Pearl Harbor's lesson

December 07, 1997|By Robert E. Thompson

WASHINGTON -- The 56th anniversary of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a grim reminder of the havoc that the ruthless leader of an aggressor nation can wreak upon innocent victims.

That attack, ordered by Japan's Premier Hideki Tojo, catapulted the United States into history's most devastating war, a two-ocean conflict that put this nation's genius and courage to their greatest test.

When it ended nearly four years later, the human toll for America had been more than 400,000 killed and nearly 700,000 wounded.

Saddam Hussein's belligerency and duplicity in the face of United Nations' efforts to discover his weapons of mass destruction make the lesson especially timely. Like such long-ago tyrants as Tojo in Japan, Adolf Hitler in Germany, Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union and Benito Mussolini in Italy, Mr. Saddam puts little value on human life.

Walls of humanity

His decision to erect walls of humanity around possible military targets is a brutal demonstration of his cruelty. Those walls are constructed of Iraqi men, women and children mortared together only by Mr. Saddam's treachery and his obsession with self-glorification.

The bully of Baghdad does not possess the military power to fight another war, as he did in 1991, with major nations. But he presumably does possess chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons with which to destroy vast segments of humanity.

The current confrontation, therefore, is far more perilous than the one six years ago, when a remarkable coalition of allies, brought together by George Bush, prevented Mr. Saddam from taking control of oil-rich Kuwait.

Mr. Saddam underestimated Mr. Bush's resolve in that showdown and he may have miscalculated President Clinton's in the current confrontation.

Mr. Clinton is the first president since Pearl Harbor who has no actual memory of the attack that propelled America into war on the quiet day of Dec. 7, 1941. But that fateful Sunday, when carrier-based Japanese war planes decimated much of America's Pacific fleet as it lay at anchor, is etched in the consciousness of every American who was alive then.

It was a tragedy that cannot and should not be forgotten. From that event we learned, as we never had before, that when despots are on the rampage their villainy knows no bounds.

We have made major mistakes in foreign policy and in military strategy over the years. Our goal should be never to repeat them.

From the moment England and France declared war against Hitler's Germany in September 1939, many Americans, including President Franklin Roosevelt, were determined to provide the Third Reich's victims with all the aid possible short of war.

Isolationists, who were extremely influential in the nation's political life, saw lend-lease and other programs of aid to Britain, Russia and China as acts of war.

Then, to the surprise of most Americans, the act that decided our entry into combat came from the Far East, not from Europe. In retaliation for Japan's military assault on China in 1937 and its occupation of Indochina in 1940, Roosevelt halted the shipment of rubber, gasoline, steel and iron to Japan and froze that country's assets in the United States.

He had hoped to stop Japan's aggression through economic sanctions.

The strategy did not work. Japan proceeded to attack the American fleet and seize the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Singapore and other valuable lands on the Pacific Rim.

Before Pearl Harbor, no one in the Far East had tried to stop Japan's land grab. In Europe, no one had tried to halt the aggression of Germany and Italy before September 1939.

We learned that a brute is not stopped by appeasement. That is why the United Nations was founded. Although it often has proved flaccid in trying to prevent conflict, it remains a valuable weapon in the fight for peace.

History may appear old and creaky to many people. But it is the lesson book from which we learn -- and Pearl Harbor has proved a lasting lesson.

Robert E. Thompson is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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