Pearl Harbor's legacy lives on in focus on readiness, intelligence
December 5, 2016
Few survivors remain from Japan’s stunning attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and the epic global war that followed. But the legacy of the assault and the subsequent U.S. response live on in the DNA of the country’s readiness-fixated military and global focus on intelligence gathering.
“The America that woke up on Dec. 7, 1941, was a very different nation than the one that went to sleep that evening, in so many ways,” said Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation to War” published in 2011.
The early-morning attack by Japanese fighters and bombers, launched from the decks of six aircraft carriers, was a staggering success. All eight Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor were damaged, with four sunk – although six were eventually repaired and entered the war. The attack also damaged three cruisers and three destroyers; 2,403 Americans died in the raid, with almost 1,200 more wounded.
The U.S. declared war on Japan the following day, and within a week it was also at war with Germany and Italy.
America before Pearl Harbor had been largely in the grips of a powerful isolationist movement that had deep roots in American society and powerful influence in Congress that had limited President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to respond to expansionist Fascism and Nazism in Europe, Gillon said.
In December 1940, Roosevelt had instituted the Lend-Lease initiative, a veiled attempt to provide Great Britain — under German air siege and essentially broke — with ships and war supplies on credit. Roosevelt wanted to do more, but the American public was wary of being pulled into another European conflict so soon after World War I.
“It was after Dec. 7 that we abandoned the illusion that the oceans would protect us from the problems in Asia or in Europe,” Gillon said. “We abandoned the illusion that we could survive without our national interest being tied to our closest allies, and it forced us to realize that we needed to play an ongoing and significant role in the world in order to protect our national interest.
“After Dec. 7, America became a world power and remains one today.”
The isolationist movement crumbled virtually overnight. While strains of it have bubbled to the surface in the past 75 years, America has maintained a foreign policy of engagement.
While the losses on Dec. 7 were largely to the Navy, the attack led to a seismic shift in America’s military.
“I think it’s fair to say that for 75 years now, our military services have had this kind of overriding emphasis at every level — from the highest levels of leadership down to the enlisted ranks -- on readiness, on being prepared to fight at the drop of a hat,” said Ian Toll, author of “Pacific Crucible” and “The Conquering Tide,” the first two books in a planned trilogy about the war in the Pacific.
“I think that a lot of that goes back to Pearl Harbor because that was not the way things worked prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he said. “The suddenness of that attack, the total surprise that was achieved and the sudden realization that we had been thrust into this global war after having not really prepared for it, was a lesson that went very deep into that generation of military leaders. I think that’s been handed down from one generation to the next, and we still have that emphasis on being ready.”
The attack also forced the Navy to change its strategy in entering the war in the Pacific.
“We lost all eight of our battleships in literally the first 15 minutes” of what was to be an “unprecedented trans-Pacific campaign,” Toll said.
“And so the Navy then had to begin the campaign in those first dicey six months before the Battle of Midway with what it had left, which was aircraft carriers and submarines. I think it forced the Navy to orient its initial plans to defeat Japan around these newer weapons – carriers, air power and subs – rather than building a kind of grand scheme around the battle line, which was the more traditional concept of how you win a naval war with your battleships.
“That was a very dramatic change. In the long run I think it was a good change because the war itself really showed that the battleship was no longer the queen of the sea. The big gun battleship was something that was only going to be useful in specific roles, specifically as a platform for anti-aircraft weaponry to protect carriers. And secondly, the big guns could be used for softening up beaches and for support of an amphibious landings.”
The Navy, however, was not starting from scratch in this new frontier of maritime warfare, said David Kohnen, who teaches maritime history at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and is writing a book about Ernest J. King, the dual commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of naval operations during WWII.
In the years before the Pearl Harbor attack there was already a “radical revolution” in the Navy in regard to how to employ aircraft carriers, he said.
During fleet exercises in Hawaii in 1932 and 1938 – both of which King was involved in -- Navy aviators flew from aircraft carriers in simulated bombing raids of Oahu.
King and other Navy officers knew the potential of carriers, “but there was a lot of resistance, intellectual resistance, to change within the service that was oriented toward the gun club, the big battleship Navy,” Kohnen said.
This “insurgency ongoing within the ranks of the U.S. Navy about the role of aircraft carriers” coincided with a similar recognition of their potential by naval planners in Great Britain and Japan, particularly Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who would ultimately command Japan’s fleet and plan the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said.
“It’s just a situation where the Japanese were able to pull off the Pearl Harbor attack,” he said.
And if the U.S. quickly embraced the future of carrier power as a result of the Pearl Harbor attack, it also acquired a healthy appreciation for robust intelligence gathering in the wake of a raid that had been imagined in exercises but had blindsided the Navy in reality.
“I would say during the Second World War that the Navy developed an understanding and appreciation for the role of intelligence and in the function that intelligence has in relation to planning and executing operations at sea. That also remains in the DNA of the United States Navy,” Kohnen said.
On the American side, there was much discussion about where the Japanese might possibly attack, and the U.S. did have a lot of information about Japanese intentions, Kohnen said. “But that information was scattered around various subdivisions of Army and Navy and State Department intelligence subdivisions. There was no central coordination about information.”
With the enactment of the National Security Act of 1947, which restructured U.S. intelligence agencies and established the Central Intelligence Agency, “the institutional changes that were brought about by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor have become a fabric of American society,” Gillon said.
“The Second World War, in particular the Pacific war, showed that we were a global military superpower that could fight anywhere in the world, that could project logistics into some of the most remote and inaccessible regions on the planet -- and to be able to push the military force across the greatest ocean in the world,” Toll said.
“I think it established for the first time in the minds of our military and political leadership that we have the ability to impose our will militarily anywhere. And, of course, that remains true to today.”
As the Soviet Union emerged as a threat to the United States soon after World War II, America responded “with this new mindset of Pearl Harbor and that leads to the sort of national security state that we have come to live with ever since,” Gillon said.
“Maybe that’s the key of what Pearl Harbor did. It forced us to recognize our vulnerability in the world, and that is what triggers the buildup of the armed services, the building up of the national security apparatus: We would never allow there to be another Pearl Harbor.”
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