This first catastrophic event I remember, in my life time, was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. The next such event that was/is etched in my mind was the Challenger explosion in January 1986. Finally, for me, the most horrible event, which by itself does, and forever will, live in infamy, was the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, on September 11, 2001. These are all “infamous” events which stirs up awful memories for anyone living through these times in history.
But the term “infamy” really became “famous” via then President Franklin Roosevelts speech of December 8, 1941. Tomorrow, December 8, 2021 will mark 80 years since that speech. Although the speech itself is quite historic, it is the event that prompted this speech, that will indeed live in infamy!!!
My generation knows this all too well, and although we did not live through this event, we certainly know of it from our parents, our grandparents, and the history books. But in case one does not know, lets briefly recount the reason this day is “infamous.”
Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii, was the scene of a devastating surprise attack by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. Just before 8 a.m. on that Sunday morning, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes descended on the base, where they managed to destroy or damage nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 people were wounded. The day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, but Japan and the United States had been edging toward war for decades. The United States was particularly unhappy with Japan’s increasingly belligerent attitude toward China. Isn’t it ironic today that at that time we were angered by Japan for treating poor China so badly? Anyway, the Japanese government believed that the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into its neighbor’s territory and take over its import market. To this end, Japan declared war on China in 1937, resulting in the Nanking Massacre and other atrocities.
American officials responded to this aggression with a battery of economic sanctions and trade embargoes. They reasoned that without access to money and goods, and especially essential supplies like oil, Japan would have to rein in its expansionism. Instead, the sanctions made the Japanese more determined to stand their ground. During months of negotiations between Tokyo and Washington, D.C., neither side would budge. It seemed that war was all but inevitable.
Because American military leaders were not expecting an attack so close to home, the naval facilities at Pearl Harbor were relatively undefended. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was moored around Ford Island in the harbor, and hundreds of airplanes were squeezed onto adjacent airfields. To the Japanese, Pearl Harbor was an irresistibly easy target.
The Japanese plan was simple: Destroy the Pacific Fleet. That way, the Americans would not be able to fight back as Japan’s armed forces spread across the South Pacific. On December 7, after months of planning and practice, the Japanese launched their attack. At about 8 a.m., Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor. Bombs and bullets rained onto the vessels moored below. At 8:10, an 1,800-pound bomb smashed through the deck of the battleship USS Arizona and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank with more than 1,000 men trapped inside. Next, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma. With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater.
Less than two hours later, the surprise attack was over, and every battleship in Pearl Harbor—USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS California, USS West Virginia, USS Utah, USS Maryland, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee and USS Nevada—had sustained significant damage. (All but USS Arizona and USS Utah were eventually salvaged and repaired.)
In all, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor crippled or destroyed nearly 20 American ships and more than 300 airplanes. Dry docks and airfields were likewise destroyed. Most important, 2,403 sailors, soldiers and civilians were killed and about 1,000 people were wounded.
But the Japanese had failed to cripple the Pacific Fleet. By the 1940s, battleships were no longer the most important naval vessel: Aircraft carriers were, and as it happened, all of the Pacific Fleet’s carriers were away from the base on December 7. (Some had returned to the mainland and others were delivering planes to troops on Midway and Wake Islands.)
Moreover, the Pearl Harbor assault had left the base’s most vital onshore facilities—oil storage depots, repair shops, shipyards and submarine docks—intact. As a result, the U.S. Navy was able to rebound relatively quickly from the attack.
The day after the attack, President Roosevelt felt that America had to respond. At that time, the war in Europe was beginning to rage and Roosevelt had practically been begged by the countries opposing Nazi Germany, to enter the war. But Roosevelt had refused to bring the US into the European war nor the brewing tensions caused by the Japanese in Asia. The Japanese attack, left Roosevelt no alternative but to act.
'A Date Which Will Live in Infamy'
President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on December 8, the day after the crushing attack on Pearl Harbor. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
He went on to say, “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. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”
It's easy for today’s generation to look back on the events of December with mild understanding and a slight level of appreciation. But for those who lived through the attack, and all those family and friends impacted, this day was horrendous.
Roosevelt’s declaration was spot on, as when the American’s entered the conflicts both in Europe and in Asia, each war would eventually come to an end. Far sooner, and with likely far different results, than had America continued to ignore the pleas to enter the war.
It’s hard to look back on a world war and say it was good, in any way. But those who love freedom, cannot ignore the possibilities of what might have happened had the US not entered the war. Would Nazi Germany have succeeded in their efforts to conquer Europe? Would Japan have remained a warrior nation and controlled Asia with a similar to the Nazi’s iron fist? And with both Germany’s and Japan’s thirst for world domination, what would have been next for the US, the UK, and our allies in Canada, Australia, etc.???
So, it’s hard to say that the attacks on Pearl Harbor were a good thing, certainly the loss of life and utter destruction were not. But as we look back on history, maybe this attack ultimately prevented the spread of evil…just maybe???
Regardless, December 7, 1941, was …and is…truly a date which will forever live in infamy!!!