Every few months it seems we are presented with yet another poll revealing astounding ignorance of basic American history by especially the young. The tendency is aggravated by the forces of political correctness, i.e., the liberal understanding of America, which emphasize a distortion of that history to favor a leftist contemporary political outcome. This type of knavery has always been around--we can go back to 1913 for the egregious example in Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.
This work set off a whole series of interpretations of American history emphasizing the people versus the elite, the Declaration of Independence versus the Constitution, "republicanism" versus "individualistic liberalism," and so on. Even before Beard, there were writings (pro-Southern and secessionist) that made Abraham Lincoln a less than noble figure. The Lincoln as tyrant image is even repeated in some libertarian literature today. Leftists aren't the only bad historians.
Which brings us to our remembrance of the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Was it part of a plot by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who knew an attack was imminent and allowed it to happen, knowing that only such a shock would bring the nation into war? (Indeed, the aforementioned Charles Beard maintained something of this thesis.) The best curesfor such delusional thinking and for the need for preparedness today is Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. American disdain for Japanese military and technological capabilities and their bold strategic thinking was the major factor in the American failure to anticipate a strike on the island so distant from Imperial Japan.
We are afraid to accept arguments such as Wohlstetter's for they would force us to confront our own current strategic problems. Are we prepared for surprise attacks of all kinds--involving not just domestic terrorism but sea-launched missiles as well? Such meditation is too painful to endure for long, so our political leaders return to passing highway bills full of local pork barrel projects. That's all within their control, and it makes everyone feel good.
There are other lessons for today to be learned from Pearl Harbor. One of the ignored episodes of that terrible day has recently been highlighted by Michelle Malkin in her provocative and indispensable book, In Defense of Internment Malkin describes what happened on the island of Niihau, on the western tip of the Hawaiian archipelago, late on the morning of December 7.
The power and the truth of Malkin's book lie in putting at front and center the remarkable story of what even good standard histories of WW II typically omit: the Japanese-American couple who aided a pilot who landed his damaged Zero on tiny Niihau island following the Pearl Harbor attack. The pilot managed to persuade the couple to take over the island in the name of the emperor. They armed themselves and began issuing orders. After a few hours, a native Hawaiian couple killed the pilot, and the Japanese-American husband committed suicide. A rescue party from other islands came hours later. Less than four years later Japanese suicide pilots would kill many Americans.
If presumptively loyal, apolitical Japanese-Americans would come to aid of an invader, what might we expect from other ethnic Japanese on the mainland? They might not know the extent of their loyalty to two nations until they were tested.
So we are tested today. Are we doomed to act only after something terrible has occurred? Americans know how to react and defend themselves, if they know the facts. Unfortunately, they are woefully ignorant of their history, and don't always have sound premises to operate from. This leads our political elites to act as though they don't need to shape public opinion, a deficiency the Bush Administration is now dealing with as it defends the Iraq war.
We honor the sacrifices made at Pearl Harbor best by realizing that what we don't remember because we never knew it can hurt us most of all. We must begin asking questions about who we are as a people. That is a duty of self-government.