December 7, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Legacy of Pearl Harbor Seventy-Five Years Later

• Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,000 Americans and led to fundamental changes in U.S. foreign and domestic policies.

• The changes brought about by Pearl Harbor and World War II on the U.S. national security psyche and posture still have enormous influence.

• Pearl Harbor has become a metaphor for many threats that are slow and obvious in building, but sudden and devastating in execution.

• Arguably no other event over the last 75 years—including the September 11 attacks—rivals Pearl Harbor in terms of the lasting consequences on how the U.S. defines its national security.

Seventy-five years after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the impact is still tangibly felt across the U.S. national security apparatus. Collectively, the World War II era is among the most destructive, disruptive, and transformative time periods in world history. For the U.S. specifically, the impact of Pearl Harbor in terms of shaping public perception and government policies on how to define and confront military threats is unique to the American experience.

In many ways, we are still in a ‘post-Pearl Harbor world’—rather than a post-9/11 world. Much of America’s current national security posture and military capabilities arose out of a war that the U.S. may not have entered with the same level of national commitment had it not been for the Pearl Harbor attack. Indeed, Pearl Harbor has been used to describe the September 11 attacks and aftermath; both attacks were surprising in their timing and nature, but both stemmed from threats that were growing and apparent at the time. The aftermath of September 11 generated a similarly intense rallying point for a shocked nation. However, Americans after 9/11 were urged to resume a normal life—a reasonable attitude given the true nature of the threat faced at the time. After Pearl Harbor, every level of American society braced for an existential conflict.

The war that followed the September 11 attacks was an entirely different type of conflict than the wars the U.S. had prepared for since December 7, 1941. Indeed, the conflict once dubbed the global ‘War on Terror’ is a real shooting war in many different theaters of operations. Yet unlike the aftermath of 1941—when the U.S. became a nation at war—since 9/11, the U.S. has simply operated as a nation in a war. While it is a subtle distinction, the difference between ‘at’ and ‘in’ war is not just the disparity in the scope and scale of the threats between 1941 and 2001, but also how those threats must be fought. No matter how crushing of a blow the U.S. inflicts on the multiple terror groups it has squared up against, there will be no victory celebration in Times Square. In the fight against terrorism, there can be successes, but no definitive victory. Success in this war lies in dismantling terror groups such as al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State down to a manageable—though still deadly—degree, and preventing their resurgence or the rise of any successors. 

The power of Pearl Harbor in the collective American memory is such that it has become a cautionary tale that national security threats must be taken seriously—albeit appropriately and proportionally—before they explode. At times it is overused as a metaphor, so that every new threat becomes a potential ‘Pearl Harbor’. Still, the most lasting legacy of Pearl Harbor is both the mindset of preparedness and the vast apparatus to maintain that preparedness, both of which are likely to endure for some time.


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