Pearl Harbor Day at 80: What Lessons Have We Learned?

COMMENTARY: Recovery and Reconciliation From the ‘Day That Will Live in Infamy’

An aerial view of the USS Arizona Memorial with a U.S. Navy (USN) Tour Boat, USS Arizona Memorial Detachment, is shown moored at the pier as visitors disembark to visit and pay their respects to the sailors and Marines who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
An aerial view of the USS Arizona Memorial with a U.S. Navy (USN) Tour Boat, USS Arizona Memorial Detachment, is shown moored at the pier as visitors disembark to visit and pay their respects to the sailors and Marines who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (photo: DoD photo by: PH3(AW/SW) JAYME PASTORIC, USN / public domain)

Pearl Harbor Day turns 80 this year. Dec. 7, 1941, was called by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “a date that will live in infamy,” for on that morning, forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked U.S. Navy, Marine and Army forces in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The results were devastating: Numerous major naval vessels were sunk, more than 300 aircraft were destroyed, submarine pens, airfields and dry docks were rendered unusable, and there were more than 2,400 casualties with more than 1,000 wounded. 

Fortunately for the United Sates, the fuel depots, repair facilities and, most importantly, most submarines and the aircraft carrier fleet survived, allowing for a relatively quick recovery of U.S. naval power. America’s official entry into World War II had commenced. 

It took four long years, the total mobilization of American industrial capacity, and millions of casualties worldwide before the fascist/Axis powers of Italy, Germany and Japan were defeated. Amazingly, largely due to American efforts in nation-building, within a relatively short time, these nations were rebuilt (although part of Germany remained under communist dictatorship until 1989) and reintegrated into the community of nations. Today, they are among our strongest allies. This is a story of recovery and reconciliation.

 

An Oxford Story

I experienced this renewal in a small, symbolic way while studying at Oxford University in the early 1980s. Due to my friendship with Robert George (now head of the James Madison Program at Princeton University), who later sponsored me into the Catholic Church, I became acquainted with his younger brother Keith, also studying at Oxford. Keith had become friends with the crown prince of Japan whose room at Merton College was near Keith’s. 

Because I had a car and was a complete unknown, and because the prince was hoping to avoid paparazzi, I was sometimes asked to surreptitiously pick up the prince and his security detail if we were going to private functions. 

Unlike Keith, I can only say that Prince Hiro (now Naruhito, emperor of Japan) was an acquaintance, not a friend. I did enjoy our encounters and learned a great deal about Japan. As a military man, I also enjoyed getting to know the security personnel assigned to his protection.

On one occasion, there was some event to which both the prince and I had been invited. It was a formal affair, and I was in my dress white naval uniform, and others were in tuxedos. Afterward, at a party, someone snapped a picture of the prince and me. He was either wearing or examining my naval officer’s “cover” (i.e., hat to civilians), and we linked arms for the picture. Unfortunately, I did not ever receive a copy of the photo but was shown one a little while later. The photographer, an older gentleman, was amazed to think that a U.S. naval officer and the grandson of Hirohito could be so friendly and close only 40 years after World War II. But as I said at the time and believe now: This is why we fought World War II — to achieve true peace and extend the rule of law and human rights. 

 

Called to Be Peacemakers

Under the commandment “Thou shall not kill,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that all Catholics are called to safeguard peace. This includes, of course, the rejection of hatred and the desire for revenge. But even more, we are called to work to seek the common good of all peoples. As Pope St. Paul VI taught: “If you want peace, work for justice.” The Catechism puts it this way:

“Respect for and development of human life require peace. Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries. Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity. Peace is ‘the tranquillity of order.’ Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity” (2304). 

This is why Jesus called the peacemakers “blessed” (Matthew 5:9).

A historical example of true peacemaking is the efforts by the United States to rebuild Italy, Japan and Germany after World War II. The U.S. “program” for rehabilitation of those formally fascist nations included a non-punitive peace treaty; reintegration into the family of nations; reintegration into the world’s economy; economic and social aid; respect for local culture; demilitarization and deconstruction of false ideologies; the reestablishment of civil society, security and the rule of law; and the long-term commitment of a significant military and diplomatic presence. 

These commitments bore great fruit in the restoration of these nations, their people and their cultures. In many ways, the renewal of Germany, Japan and Italy are among the most magnanimous and generous achievements of the United States during what many call the “American Century.” Some would say this achievement was close to miraculous.

As I look at the approach that we took to rebuilding the fascist nations in the mid-20th century after World War II, I cannot help but think that our own nation needs some rebuilding and renewal in the 21st century. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from our efforts elsewhere. 

As I review these historic efforts, the one area I believe is applicable to our own situation today is the need to renew and reestablish civil society and the rule of law. 

In our own nation, we have lost much of the civil society — the “little platoons,” as Edward Burke would have it — where, historically, commitment to the common good compelled people to join volunteer societies (clubs, civic groups, religious organizations, etc.) to serve their communities. Of course, as Alex de Tocqueville saw long ago in the U.S. system, the essential key to fighting materialism, individualism and fanaticism was a robust faith life in its people. 

In this, he echoed the thought of our Founders. Our first president, George Washington, stated it clearly: 

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” 

As we prepare to remember and honor those who were lost 80 years ago, I can think of no better tribute then to commit or recommit to building up our own nation by a renewal of civil society, especially a return to moral truth, religious practice, and the pursuit of the true common good.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Welcome to Post-Roe America

Every year on the anniversary of Dobbs, Catholics will be able to deepen their understanding of God’s role in the conception of every child, his care for the child’s growth, his knowing each by name, and the future for which he has given each child life.