Saturday, December 7, 2013

Day of Infamy - Roosevelt's humble call to arms?

On December 7, 1941 - 72 years ago - the U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt gave one of his most famous speeches, calling that day the "Day of Infamy", and calling all Americans to arms against Japan and its allies - namely Germany. Allies of United States had already been engaged in the war for two years at that time.

As bad as the movie was, Pearl Harbor (2001) reminded the world about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, naval warfare mastermind Isoroku Yamamoto's involvement in the attack, and the U.S. response, especially the Doolittle Raid. With some misguided casting and lack of realism, it still featured important parts of the action and showed the attack through the eyes of many people present there, including seamen, pilots and nurses.It also featured Roosevelt giving his famous speech.

FDR delivering the speech to U.S. Congress

If the shoe fits, wear it

I always thought Roosevelt's wording was very fitting and the speech was an inspiring call to arms (even if I never actually read the whole text). After years of non-interventionist (or even isolationist) politics, leaving its European allies without direct military support, United States was forced to join the global war, and that day - Day of Infamy - showed Americans how unprepared United States was.

Indeed, it was infamy that United States has been caught "pants down". Its naval base in Hawaii had been attacked, after the remarkable failure of U.S. intelligence left it with no warning of the impending attack. It showed how future of naval warfare was aircraft carriers with their unique and flexible power projection capabilities, not battleships that were the mainstay of U.S. fleets. At the same time, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter was to earn its reputation as the most capable naval fighter in the world.

Admiral Isoru Yamamoto, bringer of infamy
From this infamy, United States would rise to a formidable opponent in the war and end up beating up Japan in the Pacific theatre, innovating in naval and other warfare and, in the end, making the only two nuclear attacks in history, threatening to destroy Tokyo next. It had gone through the dramatic circle and avenged Pearl Harbor, and naturally also fought alongside its allies in Europe and elsewhere.

Only a couple of years ago, I realized I had misinterpreted Roosevelt's words.

The other interpretation

As depicted in the film Pearl Harbor - and numerous other films and reenactments - Japanese admirals had masterminded a daring attack to Pearl Harbor Naval Base, using aircraft carriers and naval fighters to bring destruction to the U.S. Pacific fleet. It missed the U.S. aircraft carriers, which - very wisely - the planners considered the main target, because unlike Americans, they realized their potential. However, the strike itself was very successful.

To recap, Imperial Japanese Navy launched a direct attack on United States Navy's base in Hawaii. Japan attempted to abide by the Hague Convention of 1907, by announcing its intentions - declaring war - before the attack, but due to delay caused by translation of the declaration from Japanese to English, war was declared a bit after the launch of the strike.

Apparently Roosevelt - and Americans still this day - thought it was an improper way to start a war. USA and Japan had been engaged in negotiations that were hoped to alleviate any need for war, and it seemed those negotiations had been a sham to make U.S. leadership uncertain about its true intentions, and as a continuation of that, an attack withoug declaring a war first was infamous.

Infamy in another context
Even though on many fronts there were formal declarations of war in WWII - for example, the United Kingdom declaring war on Gemany in September, 1939 - often hostilities were started without warning. Germany's attack on Poland in September, 1939 was one example, Soviet Union's attack on Finland in November of that year (a surprise, after months of negotiations) was another. Unlike many others, Japan made it clear that this was about a war between sovereign nations, and its armed forces engaged the other nation's armed forces, by striking a military target, and apparently honestly tried to make a declaration of war just as international agreements stipulated.

Deception is used in diplomacy and international relations - but to call Japanese tactics "infamy" is blatant exaggeration. Indeed, Japan had malicious intent and it threatened the whole Pacific region and was friends with Germany, but in the context of Second World War, its strike on a U.S. naval base was an exceptionally honest way of starting a war, as awkward as it sounds.


Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, the awkward reference frame of this post
During the course of WWII, whole cities - with their populations - were effectively wiped off the map, including Coventry, Dresden, Rotterdam, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The scope of destruction a war can bring was redefined. Was the attack on Pearl Harbor more "wrong" than other military actions of WWII? Was the diplomatic deception more "wrong" than other similar tactics around that time? Was the response less infamous?

I still think the interpretation of "Day of Infamy" meaning "United States got caught pants down by Japan, and it is embarrassing" is more fitting in the context of WWII. However, it should not take away from the remembrance of December 7, 1941, which marked the start of war between USA and Japan, and as such is a day to be remembered, as yet another realization of war being inevitable, and the start of the last war between these countries.

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