A Day of Infamy
The echoes of history.


September 11, 2003 finds a nation still at war, but facing the ambiguities of victory. It is far too early to celebrate the end of the conflict, yet there is a palpable sense that a corner has been turned. Our enemies taunt us with frightful-yet-unfulfilled threats issued from undiscovered sanctuaries, while Coalition forces face daily hardships in faraway lands. Conquest has brought occupation, and in turn led to preoccupation; unity of purpose has given way to political calculation. And the emotion-laden commemorations of a year ago seem somehow out of place. The nation has come to grips with 9/11; it is now the stuff of lawsuits.

Sixty years ago Americans struggled with another difficult anniversary, one that had been overcome by events. The headlines on December 7, 1943 were about the “Big Three” conference in Teheran, which had concluded a week prior. Security concerns had prompted an embargo on news until the participants were safely away. By then, the president was en route to Malta from meetings in Cairo. The front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post showed Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt sitting on the porch of the Soviet embassy in the Iranian capital. Only the Post gave front-page notice to the attack anniversary, in a small ad at the bottom asking, “Remember Pearl Harbor?” and suggesting readers commemorate it by giving a pint of blood and buying an extra war bond.

A few weeks earlier Congress had passed a joint resolution calling for the observance of “Armed Services Honor Day” on December 7. But President Roosevelt vetoed the measure. “I consider the commemoration … to be singularly inappropriate,” he wrote. “December 7, two years ago, is a day that is remembered in this country as one of infamy on the part of a treacherous enemy. The day itself requires no reminder, and its anniversary should rather serve to cause all the people of the nation to increase their efforts contributing to the successful prosecution of the war.”

The Washington Post affirmed the decision in an editorial on December 3 entitled “No Time To Celebrate,” observing that the day was not only inappropriate but “bitterly ironical.” Pearl Harbor Day was “one of deep humiliation for American arms. It brings back memory of our pitiful unpreparedness and our laxity in the face of disaster and our boastfulness about our national strength … Such memories serve a useful purpose in toughening our minds to accept the realities of war….” However, the Post also noted that emphasizing the day’s “infamy” was really “to advertise our own naiveté.” True, we were taken by surprise — but we should have known it was coming. “However one looks at it, we don’t come out very well on Pearl Harbor day.” Let the Japanese revel in it if they want. And revel they did. The Japanese celebrated “Rescript Day” on the 8th of every month (since in Tokyo the attack occurred December 8) with parades, , and a reading of the declaration of war which was reprinted on the front page of every newspaper. The Japanese puppet government on the Philippines declared a holiday and organized celebrations. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who ordered the attack, gave a speech in which he entreated the Japanese people to greater efforts against the enemy, and predicted ultimate triumph. The speech spawned dueling headlines in the Post (“Tojo Warns Empire Faces Doom”) and Times (“Tojo Sees Victory for Japan in 1944″) emphasizing the beginning and end of the speech respectively.

The war news did not bode well for Japan. There was desperate fighting in New Guinea, where American and Australian troops were pushing Japanese forces back. Plain-speaking Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey vowed that Allied forces had an appointment in Tokyo. “Taking back what was ours originally is just the start,” he said. In theaters across the country the first newsreel footage flickered of the bloody fighting on Tarawa atoll two weeks before. Only one scene was censored, of a Marine burial party with far too much work to do. The Post carried a report from November 24 on a Japanese pillbox still holding out — until the surrounded men inside blew themselves up. The atoll had been declared secure the day before by Major General Julian C. Smith. On the 26th, Marines suffered 90 casualties taking the last of the holdout islands on secure Tarawa. Meanwhile the Texas VFW protested the number of Medals of Honor being awarded, saying it was becoming “as cheap as the Croix de Guerre was in the last war.” Four Marines earned the medal for actions on Tarawa, of which three awards were posthumous. The fourth went to Colonel David Monroe Shoup, who was wounded but survived. He went on to become the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps.

In Europe, Nazi official statements reacting to Teheran said they were well-prepared to resist their enemies and vowed retaliation for the airborne destruction raining down on their cities. Meanwhile a group of forward-looking American educators made plans for exporting educational materials to postwar Europe, to create a firmer basis for democracy and freedom. “The time that is available for such action may be shorter than we think,” they said. And the Washington Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe was formed to urge the president to take action on behalf of the estimated four million Jews still living in Germany and the occupied areas, “to save the surviving Jews of Europe from extinction.”

Ironically, good news on the battlefronts had begun to hurt the war effort at home. The War Department released a film aimed at war workers to prevent a growing sense of confidence from turning into complacency. Civil-defense workers were also advised to remain vigilant, although there had been no major enemy attacks on the homeland since Pearl Harbor. Credit was given in part to the FBI, which stated that over 1,400 “imminently and potentially dangerous” aliens had been interned in the last two years from southern New York state alone; 1,004 Germans, 220 Japanese and 94 Italians, from among twice that number arrested, and after 15,000 house searches. A War Relocation Authority official raised a political storm by suggesting that Japanese internees could be relocated to Ohio and Michigan to help with seasonal agricultural work, and to show Midwestern farmers that it is hygienic to bathe more often. Rep. Roy Woodruff (R., Mich.) said the proposal “is an insult to every farmer in the United States and is of a character to nauseate every person in the country with the power to think.” An Ohio congressman said there were more bathtubs in his district than in all the Japanese empire.

Scapegoating, that inescapable excrescence of tragedy, was still much in evidence two years after the attack. Between 1941 and 1946 there were nine separate investigations of Pearl Harbor by Congress and the executive agencies. On the two-year anniversary, the House took up a bill to nullify the statute of limitations for military and civilian personnel charged with dereliction of duty at Pearl Harbor, making Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, and Lt. General Walter C. Short, Commander, Hawaiian Department, eligible for court martial up to one year after the defeat of Japan. There was some debate over whether Congress was empowered to take this action, and the two officers had already voluntarily waived the two-year limit; but Congress decided the issue would be the Supreme Court’s to sort out. Speaker Rayburn put the matter to a vote and it passed unanimously.

In the Senate debate, Senator Joel Clark (D., Mo.) urged that Secretary of War Stimson and Navy Secretary Knox should themselves be impeached if they did not bring immediate court-martial proceedings. Yet, most in the Senate wanted to put the matter to rest, and agreed only to extend the period six months, to which House leaders agreed in conference. Rep. Hamilton Fish (R., N.Y.), noting the unwillingness of the administration to hold hearings on the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, stated that there “apparently is a New Deal conspiracy to silence critics of foreign policies….Why is the administration afraid to start court-martial proceedings,” he asked, “unless higher-ups are afraid of being involved in the testimony?” But Rep. J. Percy Priest (D., Tenn.) called for an end to partisanship, “a rekindling of the spirit of cooperation displayed in Congress in the period following Pearl Harbor.” He asked that members “refrain from holding daily sessions of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions” on the House and Senate floors. Kimmel and Short were eventually held to be derelict of duty, demoted, and forced into early retirement. In 1986, they were officially honored by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. On May 25, 1999, the U.S. Senate voted 52-47 to clear them of the charges.

In war by the numbers, expenditures were running at $90 billion/year, which at the time was half the gross national product. In the first two years of war there had been 66,047 casualties, of them 27,566 killed. For the mini-McNamaras lately fascinated with body count analysis, that is about 37.8 deaths per day. The Japanese claimed to have killed, wounded, or captured 1.375 million men, to have sunk 31 battleships (the Navy only had 23 total) and 39 aircraft carriers, and shot down over 5,000 aircraft. These and other boasts set the standard the Iraqi information minister attempted to surpass, and probably did.

Given these and other events, the two-year anniversary of December 7, 1941 passed with little public recognition. Afterwards the Times ran a story entitled bluntly, “Pearl Harbor Day Ignored,” and the Post registered the more tempered, “Historic Day Recalled But Not Brooded Over.” At a press conference Secretary of State Cordell Hull summed it up in words that echo with particular poignancy: “this day will always be remembered as the anniversary of perhaps the most infamous act of deeply premeditated treachery in all human affairs.” He could well have been describing September 11, another day made infamous by the enemy’s choosing. The terrorists were the ones who transformed 9/11 from an emergency number to a call to arms. For those who lived it, the day will always be one of pain, of mourning, of sorrow. Like December 7, it was a watershed; we emerged from it into a world both unanticipated and undesired. This day is properly observed with dignity, contemplation, and prayer. Let the enemy rejoice, those who are left alive. We reserve our celebration for a day of our choosing.


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