Before 9/11, December 7, 1941 was arguably – apart from Independence Day – the most memorable date in United States history. In fact, 9/11/2001 and 12/07/1941 have a great deal in common. They were both sneak attacks. They were unprovoked. They caused irreparable damage to both American property and the American psyche. They prompted the U.S. into taking global action. They forever changed the U.S. view of the world and of our place within it.
There is, however, one great difference between the two, one very great difference. Very little good came of the events of 9/11. The tragedy at Pearl Harbor, however, saved the world.
There’s no doubt that the U.S. entry into WWII on the side of the Allies turned the tide of the war. The fighting power of our men overseas and the productive power of our machinery at home were the indispensable keys to an Allied victory. But without Pearl Harbor, would the U.S. ever even have entered the war? And without American intervention, would the Allies have lost?
It’s a frightening yet very real possibility, as history has shown us. World War I was essentially at a stalemate until the U.S. arrived in 1917 with its fresh bodies and materiel. Without the “doughboys” and the factories that supplied them, the two European sides would have worn themselves out fighting their war of attrition. Eventually they would have returned to their familiar and welcoming homes, drained, exhausted, and hopefully more wary of the wonders of war. Even without U.S. involvement, peace was probably inevitable, although it may have taken a great deal more time and suffering to achieve.
But World War II wasn’t like the Great War. It wasn’t a war of misguided national sentiment and entangling alliances, a war of nineteenth-century attitudes and twentieth-century technology. No, WWII was about terror, domination, and imperial acquisition. It was about ruling the world and the people within it. The Axis powers didn’t merely re-draw the national boundaries of the countries they conquered; they altered the most intimate aspects of the lives of the citizens within their borders. There was no “going home” for soldiers returning from that war, whether they won it or not. Home as they knew it had ceased to exist. And this is what made an Allied victory an absolute necessity.
My guess is that the U.S. probably couldn’t have stayed out of WWII forever, even if it had wanted to. And indeed, by the time of Pearl Harbor, it was already clandestinely involved in aiding the Allies. Yet suppose Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened. How long would it have taken the U.S. to intervene in the war?
Full-scale mobilization of a “sleeping giant” like the United States takes time, even when its Pacific fleet hasn’t just been virtually destroyed. Think about it. From the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day was two and a half years in the making. Since such an offensive could not have taken place in the winter or fall, this means that if the U.S. had found itself compelled to enter the war just four months later than it did, the landing in Europe might have been delayed by as much as a year.
Another year of war. How many hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – would have died in the concentration camps alone if the war had been extended? How many soldiers would have perished along the multiple fronts for which World War II is known? How many more civilians would have starved or been bombed out of their homes? And how much more entrenched in their subject territories would the Axis governments have been if the U.S. had waited another year to render the full force of its aid? How many atomic bombs might have been dropped in order to get them out?
It’s terrible and sad to say, but one of the worst moments in American history may have been the greatest thing to happen to humanity in all of the twentieth century. Let us think about that, when we remember this day that still lives in infamy. They couldn’t have known it then, but for every one of the thirty-six hundred Americans who was killed or wounded that day, hundreds of lives were saved. I don’t doubt it was a sacrifice that every one of them would have been proud to make.