WASHINGTON. — Washington--Surprise is a substantial military asset and one way to achieve it is by doing something irrational. Japan did 50 years ago.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was an exquisitely executed calamity for Japan. It battered American battleships, thereby necessitating the rapid rebuilding of the Navy, this time with more relevant weapons -- aircraft carriers -- at its heart. The rapidity was the result of another American benefit from Pearl Harbor: rage.
Every war must end, so before launching war you should consider whether you can conceive, let alone achieve, a successful end. Bright people often ignore banalities such as this. Almost all the clever Japanese who planned the attack did ignore it. One did not.
Directed to make it happen, Admiral Yamamoto said: I will do it. Then I will run wild in the Pacific for six months. But then what?
He knew that having mildly crippled and mightily energized an industrial giant, there would be no plausible outcome involving U.S. submission to Japan's designs. Furthermore, there was no reason to expect a less than ferocious American response.
If Japan's leaders knew much American history -- they should have; some, including Harvard's Yamamoto, attended Ivy League colleges -- they knew that total war was an American invention, pioneered by soldiers marching through Georgia and South Carolina.
In 1864 total war meant only (the ashes of Columbia, S.C., attest to its sufficiency) industrialism, conscription and tactics that blurred the distinction between combatants and non-combatants by attacking the farms, factories and transportation on which modern armies depend. By the 1940s the fury of total war was growing exponentially because of three additional ingredients -- the modern state's organizational bureaucracy, propaganda and forced-draft science, as at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Americans who are now older than 60 remember the instant they heard the news of three events -- Kennedy's assassination, FDR's death and Pearl Harbor. We who have lived all our lives in the long shadows cast by ballistic missiles cannot fathom the trauma felt by Americans when a few Sunday morning minutes revealed that broad oceans and pacific neighbors no longer guaranteed the nation's physical safety.
The study of history, or even of one great event, is chastening because it teaches the unpredictable relatedness of things and the inability to subdue life's contingencies. That is why history is the best undergraduate major and should be a prerequisite for political life. Consider the fact that the attack on Pearl Harbor was just one large event in the most momentous week of this century.
On Dec. 5, 1941, a Soviet counterattack on the outskirts of Moscow pushed back German forces a few miles and shocked Hitler: Blitzkrieg had failed where failure would be fatal. Quickly killing the Red Army had been the key, he still thought, to a negotiated peace with Britain that would keep America out of the war.
The Wehrmacht's failure to achieve that quick kill freed Hitler from the need to moderate his criminality out of concern for British and American sensibilities. Therefore, he made a choice he had put off making. Germany could not win, so it would -- and should -- perish. Four days after Pearl Harbor he declared war on the United States.
''In December, 1941, within a few days,'' wrote historian Sebastian Haffner, ''Hitler made his final choice between two incompatible aims he had pursued from the outset -- German domination of the world and extermination of the Jews. He abandoned the former as unattainable and entirely concentrated the latter.''
Hence his strange lethargy in the second half of the war. Politics was now nothing, the murder machinery was everything. The Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials formalized plans for the ''final solution,'' occurred Jan. 20, 1942.
The Soviet troops who stopped the Wehrmacht in front of Moscow were Siberians transferred from the Russo-Japanese military frontier in Manchuria. The transfer occurred after the neutrality treaty Japan signed with Russia when preparing for war with the United States.
Pearl Harbor was folly, but magnificently executed folly. When Japan began planning the attack it had not yet developed the essential weapon, shallow-running torpedoes. More than 100 officers knew of the plan even before preparations, including simulated attacks, made it possible for many more people to surmise the target. Yet secrecy was maintained all the way across the broadest ocean. Surprise was achieved.
But on Saturday morning, Dec. 6, a new U.S. government committee, code named S-1, had met in Washington. Its subject: the feasibility of constructing atomic weapons. More surprises were coming.
Still, 'twas a famous victory from which elements of Japan's fleet returned to harbor at Hiroshima.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.