It was 70 years ago, on December 7, 1941, that Japanese warplanes staged their infamous surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, thrusting America headlong into the cataclysm of World War II.
Seventy years is a long time. The sages of the Talmud cited the 70th year as the point where life’s vigor begins fading rapidly to gray: ben shivim la-seyvah. It’s a time to start summing up before passing on to the next great journey. The survivors of the attack themselves have picked this 70th year to shut down their Pearl Harbor Survivors association, because the few who remain can no longer make it to the annual reunions. For the rest of us, this might be the time to start asking what it all means. What have we learned in 70 years? No less important, what have we forgotten?
Let’s start with two very big things we’ve learned. First, that there are times when you can’t run away from a fight, when you have to stand and face evil, when nothing will do but to struggle and win.
Second, that America is the essential nation. It is not enough to be a beacon of democracy and freedom: We must be their defender as well. There is no greatness in solitude, nor honor in indifference.
All this might seem obvious today, but it was not obvious on the morning of December 7, 1941. Europe had been at war for 27 months. Nearly the entire continent had fallen to the Nazis and their henchmen, leaving England to fight on, all but alone. And we were not part of it. The wars of Europe were no concern of the American people. It took a Japanese attack on our soil to stir us to battle.
The following day, December 8, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress and asked for a declaration of war, and within an hour Congress declared war — on Japan. Three days later, Japan’s German and Italian allies declared war on us. It was thus that we found ourselves at war with the evil of Nazism.
That’s one thing we’ve forgotten.
There are other lessons. We learned at Munich in September 1938, when the British prime minister allowed Hitler to dismember Czechoslovakia, that evil cannot be appeased, that peace cannot be bought through capitulation. We are reminded again and again that if Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler at Munich, things might have unfolded differently later on. When war was finally forced on Britain by Hitler’s invasion of Poland a year later, in September 1939, the stakes had risen frightfully high. Nazism was now on the ascendant all across Europe. By the time America entered the war in December 1941, civilization itself was fighting for its life and the future of the Jewish people hung in the balance.
This lesson is brought home again every time another liberal seeks to negotiate with a new enemy and reach some sort of peaceful compromise. We are called on by tough-minded realists of the right to remember Munich. We should have made our stand then and not waited for the invasion of Poland, when all of Europe lay at Hitler’s feet.
But we forget: We were not there at Munich. We were not even there in 1939, at the fall of Poland. Once Britain took the plunge, we left it to fight alone for 27 months.
The biggest question we don’t ask is why it took America two years to join the fight. The answer is no secret — we’ve simply forgotten most of it. Roosevelt spent those two years warning of the Nazi menace, warning that America could not stand alone, that once all of Europe had fallen America would not be spared. Republicans called him a warmonger. The conservative press mocked him as “Franklin Rosenfeld,” conniving to drag America into a foreign war for the sake of the Jews.
Britain begged for help. Congress resisted. Straight through the 1940 presidential election Republicans accused Roosevelt of plotting to entangle America in the war. Only after the election could he openly proclaim America the “arsenal of democracy.” And when he finally marshaled enough support to send mass quantities of arms and materiel to Britain through the Lend Lease program in March 1941, it was approved on a nearly straight party-line vote with most Republicans voting no.
If Roosevelt had had his way, America would have thrown its full weight behind Britain from the beginning, before Belgium and France fell, before there was a final solution or camps to bomb. But he did not have his way. It took the Japanese.
Why did America wait so long to join the war? Where were we in 1939? Most Americans don’t ask because they see no need. It was so long ago. When the war came to us we fought bravely, at enormous sacrifice, and Hitler was defeated. For most of us, that is enough.
Indeed, we recall with pride that without us, the war would have been lost — though that discounts the outsize role and sacrifice of our Soviet allies, who bore the brunt of the war.
And this is another thing we have forgotten: our alliance with the Soviet Union. Yes, their regime was repugnant, a kingdom of egalitarian idealism perverted into something twisted, of good intentions gone horribly wrong. But that was not the same thing as the Nazi regime of malignant intentions and utter evil. We joined forces to defeat Nazism, because there is no coexisting with evil. Afterwards we squared off against each other in a cold war of jousting and containment, because not every foe is pure evil and not every compromise is 1938. We used to understand that. We have forgotten that, too.
Those who must answer the question of 1939 are those who most insistently press the question of 1938. They like to claim that liberalism dulls the senses. They have it backwards.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).