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Parallels to Pearl Harbor: in 1941, as in 2001, a surprise attack on America united the nation for a major war. (times past).

ON DECEMBER 7, 1941, STEPHEN BOWER Young was a happy man. The 19-year-old sailor on the U.S.S. Oklahoma looked out on a sunny Sunday at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a perfect day for a picnic with his girlfriend.

Then, just before 8 a.m., two bugle blasts rang over the battleship's loudspeaker. Young later recalled the puzzled looks his crewmates exchanged.

What the heck was this? Drills on Sunday? They knew we were all waiting to go ashore.

The harsh, excited voice on the PA system froze us in our tracks. "All hands, man your battle stations! On the double! This is no drill! Get going--they're real bombs!"

The shock that Young and other Americans felt 60 years ago as Japanese forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor seems tragically familiar today. As the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington unfolded, they were called "another Pearl Harbor."

The similarities are striking. Both incidents came as a surprise--despite what, in retrospect, seemed to have been warnings. They were carried out by militants who held the U.S. in contempt. And they united Americans to fight a global war.


World War II was developing well before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as nations vied for raw materials, export markets, and land. In the early 20th century, European countries such as Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands ruled many parts of Asia; the U.S. controlled the Philippines as a colony.

Japan, independent, dreamed of empire. Its military leaders justified conquests in Asia by considering themselves liberators; their invasions of neighboring countries were freeing the region from white racism and domination by Western powers. As one Japanese general put it:

We are the leading Asiatic power and we should now take matters into our own hands.... We must be prepared to wage a desperate struggle. The Whites have made the countries of Asia mere objects of oppression, and imperial Japan should no longer let their impudence go unpunished.

Yet the Japanese ruled "liberated" areas such as China and Korea with their own brand of racism. The military believed that all other peoples were inferior and treated them with savage cruelty. They also believed that Japan's Emperor Hirohito was descended from the sun goddess and should be worshipped like a deity. Each day, Japanese teachers asked their classes: "What is your dearest ambition?" Each day, students would respond in unison: "To die for the Emperor!"

With this in mind, most Japanese soldiers chose suicide over surrender. Late in the war, some became kamikaze pilots who crashed explosive-packed planes into U.S. ships. Ironically, Emperor Hirohito was largely a figurehead who opposed the war. He went along only after military zealots threatened him with


Prior to Pearl Harbor, most Americans were isolationists, caring more about domestic unemployment caused by the Depression than troubles overseas. While the U.S. stayed on the sidelines, Japan formed the Axis alliance in 1940 with Italy and Germany. By early 1941, Germany had overrun most of Europe, and Japan was poised to conquer Asia.

President Franklin Roosevelt urged Americans to brace for war. Even then, about one third of the country fiercely opposed starting a military draft or building new planes and ships.


The U.S. had warnings that the country would be drawn into battle whether it wanted to or not. U.S. military leaders knew that the home base of their Pacific Fleet was an obvious target. In January 1940, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox made a prediction: "Hostilities [between the U.S. and Japan] would be initiated by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor."

Yet a combination of optimism and arrogance kept American leaders from preparing for such a raid. A day before the Pearl Harbor attack, Knox said the Navy was unbeatable. But among other indicators that trouble was brewing, Army radar operators spotted planes coming toward Hawaii the morning of December 7, only to assume they were U.S. bombers.

When Knox heard that the Pacific Fleet had been bombed, even he couldn't believe it. "My God," he said. "This can't be true."


Japan's military leaders gambled that self-centered Americans loved comfort too much for a prolonged fight. With America's Pacific Fleet out of the way, they intended to seize as much territory as possible. "If we are strong," one Japanese general said, "the other side will back down."

That was a miscalculation. Pearl Harbor destroyed America's complacency and isolationism. On December 8, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, calling the previous day "a date which will live in infamy." He spoke of the desire for justice:

Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

At Pearl Harbor, Stephen Bower Young surveyed the aftermath of the bombardment. The Oklahoma had capsized, one of about 20 ships hit by bombs and torpedoes. In all, close to 2,400 men died. Young was surprised he was not among them.

Standing on the upturned hull, I gazed about me. It was the same world I had left 25 hours before, but as I looked at the smoke and wreckage of battle ... I felt that life would never be the same, not for me--not for any of us.


ONE MINUTE AFTER THE FIRST PLANE hit the World Trade Center in New York on September 11. CNN began televising the tragedy. When the second plane hit, millions around the world saw it happen live.

The horror of Pearl Harbor unfolded much more slowly in 1941, limited by the technology of the day and by government censors who held back details in a time of war. With no cable TV, cell phones, or Internet, here's how Americans found out what had happened.

* 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, December 7 (1:25 p.m. Eastern time): The first Japanese planes attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

* 7:58 a.m. (1:28 p.m.): A Navy officer in Hawaii radios word to all military personnel: "Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is not [a] drill."

* 8:10 a.m. (1:40 p.m.): Navy Secretary Frank Knox tells President Franklin Roosevelt.

* 8:52 a.m. (2:22 p.m.): The Associated Press wires a bulletin to news organizations.

* 8:53 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. (2:23 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.): Radio stations broadcast the news-"President Roosevelt said in a statement today that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor"--then return to regular programming. Extended coverage doesn't begin for hours, limited by the few phone lines from Hawaii and by censors.

* Nine days later: The New York Times, amid ongoing coverage, publishes its first photos of the attack.

* Thirteen months later: Film footage of the attack is shown in movie theaters in the newsreel Pearl Harbor: Now It Can Be Told

--Chris Tauber

Parallels to Pearl Harbor

FOCUS: Similarities Between the Terrorist Attacks and the Bombing of Pearl Harbor


To help students understand the parallels between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

Discussion Questions:

* Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, had lived and studied in the U.S. He warned his government that the U.S. was strong and that after six months of war, Japan would begin to lose. Why do you think no one listened to him?

* Can you think of other parallels between the Pearl Harbor and terrorist attacks? What differences were there between the two incidents?


Critical Thinking: Discuss the parallels between Pearl Harbor and September 11, noting especially Japan's resentment of Western presence in Asia. What have students learned about today's terrorists' resentment of the U.S. presence in Muslim countries?

The article notes that there were warnings of an attack on Pearl Harbor, but that military officials failed to put the pieces together. Discuss the burden of too much information. Without the benefit of hindsight, how do authorities separate guesses and rumors from the truth?

Next, note the "optimism and arrogance" that hobbled American authorities' intelligence efforts. Were Americans overly optimistic because they couldn't imagine an attack like that at Pearl Harbor? Why might Americans have been arrogant in their relations With Japan? (Historians say Americans generally regarded Japanese as inferior.) How did each of these characteristics inhibit U.S. military leaders' ability to put the pieces together?

Interviews: If possible, have students interview older adults about their memories of Pearl Harbor. What parallels do they see between the two attacks? What did they think the future held for the U.S.? (In 1941, only 51 percent of Americans thought the war would be long, compared to 92 percent today.)

Web Watch: For background on the Pearl Harbor attack, including maps, time line, and more, go to ~dschaaf/mainmenu.html
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Article Details
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Author:Price, Sean
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 12, 2001
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