Let’s remember Pearl Harbor.
Monday marks the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack that plunged a woefully unready United States into World War II.
By the time the last attacking planes had left the island of Oahu, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was mostly on the bottom of the harbor. Most of our war planes were shot up as they sat on the ground, parked wingtip to wingtip because the base commanders were afraid of sabotage, not strafing.
The U.S. Army was the 17th largest in the world, smaller than the army of Romania. During maneuvers the previous spring, trucks were used as imitation tanks because the Army didn’t have enough tanks to fill the job.
Within a few months we lost the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (now the nation of Indonesia), Guam and Wake Island, and the Japanese were getting ready to invade Australia.
Adolf Hitler gratuitously declared war on us four days after Pearl Harbor, so we had to fight not only a naval power that had swept most of the Pacific into its grasp, but Nazi Germany, with an army that had conquered most of Europe and was threatening to overwhelm Soviet Russia.
German U-boats spent the early months of 1942 torpedoing freighters and tankers just off our shores. You could see the columns of smoke from beaches in Florida. Oil slicks from the sunken tankers washed up on Atlantic beaches.
That generation of Americans made a vow similar to the ones made by the Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust and created the nation of Israel. The vow was, “Never again.”
Never again would we allow our nation to be so weak that aggressors would think they could easily knock us over. Never again would we let our defenses down.
I remember hearing propaganda broadcasts from Berlin in which German commentators called Americans “drugstore cowboys,” not only unwilling to fight, but unable to fight.
We taught them differently. It was hard. It cost us 292,131 men killed in action. But, with the enormous help of the Russians, we destroyed the armies of Nazi Germany, and in the Pacific we wiped out the Imperial Japanese forces.
The Japanese surrender was formally signed on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, because there were no Japanese ships left afloat.
The “drugstore cowboys” had learned how to fight. The war against Japan ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II was finished; the Cold War began.
Other nations acquired nuclear weapons and a four-decade-long state of nuclear terror gripped the world. Our hard-learned lesson of “never again” meant that, in a nuclear age, we had to build the weapons that would forestall an attack on us.
The weaponry got deadlier and swifter. Atomic bombs became hydrogen bombs, fleets of bomber aircraft became ballistic missiles capable of spanning intercontinental distances in half an hour.
The nuclear arms race kept ratcheting up higher and tighter. The goal of both East and West was deterrence; the weaponry was in place to deter the other side from launching an attack. The United States and Soviet Russia had, between them, enough nuclear firepower to destroy all human life many times over.
In the 1980s former President Ronald Reagan proposed building defenses against ballistic missiles and offered to share such defenses with our rival, communist Russia. Thanks in no small part to the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”), Soviet Russia collapsed and the Cold War ended.
Today we live in a world where nations such as North Korea and Iran are developing their own nuclear weaponry. Nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the hands of terrorists could bring a new holocaust upon the world. Deterrence doesn’t work with fanatic jihadists.
We have the technology to build defenses against ballistic missiles. But do we have the political will to develop and perfect such defensive systems? Must we wait until an American city is blasted into radioactive rubble before we learn all over that the stronger our defenses, the less likely we will be attacked?
Remember Pearl Harbor.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Star Peace,” an examination of the opportunities for missile defense. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com