Flying over Nebraska in the summer of 1943, an Englishman was struck by the "normality--hundreds of miles of it and not a sight or sound to remind one that this was a country at war." Then his lunch tray arrived, and inscribed on the pat of butter was an injunction: "REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR." When Americans pause (if they do pause) to remember what happened 40 years ago, they should ponder the fact that less than two years after Pearl Harbor advertising arts were employed to remind Americans of the war happening elsewhere.
An American who wants to see a place where a foreign nation inflicted violence on American soil in this century of "total war" must travel 5,000 miles and five time zones from his nation's capital, 2,000 miles from the western edge of the continent, to a state that was not a state when attacked. But what happened there initiated events as transforming to the nation as the events initiated 80 years earlier by an attack on another island military installation (Fort Sumter).
Forty years ago this nation was dragged into world history. It is arguable that the dragging happened earlier, on, say, Oct. 23, 1917, near Nancy, France, when an artillery piece of the First American Division fired the first American shot at Germans. But immediately after the armistice Americans spun a cocoon of complacency.
Unlike World War I, which had a clear beginning in the summer of 1914, the conflagration called World War II began in separate blazes. Arguably, it began in April 1932, when Mao Tse-tung, in the name of the Kiangsi Soviet, declared war on Japan. As early as 1932 the United States supported Chinese resistance to Japan. But as late as 1937 isolationism was so strong that Congress barely rejected an Indiana congressman's proposed constitutional amendment that would have made any declaration of war subject to a national referendum.
Five years after Pearl Harbor, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who helped wean his party from isolationism, said the attack "drove most of us to the irresistible conclusion that world peace is indivisible. We learned that the oceans are no longer moats around our ramparts. We learned that mass destruction is a progressive science which defies both time and space. . . ." The era of (in Walter Lippmann's phrase) "effortless security" was over. That "progressive science" meant the end of security, as traditionally understood, forever. And we now must hope that in an age of constant regional conflicts, peace can be divisible.
Four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States and, immediately, photographs of FDR replaced those of Mussolini in many store windows on Mulberry Street in New York. The attack punctuated a dreary dozen years. An 18-year-old in 1941 had been 6 when the stock market collapsed. Suddenly 18- year-olds had jobs, some of them dangerous jobs.
By the Depression, Americans were (in Daniel Boorstin's words) "cheated of our uniqueness." Pearl Harbor completed the process of ending the belief in "American exceptionalism." Americans were not after all guaranteed by their physical setting either easy prosperity or easy security. Suddenly, they had to take soldiering seriously.
D.W. Brogan, the historian, wrote that until Pearl Harbor the regular soldier, the "30-year- men" of James Jones' novel "From Here to Eternity," were more isolated from the national life than were the British soldiers Kipling knew in Lahore. As Brogan also wrote about America, "No nation more cheerfully turns its swords into plowshares . . . (and) no nation plowshares into swords with such speed or has so many plows to turn. The Army that was using wooden model weapons in maneuvers in 1940 and 1941 was a great military power by the end of 1942. . . ."
Japan's hope that Pearl Harbor would shatter American morale was one of history's huge miscalculations. But events also refuted the Allies' assumption that saturation bombing of civilians would shatter enemy morale. Indeed, compared with the indiscriminate forms of violence eventually used by both sides in both theaters of war, that first Japanese attack seems almost gallant and archaic: military power used against military targets.
Japan made its attack the way it subsequently turned to making consumer goods: brilliantly. Then it ran off a string of victories more brilliant than Hitler's generals gave him.
Forty years on, the great warrior nation is a Jewish state that did not exist in 1941, and the great commercial nation is Japan. History, although frequently horrible, is endlessly surprising.