No historian is supposed to use the word “unique.”
After all, everyone knows that nothing is completely unique. Human beings have been living on planet earth for a long time, and every historical event hearkens back to something that happened a long time ago. Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan (although he called it Bactria) in ancient times; so did the Soviet Union and the United States more than two thousand years later. Both Charles X of Sweden and Napoleon I of France invaded Russia, and both of them came to grief. Hitler tried it too. Both the French and the United States attempted to pacify Vietnam, and both of them failed. Like the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
But from 1941–1945, something happened that I would say was unique. Something unlike anything that had happened before or since.
I am speaking of World War II in the Pacific Ocean. Once Japan had conquered its “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” it set up a defensive perimeter in the Pacific, fortifying hundreds of islands in the Solomons, Gilberts, and Marshalls. Backing the perimeter would be huge naval and air bases on the island of Truk in the Carolines and Rabaul on New Britain. Once established in its perimeter, Japan was certain that the U.S. would have no choice but to accept a fait accompli. After all, no U.S. president in his right mind would sacrifice tens of thousands of young Americans in bloody frontal assaults on one obscure island after another, nor would the American people stand for it. Japan viewed the U.S. as a commercial nation, one that knew how to read a balance sheet, how to weigh costs and benefits. By contrast, Japanese superiority in the spiritual realm, bravery, and willingness to die would make the difference. The spirit of Japan, they called it: Yamato-Damashii.
A sensible strategy? Perhaps. But it fell apart early, on day one in fact, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Intended as a surprise blow by the Japanese leadership, it appeared to be something very different to the American people: a “sneak attack,” a devious stroke carried out at the very moment that Japanese envoys were in Washington to negotiate. The very next day, President Roosevelt gave a short speech to Congress. While it barely stretched beyond the 7-minute mark, it summed up the mood. Pearl Harbor wasn’t just an operational defeat. It was a crime, Roosevelt said, a “date which would live in infamy.”
Americans went from antiwar to rabidly prowar overnight. They were now determined to do the very thing that Japan felt they would refuse to do. They demanded a war to the death against Japan, fighting across the vast Pacific Ocean one island, one atoll, one jungle at a time. And they lived up to that pledge, on places like New Guinea or Tarawa.
Oh…and one little detail. That Japanese raid that smashed the U.S. Pacific Fleet? It missed one little detail. Look at this photograph. Tell me what you see. Tell me what is missing.
More next week.