Sixty-four years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, a dozing United States abruptly and violently began its transformation into a global superpower. That morning, memorialized by President Franklin Roosevelt as "a date which will live in infamy," the Japanese navy launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that had been a year in the planning. It was a brilliant tactical victory and a fatal strategic blunder.
People still recall the galvanizing sense of national unity and purpose. And there was overwhelming national outrage — at the Japanese, who formally declared war only after learning that the attack had been a success; and at the Germans, when they too declared war four days later.
In the 1920s and '30s, the United States had turned inward. The Army had fallen to a low of 134,000 in 1927 and was equipped largely out of World War I arsenals. War Department planners had rejected plans for long-range bombers on the grounds that they were offensive, not defensive, weapons.
In 90 minutes, that all changed. "Avenge Pearl Harbor" became a national slogan, and young, and many not-so-young, Americans flocked to recruiting stations. A generation was going to war.
Both navies assumed that war at sea would be dominated by battleships. And
the Japanese succeeded in sinking five battleships and damaging three others at Pearl Harbor. But the war in the Pacific would be dominated by aircraft carriers, and the three that would normally be at Pearl were safely elsewhere that day.
Just six months later at the Battle of Midway, U.S. carriers gutted the Japanese fleet by sinking four aircraft carriers. At various times as the war ground on, the Japanese and Germans hoped for negotiated settlements, but still-outraged Americans would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.
Truly, a sleeping giant had been awakened.