WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago next Saturday, Japanese carrier planes slipped over the mountains of Oahu to catch the pride of the American fleet dozing along Battleship Row. Since then, the world has never been the same -- but it is different today in ways that few of the pilots, sailors or embarrassed politicians of 1941 could have imagined when Pearl Harbor was aflame.
That Sunday morning, Japanese prestige soared in the world, and America's image had never seemed more hollow. Less than four years later, after Hiroshima, those positions were reversed.
World War II, the pivotal event of the 20th century, had taught both nations deep lessons: The United States must never again lower its military guard, and Japan must never again assume that military might matters more than economic strength.
Those lessons, as understood and misunderstood for a half-century by yesterday's enemies, help explain the world standings of Japan and the United States on the edge of the next millennium.
In a twist of historic irony, the United States has prevailed in the long Cold War that succeeded the fiery combat of World War II, only to face a challenge that is harder to rally against than international communism. Its main rival now is not an enemy but an ally, a resurgent Japan whose powerful economy is built on friendship with America.
While the United States spent heavily to remember the lesson of World War II -- as relearned in Korea -- it protected Japan from outside threats, allowing that country to throw all its disciplined energy into trade and industry.
And while post-Cold War America struggles with domestic recession, Japan extends its economic strength in the East in a scenario that reminds some historians of the era preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The end of innocence
As we commemorate what happened Dec. 7, 1941, that date is repeatedly described as the end of American innocence.
The strike on Pearl Harbor was a devastating success because this country had always thought it was safe from attack behind two oceans. Its citizens thought of the Japanese as little yellow copycats who could make only shoddy imitations of superior American goods, treacherous men unable to take on mighty America in a stand-up fight.
U.S. leaders, as unyielding as the Japanese in negotiations, had effectively dared them to take aggressive action somewhere in the Pacific. But Washington refused to believe Emperor Hirohito's navy would be so brazen as to strike at the very heart of American Pacific power. And so, when the Mitsubishis and Nakajimas of the Japanese task force slanted down toward Pearl Harbor, their flight leader radioed that the raid had caught U.S. forces by complete surprise.
If innocence means ignorance -- ignorant complacency, ignorant unwillingness to coordinate branches of service, ignorance of the fact that Japan's greatest previous coup had been a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904 -- then that Sunday morning ended American innocence.
But it also began something never seen in this country before or since, a unity of purpose that crushed Japan and helped defeat Germany with military, scientific and industrial might. Pearl Harbor was the catalyst that made the United States a superpower -- and eventually did the same for Japan.
While his comrades were still celebrating the opening triumph, Japan's most brilliant strategist realized what had been let loose by the strike he had planned. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who had lost two fingers as a young officer in the Port Arthur operation, had gone to Harvard and traveled in the United States.
To another admiral, he wrote, "This war could give us much trouble in the future." Unwilling to order the raid unless war was inevitable, Yamamoto hoped Japan could break the back of the U.S. fleet, then hold the western Pacific while U.S. patience ran out and a negotiated peace consolidated Tokyo's hold on the Far East.
He could not account for American luck, which had all four aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet out of port when the Japanese struck. By hitting the battleships but missing the carriers, the attack forced the U.S. Navy to rely on the strategy that beat Japan -- carrier war and amphibious landings that brought the enemy's home islands within range of land-based aircraft and, eventually, the atomic bomb.
Nor could Yamamoto anticipate American determination, the civilian spirit that built the nation's immense war machine. At first, there was panic and confusion at home: Officials broadcast rumors of imminent air raids and even invasion, and loyal Americans of Japanese blood were ordered out of their homes and sent to barbed-wire camps for the duration.
In fact, the only Japanese attacks on the U.S. mainland would be by a couple of submarine-launched planes that harmlessly bombed the forests of the Pacific coast, and a number of unmanned high-altitude balloons that dropped random incendiaries as far east as Michigan.