On the night after Pearl Harbor 80 years ago today Winston Churchill recalled he slept the sleep of the saved, knowing then that America was fully in the war as an ally, ensuring eventual defeat of the Axis. It had been a long wait since the German invasion of Poland 15 months earlier. But Americans, like most peoples, especially in democracies, are reluctant about war, understandably. Over 400,000 Americans would die over the next 3 and one half years, or equivalent to over 1 million as a ratio of today’s population.
Nostalgia may recall WWII as a time of unity and glory for America. But nostalgia is rarely correct. America 80 years was much poorer than today. The Depression had barely ended. Many still lived without electricity and plumbing. Many lacked decent medical care. Lives were shorter and more difficult. Famine and drought were not strangers to millions in the countryside. Many in country and city lived in crowded and unsafe housing we would today call substandard. Employers were fickle, and places of employment often unsafe.
America was not wholly unified in 1941. Republicans hated FDR and thought he was a socialist. Democrats hated Republicans and thought them malefactors of great wealth. There would be racial riots during the war, as blacks and whites uncomfortably worked together, often for the first time, at munitions factories, and as blacks justifiably complained about inferior standards and opportunities. There were still tensions among ethnicities and suspicions about first and even second generation Americans. Protestants and Catholics were still wary of each other. There was simmering regional distrust. There were still people alive, including a dwindling number of aged veterans, who could recall the Civil War. Labor resented management, which feared labor. The war would see labor unrest.
Many if not most Americans were isolationist and anti-war until the morning of December 7. They distrusted the northeastern coastal “elites” and commercial interests they perceived had led America into war. Had FDR not wanted war? Had his oil embargo against Japan not guaranteed it? There was still anti-Semitism as a significant force. Didn’t the Jews want war? And was Hitler any worse than Stalin? In fact, wasn’t he preferable? Maybe dictatorships are stronger and did represent the future? Wasn’t America decadent?
America was a less just society 80 years ago than today. Blacks in the south still largely lacked the franchise and blacks everywhere were denied equal access to quality education and professional jobs. The military was still segregated. Japanese Americans on the West Coast were detained in camps for the war’s duration despite the Bill of Rights and lack of any serious evidence about their disloyalty. Women poured into America’s factories during the war but largely lacked equal opportunity to advance.
And yet for all its problems, America in 1941 was the world’s freest, most prosperous, healthiest, safest, most stable and most desirable place to live. Escapees from occupied countries clambered to come to America, and were often rejected. America was the last best hope for stopping dictatorship globally on the march. All democrats everywhere looked to America with hope. What was the alternative?
And all authoritarians and dictators looked at America with disdain. It was good at making refrigerators, not war aircraft, Hermann Göring had famously chortled. It was a dissipated commercial republic focused on money and self-gratification, not a disciplined modern state fit for global war. Racial purists also saw it as a mongrel nation, comprised of many ethnicities and races, lacking the racial cohesion of the more dynamic Axis powers.
Of course, dictators did not and will never understand America or democracies. America’s diversity and debates made it stronger, not weaker. Its various immigrant groups ensured it had unique understanding of every nation where U.S. forces would operate. Emigres would help craft the technologies that ultimately defeated the Axis powers. America’s internal debates, unlike the dictatorships, ensured that when it went to war, there was consensus and commitment, not fear and delusion.
Churchill compared America at war to a boiler, that warmed slowly but inexorably, exceeding all expectations about its ultimate power. He had seen America mobilize quickly and decisively in WWI. FDR too was shaped by WWI, having then been Assistant Naval Secretary, and helping to orchestrate that mobilization that, without historical precedent, shipped 2 million men across the sea, without losses, to win a war.
Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan thought starting war with America was wise because America would not have time to respond before the war was lost. Dictatorships, lacking honest internal debate and self-reflection, are typically overly confident and stupid. America shipped many more millions across not just one but two seas this time during WWII, defeating two empires who thought they were undefeatable and represented the inevitable authoritarian future of humanity.
America 80 years after Pearl Harbor is more powerful, richer, more populous, more globally and militarily experienced, more socially homogenous and in many ways more just. Once again, or as always, there are dictatorships who disdain us, who think we’re weak, and imagine they are the future, and we are the past. We have prevailed against far worse than they, and we will prevail against them, hopefully peacefully, but with great exertion, amid many dangers.
Churchill’s comparison of America to a warming boiler mostly referred to its industrial mobilization. But the heat of its strength is no less moral and spiritual than mechanical. America’s true industry is liberty and equality, which entails a constant churning, often seeming chaotic and destructive, to the world and to ourselves.
But this dynamo does not stop and is always stronger than it appears. The surprise attack 80 years ago, although killing over 2000 and sinking much of the fleet, only shocked the dynamo into still greater energy. Dictators will again misjudge, and we will be ready, if we remember who we are.