- Historic Sites
The Real Meaning Of Pearl Harbor
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Pearl Harbor would not have been such a shattering blow to Americans or such a disastrous blunder for the Japanese if both sides had not been blinded by historical stereotypes. Americans were so deeply instilled with nineteenth-century concepts of Western racial and cultural superiority that they could not really believe the “little” Japanese would dare attack them, even though, in the weeks preceding Pearl Harbor, American intelligence had gathered clear evidence of an impending strike. The Japanese, for their part, thought Americans so decadently soft in their splendid isolation that they would not have the perseverance to try to pierce the far-flung defense lines Japan established for itself through its smashing early victories. Nor did the Japanese realize that the shock of Pearl Harbor would unite a deeply divided America; nor did they comprehend that the nations of the world had become so economically interdependent that American leaders could not tolerate its being divided into great Japanese, German, and Soviet zones of hegemony.
Once Pearl Harbor breached the dikes, the river of history rushed off on a startling new course. The liquidation of the Japanese empire was soon followed by the collapse of even the oldest of the overseas Western empires. The resulting welter of poor, weak, new states—together with some similarly backward units left over from the old order—produced a so-called Third World, united in resentful defiance of the customary leadership of the West.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world had split between the First World democracies of the West and the Second World of communism, now greatly expanded through the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe and the triumph of the Chinese communists over the Kuomintang. The United States found itself to be the military mainstay of the First World in the cold war that grew out of Soviet ambitions to further spread communism and the American tendency to interpret instability anywhere in the world as the result of Soviet machinations. Significantly this situation led to major hot wars for the United States, not across the Atlantic but across the Pacific in Korea and Vietnam.
In a more constructive vein, the United States, which was the only major power to survive the war without serious injury, used its position of temporary economic dominance to take the lead in creating a worldwide system aiming at free trade and international economic cooperation. It is to America’s credit that it accepted the inevitability of economic interdependence and used it to build an economic system that is more likely to provide the real basis of a new world order than is the theoretically admirable but practically impotent United Nations.
In this new age of rapid international economic growth, the brilliant economic success of Japan soon made it America’s chief overseas trading partner. Much of the rest of East Asia, specifically South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, followed Japan’s lead in spectacular economic growth, with the result that America’s trans-Pacific trade began to overshadow its trade with Europe. World geography was changing: the economic center began to shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (China’s current attempt to free itself from the shackles of dogmatic reliance on a planned economy gives promise of an even greater geographic shift of economic power in the future.)
America’s strong partnership with Japan has been one of the least expected but most significant results of the changed course of world history. Cataclysmic defeat convinced the Japanese that economic security could never be built through empire but could only be maintained by world peace and free trade. They also became persuaded that dictatorial rule, especially by the military, had brought disaster and that democracy was the only safe alternative. Building on their own experience with parliamentary government between 1890 and 1931, and with the vigorous encouragement of the American occupation, they have established one of the most efficient and stable democratic systems in the world. Though less recognized, this achievement probably surpasses their construction of the world’s most efficient industrial system. In any case, this remarkable transformation of Japan has inevitably made her our close partner in approaching world problems.
Somewhat the same shift in attitudes and a similar course of events accounts for Germany’s change in its relationship with us; Japan’s transformation is far more significant. Not only is Japan the second largest unit among the countries of the First World, in both economic strength and in population, it is the only nation of non-Western race or cultural background to have become a member of that group. As a result, the old term “the West” has been given less racially restrictive meaning. Thus Japan holds out hope for a world order that will in time transcend the racial and cultural divisions that defined the international system of the nineteenth century.
When the Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many people may have realized that the world would never be the same again, but none could have imagined how different it would be just four decades later. There can be no doubt that it has abandoned the old nineteenth-century riverbed, and while its final destination may not yet be clear, it obviously will be far removed from the old river mouth.