In History, Echoes

A devastating, surprise assault. Thousands of Americans dead on the ground. An overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, fragility, exposure. A nation united in patriotic fervor.

On the night of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush wrote in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century took place today.” For the rest of his term, he regularly brought up the comparison, even quoting Franklin Roosevelt: ”We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows.”

While historians tend to differ with Bush’s theory of history, pointing out that December 7th was a tactical strike on military targets by a naval task force centered by aircraft carriers launching an armada of nearly 400 warplanes, while September 11th was a symbolic assault on civilian targets by nineteen volunteers with box cutters and suicide dreams, the attacks did solicit very similar fears about national security. Why was America so unprepared, so caught by surprise?

In 1941, the Roosevelt administration was concentrating on Europe and the Atlantic, not Asia and the Pacific, while in 2001, the Bush administration fretted over Russia, China, and missile defense, not terrorists from the Middle East. In both cases there were warnings; before 1941, the United States knew Japan would strike somewhere, though only a very few believed it might be Hawaii. Before 2001, Washington knew that terrorists might use planes as bombs, with Navy intelligence’s Marvin Cetron saying in 1993: “Coming down the Potomac, you could make a left turn at the Washington Monument and take out the White House, or you could make a right turn and take out the Pentagon.” But those analysts were focused on CBRNs — chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction — not suicide teams commandeering domestic flights.

Both cases reveal how very difficult it is to craft a defense against an enemy which has lost its mind. Admiral Yamamoto’s strategy for December 7 was that a crippling and devastating blow killing thousands would cow Americans into allowing Japan dominion over the Pacific. Bin Laden’s strategy for September 11 was that a crippling and devastating blow killing thousands would inspire hordes of Muslims around the world to join al Qaeda and bring down faithless Western allies ruling the Middle East.

Both catastrophes were quickly sanitized. Starting on the afternoon of December 7th, Roosevelt told the press that speculating on the immensity of the devastation on Oahu would provide comfort to the enemy while dispiriting the American people, and publicly admitted that 300 had died (the actual number was 2,403). In the weeks following September 11th, movies and photographs of men and women suicidally jumping from the towers were erased from public view, while no matter what soothing words the EPA’s Christine Todd Whitman offered about the quality of the air, everyone in Manhattan on 9/11 remembers that odor … a mix of the biological and the chemical, of the compost heap and the plastic extrusion factory, of  hair and tires in flames — sweet and corrosive, familiar and very much not familiar.

After December 7, panic on the West Coast (but, notably, not in Hawaii) led to the imprisonment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. After September 11, a panicked federal government curtailed habeas corpus, civil liberties, human rights, and constitutional balances, while turning a kind eye to torture.

Both aftermaths erupted into firefights of finger pointing. After Pearl Harbor, investigators blamed intelligence failures, the navy blamed the army, the army blamed the navy, Washington blamed Hawaii, Hawaii blamed Washington, and President Truman announced the nation’s citizens as a whole were at fault. After 9/11, the Department of Defense claimed that terrorist attacks weren’t its purview, blaming the FAA for failing to safeguard domestic air travel and the FBI for a failure in domestic intelligence. The FBI blamed budget cuts, a lack of modern technology, and the CIA; the CIA blamed the Bush Administration and the Cold War; the Bush Administration blamed Iraq.

One group of Americans was especially taken aback by the years following 9/11: Pearl Harbor survivors. On December 7, 1941, Leonard Duffy escaped his sinking battleship, the USS California, finished serving with the navy in the Pacific, returned to his native Iowa, raised hogs, and joined the nation in forgetting about December 7th … until September 11th, when attack vets suddenly found themselves acclaimed as national heroes all over again, appearing on television, applauded by pilots on plane trips, chased for autographs in Hawaii, and speaking to hordes of rapt schoolchildren. Duffy and many others from that moment said their emotions of that day had been bottled up inside by the trauma, but seeing the World Trade Center attacked brought it all back … except for the very odd feeling of watching such a horror from the safety of their couches.

Ultimately, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 stand out for American citizens due to the country’s unique position in 20th century history. While nearly everyone else in the world was confronted by war, occupation, famine, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder — World Wars I and II, obviously, but also internal cataclysms in India, Turkey, Rwanda, Congo, Cambodia, Spain, South Africa, and Yugoslavia — America was almost wholly exempt. With their territory neither stolen nor invaded and their fellow citizens not slaughtered in vast numbers, most Americans remember their conflicts as “good wars.” In contrast, the great American shocks and losses took place on December 7th and September 11th.

The other key shared element of 12/7 and 9/11 was that, for a great many American leaders, the attacks were incomprehensible, unimaginable, shockingly out of the blue. Americans in 1941 just could not believe that the Japanese, whom they judged nearsighted, bucktoothed, and physically incompetent, could or would strike American soil; Colonel William Flood, the commander of Oahu’s destroyed Wheeler Air Field, shouted that day: “To think that this bunch of little yellow bastards could do this to us when we all knew that the United States was superior to Japan!” The U.S. Fleet admiral in Hawaii, Husband Kimmel, did not comprehend that Tokyo had the planes or the pilots or the ships to achieve such a victory; he didn’t believe torpedoes could be used as weapons in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. Similarly, Michael Schueur, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit until 1999 said that Washington was “so full of themselves they think America is invulnerable; cannot imagine the rest of the world does not want to be like us; [and cannot imagine that] a polyglot bunch of Arabs wearing robes, sporting scraggly beards, and squatting around campfires in Afghan deserts and mountains could pose a mortal threat to the United States.”

Two weeks after his triumph, Pearl Harbor architect Isoroku Yamamoto wrote the son of a friend: “That we could defeat the enemy at the outbreak of the war was because they were unguarded and also they made light of us. ‘Danger comes soonest when it is despised’ and ‘don’t despise a small enemy’ are really important matters. I think they can be applied not only to wars but to routine matters.”  Though the CIA, the NSA, and other intelligence agencies have grown morbidly obese in the wake of 9/11, this particular intelligence flaw has only escalated. Just because we’re collecting phone calls, texts, and emails on a global scale doesn’t mean anyone in authority can actually hear or see what needs to be heard and seen. And no matter how many fingers are pointed, and civil liberties eroded, and security agencies fattened, the next unimaginable surprise will be just as much a shocking success.