We remember Pearl Harbor as a beginning. A dramatic moment when the United States stepped onto the world stage a reluctant leader. A tipping point forcing America to join a war that a “deceitful” enemy had inflicted upon its distant Hawaiian shores.
But the true legacy of that fateful day in December 1941 might derive more from what the Japanese attack wrought, rather than from what it began.
The real inheritance of Pearl Harbor is that it shrank the world in terms of how Americans have thought about their national security ever since.
After Dec. 7, U.S. policymakers no longer viewed the vast Pacific and Atlantic oceans as inviolable barriers protecting them from America’s enemies. The era of “free security,” historian C. Vann Woodward opined in 1960, was over. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, argued that “our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.”
Combined with the Munich analogy — the belief borne of events in the 1930s that would-be Hitlerian tyrants must never be appeased, but swiftly defeated — the lesson of Pearl Harbor suggested that Americans had to expand their definition of “national security.” Threats must be defeated early abroad before they metastasized at home.
In short order, such conceptions of an extended, if not global, national security meant there were no “peripheral” areas that stood outside of American interests. And even though Pearl Harbor ultimately led to the Axis powers’ defeat, new threats quickly emerged — so it seemed — that committed the United States to a decades-long Cold War against what many deemed a monolithic, expansionistic communist menace.
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