject--Pearl Harbor was the proximate cause of the United States' entry into World War II.  But for the attack, it is entirely possible that America would have safely sat out the War.  This in turn would have meant either a bloody stalemate between Nazi Germany and the USSR or victory by one, followed by a debilitating attempt to control the European land mass.  Meanwhile, Japan would have had a free hand to completely overextend itself in the South Pacific.  Ultimately, the victorious Axis powers, and/or the Soviets, would have collapsed of their own weight.  The Cold War would have been avoided and along with it the fifty year long economic displacement that the U. S. suffered through.  Or suppose that Japan had simply declared war before attacking : would the lack of the "sneak" in the attack have made enough of an emotional difference for Americans not to have imprisoned our own Japanese-American population or not to drop the atomic bombs on Japan ?  Well, you get the picture; we're talkin' big, big deal here.

What makes this event all the more remarkable is how utterly futile it was.  Even if the bombings had been completely successful and all the U. S. Naval ships in port that day had been destroyed  (in fact, only two battleships, one target ship, and two destroyers were permanently lost), what good would that have done Japanese war aims ?  At best it might have bought them a very little extra time in which to try to expand, and thus further overextend, their Empire.  There was never any chance that the Japanese could actually attack the American mainland, which meant that the U. S. would have the opportunity to rebuild those ships at her leisure. And, once entered into the War, it was inevitable that the U. S. would defeat Japan and Germany.    Pearl Harbor was essentially a national suicide mission by the Japanese.

One natural outgrowth of the importance of this episode is that for sixty years now there have been all kinds of recriminations and conspiracy theories surrounding the events of December 7, 1941.  Volumes have been written about what Roosevelt knew and when he knew it.  Ditto for Churchill.   U. S. Intelligence services have taken a beating.  The various military commanders have been blamed.  And so on, and so forth, with the unfortunate result that most versions of the day's events have some axe or another to grind.

One exception to this rule is Walter Lord's thrilling moment-by-moment account of the attack in his great book, Day of Infamy.  Ignoring all of the controversies and avoiding any finger pointing, Lord simply reconstructs, as best anyone can, what happened on that fateful day.  His thoroughness is staggering.  He interviewed some 577 participants, both Japanese and American,  and their recollections give the story an extraordinary level of intimacy and immediacy (for a similar effect see a more recent book on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton).  Though Lord masterfully  imposes order on the material, these first hand accounts convey a sense of just how chaotic things were during and after the bombings.  And he captures a sense of the violation that Americans felt in the wake of the attack.  Standards of conduct in warfare have fallen so far since then that it's easy to forget how outraged all of America was by this perfidious action.  Literally overnight, a healthy and so far triumphant Isolationist movement dissipated, as even the most vocal advocates of staying out of the War, voiced their commitment to avenging this wrong.

I've been a huge fan of Walter Lord's books since I was a kid. [In fact, I was shocked to hear that he's still alive.]  In addition to this one, he's written excellent books about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember, and about the War of 1812, The Dawn's Early Light.  Not that these are specifically kids' books, but they have a couple of things that recommend them.  Lord writes clearly and concisely.  Wherever possible he relies on the accounts of people who were there.  And, because he doesn't seek to place blame or provoke argument, the stories are populated by heroes, rather than goats.  Best of all they are truly exciting.  This sixtieth-anniversary edition of Day of Infamy has a cover blurb saying that one million copies of the book have been sold; here's hoping they sell a million more.

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