Saturday, December 8, 2007

One Last Pearl Harbor Day Post

Before dropping the topic of World War II (for now), I have a final observation about the America of 1941, and why Americans fought not simply to push the Japanese Empire back to its home islands, or force it to a negotiated settlement, but to destroy it utterly.

Victor Davis Hanson's great history, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, explains something about the American public's response to Pearl Harbor that is really quite remarkable, but generally goes unnoticed. Just as with the other key episodes throughout Western Civilization that Hanson relates, in December of 1941 a free democratic citizenry, and the government and military it held accountable, resolved to mobilize the entire society, to put aside every other concern, and end forever the threat raised against it by a tyrannical enemy.

Read Hanson's first chapter, Why the West Has Won, for a much better explanation than can be done in a blog post. But, briefly, the World War II generation of Americans was in the same position as the free Greek citizens of 480 BC, who conclusively defeated the forces of the Persian God-King Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis. Neither the ancient Greek nor the modern American polity would tolerate an ongoing threat to its free existence, and neither would have tolerated a government that proposed to merely make an accommodation with the foreign threat. Instead, they would leave their homes and farms and make every sacrifice necessary to end that threat for all time, after which they would resume normal life.

From a strictly rational / utilitarian point of view, it might actually have been more sensible for FDR in 1941 to propose that the United States seek to destroy the Japanese fleet and then embargo its home islands until the Emperor agreed to withdraw his military from the Pacific Rim. Just end the war with a treaty that ensured a non-aggressive Japan that would live in peace with its neighbors. But FDR knew very well that such a course would have been politically unacceptable to Americans, and said so in his December 8 speech:

"The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation ... I believe that 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 it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us."

The will of the people was that we should "not only defend ourselves to the uttermost" but do much more. The democratic nature of American society did not permit FDR the option of anything less than total war. At the insistence of the American public, the war would not be over until either the Japanese Empire or the American Republic no longer existed.

For a final word on that World War II generation, here's an aside Hanson makes in Carnage and Culture about the nature of the men who fought the Battle of Midway that perfectly captures my father's entire generation. Regarding the carrier pilots who launched their obsolete and over-matched torpedo bombers against the Japanese fleet in what was little better than a suicide attack, Hanson writes:

"Even their names seem almost caricatures of an earlier stalwart American manhood - Max Leslie, Lem Massey, Wade McCluskey and Jack Waldron - doomed fighters who were not all young eighteen-year-old conscripts but often married men with children, enthusiastic rather than merely willing to fly their decrepit planes into a fiery end above the Japanese fleet, in a few seconds to orphan their families if need be to defend all that they held dear. One wonders if an America of suburban, video-playing, Nicoles, Ashleys and Jasons shall ever see their like again."

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