Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Final Roll Call

Later today, survivors of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack will gather in Hawaii for their last reunion. The remaining veterans of the surprise Japanese strike are now in their 80s and 90s and battling serious health problems; by the time the next "official" commeration is held (in 2011), many of those who survived that Day of Infamy will no longer be with us.

Virtually all members of the Greatest Generation have their own, particular memories of that Sunday in December. My father was an Army private at Camp Polk, Louisiana, called up earlier that year in the nation's first peacetime draft. After he "won" the draft lottery, my father was a grocery store manager for Kroger in northeast Arkansas. On December 7, 1941, he had approximately six months left on his one-year hitch, and was anxious to return to civilian life.

A little past twelve noon, one of my father's buddies was tinkering with a radio when the first bulletins were broadcast on CBS Radio and the NBC Networks. (The University of Missouri-Kansas City has an excellent archive of radio clips from that day which can be accessed here). The men in his barracks--like most Americans--spent much of the afternoon in stunned silence, listening to updates from Hawaii, the gravity of the disaster quickly becoming apparent. My father had only a junior college education, but hearing the news of Pearl Harbor, he instantly understood that his return to civilian life would be greatly delayed. He was finally discharged from the Army in 1946, after fighting across Europe with the 3rd Armored Division.

Over the past five years, many have drawn parallels between Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of 9-11. On the whole, I believe those comparisons are valid. The U.S. was forever changed by the events on that September morning in 2001, just as our nation was transformed by the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the sense of unity that followed 9-11 quickly devolved into political sniping and partisanship. Yesterday's ISG report seems to confirm the belief that the U.S. won't stay the course if the going gets tough.

Indeed, one wonders what advice Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton would have offered to FDR in December, 1941. Most of our Pacific fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor; the Japanese had invaded the Philippines and portions of Southeast Asia, and we were powerless to stop them. The British bastions at Hong Kong quickly fell, and Singapore's collapse would come days later. Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. only days after the Japanese attack, meaning that America would have to fight a two-front war, at an tremendous cost in lives and national treasure. Would a 1941 version of the ISG urge President Roosevelt to "negotiate" with our foes?

Flash forward a year. What would Baker and Hamilton have offered at the end of our first, full year in the war. By that point, we had won a decisive naval and air victory at Midway--stemming the Japanese advance in the Pacific--but elsewhere, the war news was grim. Soldiers and Marines were bogged down on Guadalcanal and our navy had suffered a series of stinging defeats in the waters around the Solomons. Moreover, our air and naval forces seemed unable to stop Japanese convoys from reinforcing their positions on Guadalcanal, creating the appearance of a bloody stalemate. More than 10,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines would die in the campaign, many between August and December, 1942.

In North Africa, green U.S. troops had pushed ashore, but they were facing a showdown with the battle-hardened veterans of Rommel's Afrika Korps. Some observers openly wondered if untested American soldiers were up to that challenge, and the speculation only increased after the disaster at Kasserine Pass in March, 1943. At that point, we wonder if Baker, Hamilton and Robert Gates would conclude that the U.S. "wasn't winning the war," and therefore, it was time for a new approach.

We should all be thankful that our leaders were made of sterner stuff back then. Despite early setbacks--and heavy U.S. casualties, Roosevelt persisted, believing that his strategy would ultimately prove successful. He allowed his military commanders to make operational and tactical adjustments, including the replacement of incompetent officers. Allied victory was far from assured at the end of 1942, but FDR saw no need to appoint an advisory group to find a quick exit from the conflict. And there's no record of anyone suggesting a "New Diplomatic Offensive" toward Berlin, Rome and Tokyo in the dark days of World War II.

The lessons of Pearl Harbor--and its aftermath--have not been lost on those now serving in the armed forces. But sadly, those lessons have little meaning (or relevance) in the halls of Washington, D.C., where "regional engagement" has become a new euphemism for military success. Today's troops are worthy successors to the Greatest Generation; the same cannot be said for their political leaders and those who offer counsel.


On last year's anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we published this piece, on The Disaster that Shortened World War II. Prior to the Japanese attack in Hawaii, U.S. war plans centered on a decisive, Jutland-style engagement, somewhere in the central Pacific. Given Japan's advantages in gunnery, night-fighting, carrier aviation and crew experience in 1941, we believe that the U.S. would have suffered even greater losses in that battle. The likely result of that engagement would have been a forced withdrawal of the U.S. fleet to the west coast; the likely loss of Midway, Hawaii, New Guinea and portions of Australia. In short, America would have fought a much longer and bloodier conflict in the Pacific, had we implemented War Plan Orange in late 1941 or early 1942.


enuff said...

I'm very impressed. Excellent, in all ways.


Mike H. said...

We think that we have the luxury of entertaining the conclusions of the ISG. Not true. The enemy sees something running.