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Why Remember Pearl Harbor?

NEW YORK – December 7 marks the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Over the years, “the day of infamy” has become a classic reference point for galvanizing patriotic sentiment in America. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, for example, analogies to Pearl Harbor were made frequently. But despite its central place in America’s collective memory, Pearl Harbor remains little understood. Why did Japan initiate such a seemingly self-destructive war in the first place? Aside from lessons that Japan must learn from its momentous decision, is there something to be learned by the United States as well?

The decision to attack Pearl Harbor was reached after five months of deliberations that included numerous official conferences. It was a gradual process in which more sympathetic, albeit firm, US engagement might have helped sway Japan in a different direction. In fact, Japanese government opinion was so divided that it is surprising that it was able to unite in the end.

Many in the Japanese Army initially regarded the Soviet Union as the main threat facing the country. Others saw the US as the primary enemy. Some were concerned with more abstract, ideological enemies, such as Communism and “Americanism,” while there were also voices highlighting the menace of the “white race” (including Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy) against the “yellow race.”

Then there were those who preferred not to fight any enemy at all, particularly the US, whose long-term war-making power, the government knew, far surpassed Japan’s own. The tactical mastermind of the Pearl Harbor operation, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was one of them.