Last month, PBS got the drop on the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus setting foot on the Americas with a six-hour production. Tonight, public stations help begin next month's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Pearl Harbor -- Surprise and Remembrance" is a 90-minute production running under the banner of the superb historical documentary series "The American Experience." It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock.
In many ways, this program does for Pearl Harbor what the Columbus series did for the discovery of the Americas -- it puts the event in context. In both cases, our common history had elevated these to mythical status. The documentaries, while avoiding the pendulum swing of trendy revisionism, make them historical events.
Just as Columbus was taught to us as a brave, bold, fearless adventurer who saw a round world where others saw a flat one, so Pearl Harbor has been mythologized as a bolt from the blue, warlike Japanese suddenly visiting their bombs on a shocked and surprised peaceful people.
"Pearl Harbor -- Surprise and Remembrance" makes clear that this attack was a shock but not really a surprise. It was the culmination of years of rising tensions in the Pacific as the United States tried to use economic pressures to stem Japanese expansionism that had taken that country on a brutal rampage through China.
Tensions were high and on the rise in late 1941 throughout the world. Hitler had finished off some of the easier marks in Europe and had launched his armies into Russia. The Japanese, seeking trading partners who would not try to stymie their militaristic ways, had aligned themselves with the Nazi government.
the United States, President Roosevelt was throwing in more and more with those resisting German advances, particularly England, while continuing to pressure Japan in the Pacific.
Speculation about a surprise attack on the American fleet -- the only potential obstacle between Japan and total dominance of the Pacific -- was widely available, in comics, commentaries and novels. The American military had even run a war game at Pearl Harbor between a team representing the carrier-based Japanese and the American forces. The Japanese won.
The air corps commander in Pearl Harbor was so worried about potential sabotage that he gathered his planes closely together so they could be easily guarded.
And yet, when the attack did come, it found a Pearl Harbor totally unprepared to defend itself. This documentary raises the theory that Roosevelt actually knew of the impending attack and kept it a secret so that the American public would be outraged outof its isolationism. It finds no support for the theory.
Instead, it points to a complacent military, often lured by the charms of Hawaii's idyllic life, that underestimated the Japanese and assumed that they could not pull off such a complex `D mission, just as the Japanese underestimated the Americans, thinking they would pull back in the face of such a devastating attack.
"Pearl Harbor -- Surprise and Remembrance" is narrated by Jason Robards, who was a radioman on the USS Honolulu at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Though it features a number of interviews with attack veterans from both sides, and has a moving segment of the ashes of a survivor of the battleship Arizona joining those of his dead comrades in the hull of the still-sunken ship, the vast majority of the 90 minutes is vintage film.
Some of it is from recently unearthed newsreels, from contemporary re-creations, from John Ford's feature film version, virtually commissioned by the government to influence public opinion, and from a Japanese film that served the same purpose in that country.
On one level, this was an amazingly successful military operation, carried off with a precision that has served the Japanese well in the ensuing decades. The destruction in rained on the U.S. fleet -- and on those planes gathered together into easy targets -- the havoc of that morning in Hawaii, comes through in the newsreels, the home movies, the personal remembrances.
For the United States' 150 years of existence, the thousands of miles of water off its coasts had allowed the country to stay uninvolved in the conflicts that plagued the other parts of the world. After Pearl Harbor, that would never be the case again.