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Ideas | Ian W. Toll

The paradox of Pearl Harbor

Davide Bonazzi for The Boston Globe

When a momentous historical anniversary comes along, like the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, historians are asked to mark the occasion with retrospective thoughts, and perhaps to apply the lessons of the past to the context of the present. The attacks on 9/11 were called this century’s Pearl Harbor, and there are relentless warnings of a future cyber Pearl Harbor always lurking over the horizon.

This analysis is an important ritual and a valuable one. There is no shortage of lessons offered by the “date which will live in infamy.” The attack taught us to expect the unexpected, to recognize that the world is smaller than it appears, and to remain vigilant against international threats.


But there’s also a paradox: The more thoroughly we document and analyze the Japanese attack, the more difficult it becomes to recover the immediate shock, bewilderment, horror, and wrath felt by those on the receiving end. We look back on Pearl Harbor as a node on a timeline. In the history textbooks, it marks the end of the chapter on the Great Depression and the beginning of the chapter on the Second World War. It is explained chiefly in terms of how it altered the course of history. By bringing the United States into the war, scholars tell us, Pearl Harbor launched the country onto the global stage, assured the eventual defeat of the Axis, and ended the Depression. It prompted the disgraceful roundup of Japanese-Americans, planted the seeds of the civil rights movement, and offered a generation of women their first taste of economic independence.

Among historians, the foregoing conclusions are largely uncontroversial, even commonplace. But none were foreseen on Dec. 7, 1941. The passage of time strips away the searing immediacy of the surprise attack and envelops it in layers of scholarly exposition and retrospective judgment. Hindsight furnishes us with perspective on the crisis, but it also undercuts our ability to empathize with the immediate concerns of those who suffered through it.

There is not another event in American history that has been more exhaustively studied. Nine separate military and congressional investigations produced hundreds of volumes of testimony and conclusions. Following the peace in 1945, the US Strategic Bombing Survey interrogated Japanese planners and participants, and recorded their detailed answers. The experiences of those who witnessed or took part in the events of the day, are preserved in countless letters, memoirs, and oral history collections. The entire story of the attack — planning, execution, and aftermath — can be told in linear fashion, with Japanese and American perspectives tidily and coherently arranged.

But as 1941 recedes into the past, and the remaining survivors advance into their 90s, we inevitably lose touch with the gaping incomprehension, the visceral horror, and the volcanic fury the sudden attack aroused in the moment. It takes a special feat of imagination to recover the feelings of those who looked up, on a seemingly peaceful Sunday morning, and saw Japanese planes descend out of a clear blue sky. John H. McGoran, a sailor on the battleship California, identified the dilemma: “If you didn’t go through it, there are no words that can adequately describe it; if you were there, then no words are necessary.”


For many witnesses, certain memories remain vivid and ineffaceable, even three-quarters of a century later. Smashed, burning, slumping warships beneath a wall of oily black smoke. The ascending shriek of Japanese dive bombers overhead. A mushroom cloud rolling up from the Arizona as its magazine detonated. The oven-like heat that radiated from the burning ships; the plaintive cries of the wounded; the sickly sweet odor of burning flesh; the oil-drenched bodies laid out in rows on the pier, some dead and some still moving.

Hours after the air raid, survivors assumed that an invasion of Oahu must be underway. Rumors of enemy troop landings or paratrooper drops pulsated through the ranks. Spies and saboteurs were said to be everywhere. Friendly fire incidents were endemic and deadly — on the first night after the attack, some units fired on one another for hours at a time. American planes were shot down by nervous antiaircraft gunners. Mistaken eyewitness claims were taken at face value. Men swore they had seen German Stuka bombers flown by blond-haired pilots. (They had not; only Japanese planes and airmen participated in the attack.) Others declared that enemy planes had crashed deliberately into American ships. (They had not, but this was an eerie divination of the kamikaze attacks later in the war.) Enemy aircraft were said to be armed with a mysterious “super explosive” unlike any kind of ordnance previously used in warfare. (The Japanese had attacked with ordinary bombs and torpedoes.)


The hysteria and paranoia quickly reverberated back to the American mainland, where the press reported lurid rumors as facts. Some reports suggested that the Japanese were landing on the West Coast, and that the American Army was preparing a line of defense in the Rockies or on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Air raid alarms wailed in the streets of several American cities as lookouts reported hallucinatory enemy planes. In San Francisco, the local air defense commander reported that Japanese airplanes had definitely approached the city and were driven away by patrolling fighters. Families living near Pacific beaches packed their cars and fled. Store shelves were swept clean in a panic of buying and hoarding. In Washington, the silence of the Navy and War departments only seemed to confirm the worst. Reporters, government officials, and congressmen traded rumors. Not only had the entire Pacific Fleet been wiped out, some maintained, but FDR was going to write off Hawaii and leave its military and civilian inhabitants to the mercy of the enemy.


Those gut-wrenching days are still (just) within the living memory of the World War II generation. In about 15 or 20 more years, no living soul will be able to offer direct witness to the emergency of December 1941. Then, as now, the relevant data will be available in the historical record, but someone who wants to reconstruct the atmosphere of those vertiginous days will have to perform a feat of mental gymnastics — to willfully forget everything he or she knows about what happened next. And that’s more easily said than done.

Looking back from the present, of course, we know what happened next. Within days, the initial shock wore off and the most sensational rumors were discredited. Military leaders soon concluded that the Japanese strike had not been nearly as devastating as it had first appeared. US forces had lost about 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded — a tragic loss, but not crippling. Three hundred thousand tons of shipping had been put out of action, including all eight battleships of the Pacific Fleet — but six would be repaired and returned to service later in the war. The attackers had failed to hit the Pearl Harbor repair shops and fuel tank farms. That meant that the fleet could continue to operate from Hawaii, rather than pull back to San Diego. The submarine fleet was untouched. The temporary loss of the battleships was no calamity, as they were largely obsolete — and by a stroke of luck, the American aircraft carriers had all been at sea, and were thus spared. Just six months later, they scored a devastating counterpunch by sinking four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway.


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the operation, had hoped that the attack would cause a collapse in American morale, perhaps leading to an early truce. Instead, it had precisely the opposite effect — the American people, united in rage and bent on vengeance, would not rest until Japan was conquered and subjugated in 1945.

In Washington, the attack cut the ground out from under the feet of the powerful isolationist faction, whose “stay out of the war” policy had won bipartisan support in Congress and the allegiance of leading newspapers. The isolationist movement collapsed, literally overnight. On Monday, Dec. 8, Congress declared war on Japan with one dissenting vote in the House and none in the Senate. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and Congress reciprocated, this time with unanimous votes in both houses.

The era of American internationalist leadership continued after 1945, through the Cold War and right to the present day. Despite occasional talk of retrenchment, both American political parties remain broadly committed to an internationalist foreign policy with global security obligations. Even now, the term “isolationist” is used only as term of abuse in our politics. President-elect Donald Trump is the first candidate since World War II to win the White House after suggesting (somewhat offhandedly) that the United States might curtail its foreign alliances — a reflection of how powerful a taboo isolationism remains.

Soren Kierkegaard observed that life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward. The same is true of history.

In one sense, we can look back across the decades and say, with justice, “Now we understand what happened, even better than did the men who fought the battle.” Scholars on both sides of the Pacific have largely completed their archival spadework. The relevant documents have been declassified. The secondary literature would fill a small library. New books will undoubtedly be written about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but there is little more to be said that has not been said already. With 75 years between us and our subject, we find it easy to be objective and clinically detached as we consider forces, interests, causes, and effects.

And that’s exactly the problem. The power of an event to alter the course of history is partly explained by the stupendous shock, horror, and fury it provokes in the moment — and we had better do our best to remember it, lest we lose something important in the retelling.

Ian W. Toll is writing a three-volume history of the Pacific War. His last book was “The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944.”