[December 7, 2018] There will be times when even the most successful will suffer from significant setbacks but only from those harsh lessons can great success truly emerge. And so it was on this date, December 7, 1941, that the United States suffered greatly from the destructive attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor.1
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
The epic attack at the U.S. Naval base in Hawaii was the event that propelled an isolationist nation into the most destructive war ever experienced by humankind. What we must be careful to do is to never forget the hard-won lessons of an event that occurred almost 80 years ago. If you ever have the honor to meet a Pearl Harbor attack survivor, please take time to speak with him or her.
As we find in any tragedy, there are lessons that can be learned. They span the spectrum from tactical lessons (e.g., have more effective anti-aircraft guns) to operational (e.g., don’t put your battleships altogether at the same time) to strategic (e.g., be prepared for war at all times). Here are a few lessons that no nation should ever forget:
First, know your enemy and never underestimate him. The United States did not know or understand much about the Japanese at the time. What was known was mostly inaccurate and tended to be based on racial attitudes of the times. Anyway, how could such a tiny nation, already at war in China, attack a large, powerful nation and do it successfully? This is the kind of thinking that also got the U.S. into trouble leading up to 9/11.
Second, political and social unanimity is a powerful force. Leading up to the attack, the U.S. was isolationist, prone to divisiveness among the political elites and a citizen, overregulated, and was undergoing a general malaise. The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the nation and brought them together to become, amazingly fast, the most powerful nation on Earth. U.S. citizens also were galvanized by the will to use their tremendous military and economic power.
Third, the signs of war are often generally visible for all to see well ahead of time. Rising tensions between Japan and the United States had been going on for years. The U.S. had restricted trade to Japan and was working with Japan’s enemy, the Chinese. While reasons for the Japanese attack were multifaceted, the U.S. failed to prepare itself in anticipation of an attack.
While there are hundreds of lessons from the attack that could be gleaned from studying Pearl Harbor’s attack, the largest danger is that we will forget them. War is a horrible thing, but the experiences of those who were there should never be ignored.