Not So Great

Last week we remembered the 77th  anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered The United States’ entry into WWII.  Every December 7th we acknowledge the sacrifices made by that great generation, and rightly so.

Not too many years ago, that first paragraph could have been shorter. There was no need explain the significance of Pearl Harbor.  Over 16 million men and women served in the armed forces during WWII.  Since then, three generations have grown up with a parent or grandparent who remembered. Today, less than half a million of those  veterans are still alive.  We are rapidly losing the living memory of that devastating conflict.

There are few who remember Admiral J. O. (Joe) Richardson, the commander of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor until 1940. Admiral Richardson repeatedly warned President Roosevelt about the dangers of a Japanese attack, and the Admiral closely monitored Japanese movements to give the fleet time to vacate the base should the need arise.  In 1940 he wrote Roosevelt to strongly recommend the immediate removal of the fleet to San Francisco.

By 1941, the US had been able to decipher encrypted Japanese communications and for months our government knew that the Japanese government had decided that war was their only option for survival. However, when Admiral Richardson pressed Roosevelt on the danger to the fleet, Roosevelt’s reply to the Admiral’s concerns  was, “Joe, you just don’t understand that this is an election year and there are certain things that can’t be done, no matter what, until the election is over and won.”

After the election, Roosevelt fired Admiral Richardson. Nevertheless, as late as 13 days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, wrote in his diary, “He [Roosevelt] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

The story of how the United States, in an effort to limit Japanese expansion,  effectively cut off Japan’s oil supply in the months leading up to WWII, is rarely mentioned in history books.  The Japanese knew that they would quickly run out of oil unless they were able to capture new supplies in the Dutch East Indies, but they also knew that the United Stated would oppose them unless their navy was able to cripple our Pacific fleet.

Then on 25 November, Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent Japan an ultimatum demanding that they withdraw from China. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor 12 days later, killing 2,403 people, sinking or damaging eight battleships, and destroying 188 airplanes.

History books  persist in absolving Roosevelt of any knowledge or responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We continue to groom the image of the United States as an innocent victim of Japan and Roosevelt as a great president, but the truth is much more involved. It is almost Byzantine in its complexity.

There is no doubt that Roosevelt did extraordinary things  as president. He rose to the challenge presented by  very trying times.  But his elevation to “greatness” (and the same is true of any president) is motivated as much by politics as any desire to realistically appraise his time in office.

“Greatness” is cheapened by our habitual use of the word.  We take serious note of the “path to greatness” of people who chase balls or read lines for movies. “People worship” has plagued us since before humanity worked its fingers to the bone to build pyramids for their god-kings.  Thousands of years later we are still a culture obsessed with celebrity and “great” individuals, and as such we are vulnerable to the most egregious manipulation.

I’m all for respecting the dead, and choosing to emphasize the good that people did when we remember them. But I also believe that when you take on a leadership role you give up the right to that indulgence. In continuing our long tradition of whitewashing the records of dead presidents and other elected leaders we promote a shallow and cursory understanding of history. When we expunge our mistakes from the record, we make it harder to avoid repeating those mistakes.

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