Seventy years ago today, America was thrust into the greatest conflict the world had ever known. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Field by the Imperial Japanese Navy shattered America’s sense of security and proved the fallacy of isolationist thought. The idea that the United States could sit out the European and Asian conflagrations was always a false one, and attempts to straddle the line between supporting Europe’s democracies and maintaining non-belligerence were becoming increasingly strained. Perhaps most naïve was the thought that our Pacific possessions might not become the target of Japanese aggression simply because Japan was embroiled on mainland China.
In reality, of course, Pearl Harbor was but one element of a massive Japanese invasion into Southeast Asia, targeting British, Dutch, French, and American territories in a bid to impose such high costs at the outset of war that the Western powers would forgo serious attempts to regain lost ground. The Japanese hoped for a negotiated peace on their terms that would leave them the hegemon of a completely rewritten Asia-Pacific order.
The world of 1941, already embroiled in war, looked little like that after 1945, with its interwoven network of international institutions. Divided into colonial spheres, with very weak global organizations, the international system of the pre–World War II era seems far more competitive than today’s, and one in which America, of course, played a far smaller role. Yet the latent military and political potential of the country was as evident as it already commanding economic strength. Regardless of the unformed nature of American international thought, the country was all but bound ultimately to enter into the great world struggle on the side of liberalism, both political and economic.
What is unknowable, of course, is the degree to which America’s low level of military preparedness contributed to the breakdown of order, particularly in the Pacific but perhaps in Europe as well. Quickly demobilizing its forces after World War I, the United States maintained a token force through the 1920s and much of the 1930s. The country did not think in terms of power projection or forward presence, except perhaps for its fleet anchored off of Ford Island at Pearl Harbor. Its inability to have a credible defense for the Philippines, let alone any type of security posture in Europe, certainly helped contribute to the vacuum that was filled by totalitarian powers.
When war came, it was a largely peacetime force (despite years of conflict in Asia and Europe) that was blasted out of its beds on that Sunday morning on Oahu. The extraordinary effort that galvanized the country in the following years, not least in wartime industrial production, may have been less necessary, had America not chosen to all but unilaterally disarm the prior decades. Moreover, for the Japanese, the state of American unreadiness contributed to the belief that they could deliver a knockout blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, thereby making it ironically more of a target than if it had been just part of a larger and more diverse force.
The lessons of Pearl Harbor are many, as is the responsibility to honor the heroic dead of that day. One lesson we grapple with again, is whether the national choice to reduce the military may one day lead either to miscalculation on the part of those wishing us harm or to the inability of the United States to uphold global order and stability. The result of either would be far more expensive in blood and treasure than keeping up our strength for all to see.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.