Remember Pearl Harbor!

The National Park Service’s newly updated Pearl Harbor museum could make an important contribution to reducing the risk of a similar surprise today – but only if we will embrace the lessons that it teaches in terms of our current actions. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen:

Daniel Martinez, the park service’s chief Pearl Harbor historian, said it wouldn’t have been possible to include the Japanese viewpoint in any official examination of the attack when he first started working at the visitors’ center in the 1980s. “It was just too recent and the wounds were still open,” Martinez said. “The idea of exploration of history would have been found unsavory by some of the Pearl Harbor survivors who were still dealing with the wounds of that war.”

American University’s Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) explains why Pearl Harbor should not have been a surprise:

Japan is extremely poor in natural resources, and the situation was not much different in the pre-World War II era. Consequently, Japan had to depend on trade heavily to function as a modern nation, and it was a serious and vital issue for Japan to keep all crucial strategic resources, particularly oil, coming in to it from the outside world. If the route for Japan to obtain these materials was cut off, and therefore, the strategic resources were stopped from coming to Japan, there would basically be only two choices left for Japan. One is to lower the level of function as a modern nation to where it could meet the level of domestic productivity for natural resources. And two is to go out actively and find a way to gain what it needed to maintain its function as a modern nation. The conflict and negotiation between the US and Japan in the pre-World War II period illustrates a good example of the case and explains why Japan went to war against the US. The US, the biggest oil supplier for Japan at the time, imposed the oil embargo on Japan in July, 1941, and it helped the Japanese to make up their minds to fight against the Americans. Thus, in a way, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise one at all; it was a necessary result of the conflict and negotiation.

The war Japan fought against the United States was a hopeless war for the Japanese, which they had basically no chance to win. Even many government leaders of Japan knew that at the time. However, at the same time, it was the war that they had to fight. That is because … the Japanese leaders simply refused to bow before the US.

Could America again be surprised by an attack that could have been foreseen and possibly prevented? That already happened on September 11, 2001, and similar potentialities exist today, with North Korea, Russia and the Arab world being the most obvious. In 1941, in 2001 and again today, our fundamental error is assuming that our awesome military power allows us to act with impunity anywhere in the world. It is not clear whether the meek shall inherit the earth, but history teaches us time and again that arrogance sows the seeds of its own destruction. Let us learn from history before hubris in the nuclear age proves fatal to humanity.

Martin Hellman

Further reading:

This blog has a number of posts that relate to better understanding and dealing with North Korea, with the most recent being last week and a month ago.

Andrew Bacevich’s book, Washington Rules, is an extended indictment of hubris and its likely consequences.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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