Remembering The Pacific War

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Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women (SR Books, $24.95), by Robert S. La Forte and Ronald E. Marcello, is not an elegant book or an especially well-edited one, but the raw memories of the forty survivors it contains vividly evoke what made Americans so mad. Here, for example, Pfc. James Cory recalls a group of sailors moments after the bombs hit the USS Arizona : “These people were zombies.…They were burned completely white. Their skin was just as white as if you’d taken a bucket of whitewash and painted it white. Their hair was burned off; their eyebrows were burned off; the pitiful remnants of their uniforms in their crotch…and the insoles of their shoes was about the only thing that was left on their bodies. They were moving like robots. Their arms were out, held away from their bodies, and they were stumping along the decks.”

“To think,” said Col. William J. Flood, commander of Wheeler Field, after the attack had ended, “this bunch of little yellow bastards could do this to us when we all knew that the United States was superior to Japan!” In large part because of the stubborn ubiquity of that kind of racial feeling, there has always been a brisk trade in books purporting to show that Japan must have had help in springing its deadly surprise.

This season’s conspiracists, Eric Nave and James Rusbridger, at least have a novel hypothesis to offer in their book, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor (Summit Books, $19.95): Winston Churchill was the villain, they claim, and Franklin Roosevelt his witless dupe. British cryptographers broke the Japanese naval code, learned of the impending Japanese attack, and warned Churchill—who deliberately withheld the information from FDR in order that we be drawn into the war. They do not reveal, however, just how Churchill planned to explain this startling oversight to Roosevelt had the President discovered it during the course of the fighting, nor have they been allowed into the British archives to see the decoded messages, without which their theory remains little more than lurid speculation.

This season’s Pearl Harbor conspiracists at least have a novel hypothesis to offer: Winston Churchill was the villain.

In Visions of Infamy (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95), the journalist William H. Honan makes a far more solid case that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor were based on an obscure but prophetic 1925 novel, Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931–1932, written by a long-forgotten Briton, Hector C. Bywater.

But, as Honan would be the first to agree, inspiration is one thing, execution is another. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a wholly Japanese operation, although as Thurston Clarke’s interesting, idiosyncratic book Pearl Harbor Ghosts: A Journey to Hawaii Then and Now (William Morrow, $22) demonstrates, even on Oahu there are those who would have it otherwise.

According to Clarke, for example, the film shown at the Arizona Monument fudges history so as not to upset the Japanese visitors who now make up a considerable part of the all-important tourist industry. The fact that the Japanese attacked without warning is soft-pedaled, while it is suggested that American economic sanctions forced Japan’s hand—as if the United States, by cutting off the oil the Japanese militarists needed to complete their conquest of China and attack Southeast Asia, had somehow failed to live up to some moral commitment to the emperor.

History matters. It is clearly wrong to cling to ancient hatreds, stupid to charge one generation with the sins of another. American racism played an undeniable role in our relations with Japan during the years that led up to December 7, 1941, and brought about the shameful incarceration of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the months that followed it.

There is plenty of blame to go around. But that does not mean everyone is equally to blame—and to pretend otherwise, to ascribe all conflict to regrettable cultural “misunderstandings,” is to minimize the genuine moral choices human beings face and to bleach history of its meaning.

The mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, knows that. On the forty-sixth anniversary of the atomic attack last summer, he urged his countrymen to reexamine their past. He had done this before, with near-fatal results: When Motoshima urged two years ago that Emperor Hirohito accept at least partial responsibility for Japan’s defeat in World War II, a right-wing fanatic shot and wounded him. He seems to have been undeterred. On August 9, surrounded by elderly survivors of the American bombing, he placed the ultimate blame for what befell his city and his country in 1945 squarely where even many American authorities are too timid to place it now. “Japan,” he said, “trod the path to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and defeat in World War Two via the annexation of Korea, the war with China, the attack on Pearl Harbor…”