This week marks the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. More than 2,500 Americans were killed in that “sudden and deliberate attack.” It began a war in the Pacific that would claim millions of lives and would not end until the United States had dropped two, and thus far the only, atomic bombs.
President Roosevelt called that December 7th sneak attack early on a Sunday morning “a date which will live in infamy.” Carrier-launched Japanese planes appeared out of nowhere while many of our U.S. Navy sailors and Marines were observing holiday routine.
Prior to that date, great majorities of Americans told public opinion pollsters they wanted no part of the wars then raging in Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. After that attack, it was rare to find anyone who opposed the total engagement of the United States in the rapidly expanding world war.
Most Americans of my parents’ generation could tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor. My cousin was then just a five-year old girl. She clutched her favorite doll in fear—until she noticed the “Made in Japan” sticker on the shoe. This deeply religious woman recently told me how she then smashed that doll.
Young John F. Kennedy, an ambassador’s son and recent Harvard graduate, was playing touch football on the grounds of the Washington Monument when the news came. He little knew that that attack would shape his life. He volunteered for hazardous duty aboard the Navy’s new PT-boats. His exploits in PT-109, where he rescued a number of his crewmembers from the flimsy craft after a Japanese destroyer sliced it in half, would propel him to the White House.
A Scottish-born Presbyterian minister, Rev. Peter Marshall, stopped his car to get the news. He had just come from preaching that morning at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. For some reason, he had decided while approaching the Academy to put aside his prepared sermon and to preach instead on “How a Christian Faces Death.” Hundreds of those young Midshipmen who heard him that quiet Sunday would face death, many of them as Marine and Naval officers in the Pacific. Their names are inscribed in long, mournful columns in the Academy’s Memorial Hall.
It’s worth listening to President Roosevelt’s short speech calling upon Congress for a declaration of war against Japan. No one then, it seems, criticized Mr. Roosevelt for using the phrase “unbounding determination.” Did he mean unbounded? Or did he invent a new word? It little mattered. Our determination then was unbounding.