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America Still Has Lessons To Learn From Pearl Harbor About Taking Foreign Threats Seriously

America is often slow to respond to a rising foreign threat until it hits us square in the jaw. Heeding that lesson is more important now than ever.


As we commemorate the 81st anniversary of the infamous Pearl Harbor attack which stirred the American colossus and brought us into the second World War, it is critical to not only mourn the dead, but also to learn the historical lessons that day left for us to discover. Primarily, that means being clear-eyed about the dangers we face and pursuing a policy of deterrence through strength. Today, we face a more existential threat to our nation than even our forebears in the 1930s did: a rising, militaristic, aggressive China led by the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party. Recent events have proven that peril to be just as real.

According to the U.S. Secret Service, hackers linked to the Chinese government have stolen at least $20 million in coronavirus relief funds over the past two years. Compared to the total fraud (nearly $1.5 billion worth) seen in the relief programs passed by Congress since 2020, this is a drop in the bucket. But it speaks to a deeper challenge. It is only one of the hundreds of hacking attacks the group known as APT41 has conducted in the United States or against U.S. actors since the start of the Biden administration. This includes hacks of U.S. state agencies, private companies, and databases with the personal information of millions of Americans. These cyberattacks, conducted with a pretense of plausible deniability by the Chinese Communist Party, are themselves a drop in the bucket of the overall Chinese assault on American hegemony.

China has aggressively militarized international waters and menaced private shipping in one of the busiest transit corridors on the planet. It has expanded its international reach through predatory investment programs, the cooption of international institutions like the World Health Organization to fit its authoritarian agenda, and the establishment of military bases throughout the world. It has weaponized technology through the penetration of 5G systems and its pernicious TikTok app. It has been preparing for a military invasion of Taiwan, a sovereign democratic American ally, for years now. And, of course, it has lied about the spread and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic since late 2019.

All of this shows that China is a major threat to American power and prosperity, seeking to overturn American hegemony and the world order that has made us the preeminent global player. Still, it seems like far too many in our government, business community, and the general public are ignorant of this dangerous challenge — especially as they believe that it has not yet hit us here at home. Unfortunately, this ignorance is a common thread in American history.

The most well-known instance of this trend came on a clear Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On that day of infamy, the United States lost 2,400 servicemen, over a dozen warships, and nearly 300 aircraft to a surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy against our key Pacific naval base. The raid itself may have been a shock to many, but the warning signs were clear, as Japanese-American tensions rose in the years leading up to 1941.

Japan saw the US as a serious threat to its expansionist goals of controlling the Pacific region and dominating Asia, one which must be faced head-on eventually. The U.S. government likewise viewed Japan warily, but with less clarity than the Japanese had; FDR’s advisors were themselves split on whether to treat Japan as a foe and sanction it economically for its invasion of China, or whether to offer conciliation and de-escalation. The non-interventionist sentiment is noble, but the complacency and ill-preparedness which so often accompanies it can be dangerous. The American public was similarly situated, with large anti-war movements pushing for the U.S. to stay out of the conflicts raging in Europe and Asia.

Those feelings changed dramatically after the Pearl Harbor assault. America entered both the Atlantic and Pacific wars with gusto, bringing our economic might to bear and ramping up manufacturing production to levels never before seen. Men around the country enlisted in the armed forces, women signed up for crucial home front factory work, and the whole of government and society oriented themselves to winning the war.

We funded and equipped ourselves and our allies, and sent that materiel to nearly every corner of the map. We developed new technology at a lightning pace, from advanced manufacturing to efficient and effective weaponry and vehicles, to the project which unleashed the furious potential of the atom. Americans sacrificed immensely on the battlefields and in daily life in the States, and all based on a single attack on the American homeland.

Pearl Harbor would not be the first or the last example of our national predilection for reluctance in foreign affairs leading to a deadly event and subsequent overwhelming American response.

It happened in the lead-up to our entrance into the first World War as well. Americans and our politicians saw the war in Europe as a fundamental problem of the Old World, missing the danger Germany posed to our own rise in prosperity and world position. We were only shaken out of that complacency by direct threats and deadly events – the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Zimmermann Telegram seeking Mexican entrance into the war in 1917. Once America was firmly involved in the conflict, our manpower reserves and manufacturing prowess made Allied victory almost inevitable.

This trend has also reared its ugly head in the decades since Pearl Harbor, most tragically in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As with Pearl Harbor, there were warning signs that Al Qaeda terrorists were targeting American facilities, including actual attacks on embassies in Africa and the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf. Still, Americans were, by and large, ignorant of this danger, seeing the token cruise missiles sent by President Clinton after the embassy bombings as enough of a response.

Instead of seeking to deter these bad actors through overwhelming, concerted responses when they attacked our citizens, we swept the problem under the rug in favor of more interesting domestic conflicts. Unfortunately, this was not enough; thousands of American civilians paid with their lives for that error.

As we now face another serious threat – perhaps the most significant we have faced in a century – Americans and our politicians must buck this trend of complacency leading to catastrophe. China is not Imperial Japan in 1939, the German Empire in 1914, or a bunch of terrorists plotting in Afghan caves in 1998; it is a much larger danger to our way of life, our liberty, and our prosperity.

History shows that the United States, when it recognizes a global challenge, rises to meet it and pushes back with all the force our nation can muster. This amazing ability to get hit once and, in response, to swing back ten times harder for ten times longer, is uniquely American. It is a hallmark of American exceptionalism and we should be proud of it. This time around, however, we should try to be strong and resolute enough to not get hit in the first place. That requires learning the lesson taught so painfully to our nation on that bright Sunday in December 1941.

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