A great war was already going on in Europe, Asia and the Middle East but most Americans lived as if war would never happen. It didn’t seem to matter that that Nazi Germany had conquered all of Western Europe and that the Soviet Union was on the Ropes even as the United States Navy was already in action escorting convoys in the Atlantic. Of course the Japanese had been busy and were entering their second decade of war in China and had occupied French Indochina earlier in 1941. No war was something that happened to other people and nations. The United States of course was immune to what was going on overseas and isolationism dictated much of the political debate often hamstringing the Roosevelt administration.
While the Government and the military anticipated that war was immanent the bulk of the country acted as if war would never happen. Various parties in Congress and special interest groups actively lobbied for the United States to remain clear of war and resisted the Roosevelt administration as it sought to strengthen the military. Thus as December 6th passed the nation focused on everyday life. People went to football games did Christmas shopping and spent time with family.
Now the country had been preparing for war, the Army, the Army Air Corps and the Navy were expanding at a rapid rate. Exercises were held by large Army formations across the South in 1941 and bases were being built around the country. In the years before the war the Japanese had attacked and sunk the gunboat USS Panay in China and German U-Boats had torpedoed and sunk the Destroyers USS Ruben James and damaged the USS Kearny as well as numerous merchant ships. Despite this many people failed to comprehend that war was immanent. In fact there were groups that actively supported the political cause of Nazi Germany right here in the United States. Thus when people found out in the morning or in the afternoon of December 7th 1941 there was a collective sense of shock that had was new to the nation.
December 6th 1941 was the last night of an old world, a world of fantasy. It was the temporary end of the belief that the United States could be isolated from the carnage of war in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For 70 years since we have fought to return to that fantasy world where if we close our eyes and mind our own business that nothing bad will happen. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War we seemed to believe that the world was different and that somehow we were unique, it was told to us by Republicans and Democrats so it had to be true.
Then we were attacked on September 11th 2001 and we went to war, except this time we decided were the wars would be fought but unlike World War II we abdicated the responsibility for conducting the war to a small sliver of the population, never more than half of one percent of the nation to go do the fighting and dying for the rest of us. Instead of a call to service we were told to go shopping. We entered wars with no certainty of what the end state would be. Ten years later we are still fighting and despite the many successes and the valiant efforts and sacrifices of our military we are nowhere close to where our nation was to winning the war as we were within two years of the attack on Pearl Harbor and unlike that war we now face bigger threats than we were facing then. War beckons in other lands and the post Cold War world is in shambles.
I certainly don’t have the answers to this but I do know that we must not let ourselves be lulled into even more complacency thinking that what happens overseas stays overseas.
The memories of December 7th 1941 have faded away. Few survivors of that day remain and those of the Greatest Generation are passing away faster than we think possible. The collective memory is being left to family members, friends and historians. For that matter our collective memory of the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War, the First Gulf War and even our current wars seems to be waning. As a nation we seem to have forgotten everything and have returned to the illusions of December 6th 1941.
These are dangerous times and while there may not be a Japanese Carrier Striking Force making its final approach to Hawaii there are real threats that can make our present “crisis” look like a picnic on a summer day.