Seventy-five years have not lessened the infamy or the poignancy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s immemorial articulation of America’s agony. All eight American battleships at Pearl Harbor were attacked. Four of them were sunk. That is in addition to three cruisers, three destroyers and 188 aircraft. 2,403 Americans were killed and another 1,178 others were wounded. Many were blown to bits or had their skin burned off by oil fires in the harbor.
However, those 75 years have shown that Dec. 7 came in a way that stunned, and also stung, the Japanese as much as it did the United States. Craig Nelson recapitulates the historical studies for his new work, timed to coincide with the anniversary, Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness (2016).
The best of Japan’s military minds did not believe that a war against America was winnable: too many natural resources and men of military age and too much industrial muscle lay with the United States. This was the clearly voiced opinion of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He argued that Japan’s only hope would be a decisive initial blow against the American navy. Coupled with the war in Europe, the United States, hopefully, would not have the stomach to rearm and to fight a protracted and distant war in the Pacific.
The Japanese were stunned by their own success. It far exceeded their estimates on the basis of prior military simulations. Japan knew that it needed a daring assault that the United States would not anticipate. That is why it chose to begin hostilities with an attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor rather than with an invasion of British Singapore or the American Philippines, both of which were expected.
Japan, however, did not intend to perpetrate Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy. The empire wanted to surprise the Americans in location, not timing. Their intention was that a declaration of war would be delivered to Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State, 30 minutes before the attack. The United States would thus know that a state of war existed but not where it would begin. Indeed, American plans presumed the same.
A small, somewhat bureaucratic decision changed the course of history. Japan’s leading diplomats in Washington, Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura and Special Envoy Saburō Kurusu, were ordered, personally, to translate and to transcribe the 5,000-word document breaking off negotiations. The two old men were not accomplished typists. It took them an hour longer than expected, and thus the notification arrived in American hands a half hour after the attack had begun.
Much of what crippled the American response in Hawaii was American incredulity at what was happening. Those had to be American planes, which the newly installed radar had clearly announced. Was that really a miniature sub trying to enter the harbor? Why were the Americans executing military maneuvers on a Sunday?
Yes, Americans were the victims; Japanese, the aggressors, but both sides were stunned and stung by that day. Japan did not anticipate either its spectacular success or the moral opprobrium that would be forever attached to its launch of hostilities. That is, of course, the very nature of war. We humans begin them, and they take us where we never thought that we would go.
Living in a what has been called a post-Christian era, when the church is, rather successfully, depicted as an enemy of human progress, peddling an outdated and disproven cache of dogmas and declarations, it is difficult, even for believing Christians, to appreciate the utter incongruity, the absolute novelty that birthed the church’s Gospel.
The church that produced the Gospels did not think of itself as melding Hebrew and Hellenic worldviews. It did not yet view itself as the inheritor and custodian of Greco-Roman culture and civilization. It did not yet see itself as a force for cultural and moral conservatism.
Much of the church’s difficulty in the modern world lies with its being successfully cast, by herself and her enemies, in a role that she initially spurned: defender of the status quo. Sometimes the status quo should be defended. Change can represent decline as well as progress. But there is nothing sacred about the status quo.
Indeed, the Gospel is based on a paradoxical overturning of human expectations. In the immortal words of the Apostle Paul, the preacher who met with so much incredulity in his missions:
A crucified God is not the status quo, and it is not made into the acceptable, the intellectually palatable, by the proclamation of the resurrection. To its cultured and lettered detractors—2,000 years ago and today—Christianity begins with the abhorrent assertion of a repulsive death and goes on to promote itself through a ludicrous fantasy about life after death.
The Gospel gets that, which is why it steadfastly remains in the same, jarring key. Does Christ crucified and risen offend you? How about Christ, the baby born into the poverty of a manger? And this week, what about a herald who is himself uncouth, unlettered, unmeasured.
Part of what makes the papacy of Pope Francis a little jarring is his apparent lack of relish for defending the status quo. That has been the raison d’etre of the papacy for almost two millennia. In that regard, his detractors have a point. He is a prophet miscast as a pontiff, no more personally suited to the office than the poet troubadour St. Francis of Assisi was to be the founder, and sustainer, of a major religious order. But it’ is the Holy Spirit who does the casting, not consultants, not even a college of cardinals.
Seventy-five years ago, the Americans couldn’t believe what the Japanese were doing, and the Japanese truly believed that they were doing something morally different than what they actually accomplished.
Humans make history. It is our work, but it would be just as true to say that history makes us. It surprises us, it takes us places we never envisioned. History comes forth from us, but it transcends us, apparently moving towards its own, divinely appointed dénouement. If you won’t confess, with the church, that history has a divine dynamic, at least admit that it transcends mere human calculations.
Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10 Romans 15: 4-9 Matthew 3: 1-12