[December 7, 2019] Seventy-Eight years ago, at approximately 8 a.m., Imperial Japanese planes appeared over the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Less than two hours later the surprise attack was over, and the American naval fleet in the Pacific lay in smoking ruins. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt declared the next day that this is a “date which will live in infamy.”1
There are good reasons that this attack on Pearl Harbor should be imprinted on our memory. More than simple military lessons learned, such as don’t put all your ships in one place, we can extract more important ideas that influence our ability to prepare for the future and fight for today’s freedom of action.
First, some events are hard to predict. In 1941, the U.S. was not surprised about entering a war with Japan but from how it began. Catastrophic events are often unpredictable, and I’ve addressed that here in an earlier blog post (see link here). We call them black swan events.2
Second, it’s hard to anticipate the unintended consequences of our intended actions. The Japanese won a great tactical victory over the United States in that attack but doomed themselves to lose the war.
Third, things will always go wrong, so have a backup plan. Despite the U.S. Navy’s poor decision to consolidate much of its fleet, it did have a more important asset out of the area. Aircraft carriers were now more important than battleships and were not at Pearl Harbor. And the U.S. Pacific Navy headquarters had dispersed its shipbuilding and repair facilities, enabling a quick recovery.
Fourth, hope is not a plan. Visualize what you want the future to be and make plans to accomplish it. The old saying that you can’t hit what you don’t aim at is apropos. Having a vision is what leaders do; they plan for the future, communicate their message, and take action to accomplish their vision of the future.
And fifth, mental attitude is more important than physical strength. Napoléon Bonaparte once said that “an army of sheep, led by a lion, is better than an army of lions, led by a sheep.” The strength of the mind determines whether we accomplish the mission and win the battles. That is why we see so much written about our mental state.
Pearl Harbor was a tragedy for the United States. But it provided the push we needed to defeat the evil empire of Japan. The lessons here are why we should imprint this event at Pearl Harbor on our minds.
- Read the entire speech before the U.S. Congress and listen to the audio of President Franklin Roosevelt. See link here (audio 4:14) http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5166