Dec. 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy...
The Axis powers made two fatal mistakes in December 1941, both involving the United States. The Empire of Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor - widely described by Americans as a "sneak attack" in the days after, as if the lack of warning was as evil as the attack itself - effectively ended Imperial Japan and its grandiose "East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." And Adolph Hitler later that week witlessly chose for Germany to declare war on America, thereby dooming the "Thousand Years Reich."
It wasn't that the American tanks and planes were better, or the ability and fighting spirit of American soldiers superior. It was that America had fighting ability in such tremendous abundance. "They just keep coming," a German commander sighed after fending off a U.S. assault quickly followed by yet another American assault. America also had by far the best of the wartime leaders on either side in Franklin Roosevelt, whose missteps were minor and rare, and whose strategic genius was unsurpassed. Within mere months of the attack on Pearl, the Japanese were on their heels; within a year, they were in full retreat, made to surrender one stolen territory after another. As gruelling as those Allied victories seemed at the time, in retrospect it was no contest from the moment the Axis grotesquely blundered in pulling the Americans' tail.
Dec. 7, 1941: The battleship U.S.S. Arizona quickly sinks, killing all 1,100 personnel aboard.
Left to right, battleships U.S.S. West Virginia (damaged), U.S.S. Tennessee (severely damaged) and U.S.S. Arizona (sunk).
The wreckage of destroyers U.S.S. Downes (left) and U.S.S. Cassin.
The U.S.S. Shaw takes direct hits from Japanese warplanes.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1941, addresses the U.S. Congress, asking for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. To FDR's left is his son, a member of the U.S. armed forces. "No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory...With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the ultimate triumph."
The mistake of the "War to End All Wars" of 1914-19, it seemed to Roosevelt, was that the Germans, having negotiated peace in a stalemated conflict in which no Allied forces set foot in Germany, did not believe they had lost, or understand why their government had surrendered. And so war came again, just two decades later. For Roosevelt, "absolute victory" meant that the United States would settle for nothing less than the occupation of its enemies' homelands. Horror would fall from the skies on German and Japanese cities/ And after the victory was secured, American troops would for years patrol the streets of Hamburg and Yokohama. There would be no doubt about having lost, or the price the Axis would pay for unleashing the dogs of war.
And thus ended, finally, centuries of conflict among the major European nations. In the Pacific, there soon would be a civil war to fight on the Korean peninsula, and later another civil war in Southeast Asia. But in Asia, too, there would be no more great-power conquering of other great-power territories. A new term, "cold war," would define the subsequent era in which two superpowers would hold sway over their "spheres of influence" but in the absence of mass armed conflict.
On behalf of the Allied powers, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, accepts terms of surrender signed by the Japanese defense minister aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945. MacArthur, in the foreground, is standing at the microphone.
Memorial to the U.S. liberators of Iwo Jima, at Arlington National Cemetary.
Memorial in Hawaii honouring the 1,100 naval personnel killed in the Japanese destruction of the U.S.S. Arizona, located on the site where the battleship sank.
Archival photographs: U.S. Department of Defense.