Can the U.S. produce another generation of greatness?

Tom Brokaw

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., are separated by 60 years but they share a staggering number of common characteristics.

First, they stunned the nation despite ample warning signs in both eras that the attackers considered the United States the primary obstacle to their zealous ambitions.

Just a week before the Japanese attack the Army commander in Hawaii had received a telegram from Washington describing the breakdown of negotiations with Japan and warning "hostile action possible at any moment."

Six decades later national security experts sounded the alarm about the vulnerability of the United States to terrorist attacks in congressional testimony, newspaper columns, television appearances and seminars.

But in 1941 and again in 2001 no extraordinary precautions were taken. Instead, on the Saturday night before the Japanese attack, Honolulu was awash in parties organized by the men and officers of the many military units stationed in Pearl Harbor. The Honolulu Advertiser, the island’s largest newspaper, was preparing a story under the headline: U.S. Sure War Is Not Likely In The Pacific.

In both instances the United States took false comfort in its fortress mentality and failed to fully appreciate its enemies and the cultures they represented.

Other similarities exist as well. At Pearl Harbor, and later at the World Trade Center, the initial reaction was disbelief. In Hawaii, even ranking military officers thought the first explosions were a drill of some kind or an accident. In New York, the first reports suggested a small plane had accidentally flown into Tower One.

When it became clear that these were deliberate, coldblooded acts of war, the nation bonded electronically — by radio in 1941 and television in 2001. On that long ago Sunday and the more recent Tuesday, Americans were glued to news broadcasts, bringing this vast land to a standstill.

In 1941 radio listeners heard of young sailors diving into burning waters again and again to rescue their buddies, many of whom had been catapulted off exploding ships. On television in 2001, stories quickly began to emerge of firefighters and police officers who raced into the smoke and darkness of the World Trade Center towers, ignoring personal safety in their heroic efforts to rescue those trapped inside.

Both events also triggered rumors of new attacks. Many in northern California were persuaded that San Francisco was about to be invaded by the Japanese. In Washington, President Bush’s spokesman said Air Force One was a target of the terrorists, a claim subsequently withdrawn.

In Hawaii and California, Japanese-Americans, including many who were native-born, suddenly found themselves under suspicion — just as Arab-Americans find themselves today.

Japanese-Americans were suddenly "Dirty Japs! Spies!" to many of their neighbors. In a shameful act of historic proportions, thousands were sent to primitive internment camps for the duration the war. Today, civil libertarians are demanding that Arab-Americans not be deprived of the fundamental rule of law simply because of their ancestry.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, a "date which will live in infamy," and he rallied the nation with his strong, eloquent voice. In the days following Sept. 11, President George W. Bush, also a member of an American political dynasty, went before Congress and the nation to secure his place as their leader during a time of great uncertainty and peril.

In 1941, America’s political community was bitterly divided between those who believed we should be involved in the spreading war in Europe and those who were isolationists. The nation’s political community was dealing with lesser issues in 2001, but it was just as deeply divided. Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 brought together not only political partisans but also citizens who were determined to find common cause.

Along with the similarities of these two horrendous events there are also stark contrasts. Pearl Harbor was an attack by a foreign military power on American military targets. Sept. 11 was an attack by suicidal fanatics who used American passenger airplanes as weapons against mainly civilian targets.

Pearl Harbor marked America’s entrance into a world war on two well-defined fronts, one in Europe, the other in the Pacific. Sept. 11 was the beginning of what President Bush called "the first war of the 21st century," a war not against one nation but rather against terrorists scattered around the world and bound by a perverted vision of Islam.

In 1941 the United States was the 18th-largest military power in the world. Today the nation has the strongest military in the history of mankind.

For the United States, the beginning of World War II signaled the end of the Great Depression. The beginning of the war on terrorism was another blow to what had been a high flying American economy.

Both events changed the domestic lives of Americans, but World War II had a far greater impact. More than 15 million men and women eventually were in uniform, and on the homefront families made real sacrifices, rationing meat, sugar, gasoline and other items that contemporary Americans will take for granted during this new war.

The critical comparison between Pearl Harbor and the events of Sept. 11 remains to be made, of course. As devastating as it was at the time, Pearl Harbor was the beginning of modern America. World War II and the postwar years shaped the colossus the United States represents today.

The question confronting the United States today is whether its unparalleled political, economic and military power can be mobilized in a way that produces not just another victory for our values but also another generation of greatness.

Tom Brokaw, anchorman of the NBC Nightly News, is the author of "The Greatest Generation" and "The Greatest Generation Speaks."


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