For a growing segment of Americans, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, is either a fading or forgotten turning point in U.S. history. And turning point it was. The world changed. The change was profound, not only for the United States, but for the entire family of nations.
Can it be that it was 75 years ago today that American service members, rising to a beautiful Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field were jolted by the sneak attack? Can it be that three-quarters of a century have passed since President Franklin Roosevelt gave his "Day of Infamy" speech to the assembled members of a shocked Congress just one day after the attack?
It's ancient history to many 21st century Americans. But it is as immediate as if it happened yesterday to the dwindling numbers of "The Greatest Generation," the men and women who mobilized the nation's sleeping industrial giant, and went off in mind-boggling numbers to fight Japan and not long after, Nazi Germany.
The attack that destroyed most of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet while the ships were moored at docks (aircraft carriers were out to sea), changed the world because it changed the United States. The isolationism that characterized U.S. policy was blown away by the Japanese bombs. The U.S., a nation that was at best a second-rate power with a relatively small armed services, would in short order become a global military, industrial and economic power, the likes of which the world had never seen, and U.S. enemies never anticipated.
Within months, the nation was fully engaged on the homefront and in the theaters of World War II. Well into the war in the Pacific, U.S. ships and planes had sunk or crippled every Japanese aircraft carrier that had launched planes against Pearl Harbor. A couple of major sea and air battles that were won by the repaired and expanded U.S. fleet ended Japan's ability to fight a war at sea.
The history of Pearl Harbor resonates today. In 1941, Americans were complacent about the fires raging in Asia and Europe. "None of our business," was the prevailing sentiment. In 2016, the inheritors of 1941's isolationist voices argue that we "can't be policeman for the whole world." But among the lessons of Pearl Harbor is that the U.S. must always be prepared, not just to face down a direct threat, but also to put out a fire before it threatens to spread our way.