[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
….Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .
Indeed we have remembered. Remembered much yet learned little.
As the number of WWII veterans decreases with each year, we should recall the visceral anger most Americans felt toward Japan at the time. It was a white hot rage that caused previously powerful isolationist sentiment to vanish overnight. Only with patient difficulty did FDR, Marshall and other senior American leaders persuade an aroused public of the imperative strategic need for a “Germany First” policy. Nazi Germany was the foe Americans knew we must defeat but the Imperial Japanese were the ones we hated.
Racism is usually trotted out as the trite explanation. While it is true most white Americans of that generation harbored racist assumptions about East Asians this prejudice hardly stood in the way of warmly embracing Chiang Kai-shek’s China, or later figures like Syngman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem and the countries they led. No, what galled Americans was that the Japanese had taken us by surprise! The Japanese had embarrassed America by catching us with our pants down, but more importantly that had done it by cheating! They had, you see, attacked us by surprise.
The US government probably should not have been surprised. Imperial Japan struck Tsarist Russia’s far eastern fleet in much the same way in the Russo-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Navy had used the question of a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor for thirty years in training officer cadets. We were economically squeezing Japan’s access to oil and iron in an effort to hobble their war machine and pressure them into settlement with China and regurgitating their foreign conquests, at least some of them. Conquests which in the quasi-autarkic world of managed trade and western monopolies in raw materials that Japanese militarists saw as crucial for the survival for their empire. Coupled with intelligence warnings, we might have at least been on our guard.
We were not. Japan however, paid dearly for their stupendous triumph at Pearl Harbor. They reaped the whirlwind. So too did Germany. While Joseph Stalin may have been the only person in the world who was surprised when Hitler unleashed the blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, he was the one person who mattered most. In the long run, it meant Germany’s utter ruin. Tactical surprise is a great advantage but it is hard. Converting tactical surprise into strategic success is a lot harder. While both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are enthusiastic regarding the potential of surprise, it is mostly on the tactical level and only rarely, as Clausewitz admitted, is it parlayed in the “higher provinces of strategy”. Instead we can expect, too often as he cautioned, “a sound blow in return”.
Why is this?
The reason is that humans are adaptive. If the blow by surprise is not lethal enough to finish them off or convince them to accept terms, after the initial shock and confusion subsides a thirst for revenge may come to the fore. Perhaps even at the expense of rational interests or self-preservation. They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.
Surprise is perilous.