the grim lessons of pearl harbour

The grim lessons of Pearl Harbor: Democracy everywhere is under threat and South Africa is no exception

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago and the madness of World War 2 are never-forgotten reminders that democracy and freedom are not the natural order of any society. We in South Africa have learnt now for certain what millions across the globe learnt 80 years ago – that our hard-won democracy is not immune to the dangers of self-immolation.

December 7 represents one of the weakest days in America’s long democracy. It is the 80th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The early-morning assault sank or damaged about 18 warships – 188 US aircraft were destroyed and more than 2,400 Americans killed. The attack seriously crippled the US Navy for months as it struggled to rebuild its fleet. The Americans had long suspected some type of Japanese aggression, but their neutral stance had left them unprepared to defend themselves when the real strike came.

Many Japanese gloated at their apparent success. They seemed, in their own estimation, to have bested the lazy, complacent Americans. Soon after, the European colonial strongholds of Singapore, Indochina and the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese. Their hold on Asia and the wider Pacific region was, for a time, unassailable.

In fact, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a catastrophic blunder. The majority of Japanese were in thrall to the intoxicating illusions of fascism and extreme nationalism, as of course were their allies, the Italians and the Germans. The Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who planned the successful attack, probably did not say the words famously attributed to him: “I fear all we have done is waken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” But all the evidence suggests he was certain Japan could never win a war against America. He had studied at Harvard and knew the country intimately. Although he did his duty courageously until his death, he cut a reluctant and lonely figure in his recorded depression at the attack and its implications.

Of course, as a military realist, he understood that America’s vast resources and industrial expertise, along with that of her allies, would be very likely to defeat not only Japan, but Italy and Germany, too. However, this was no simple equation. Japan had come from being a feudal nation armed with swords and matchlock firearms in 1853 to crushing the Russian Navy at Tsushima in 1905. By 1940, they commanded a vast, well-armed army and navy. Their Zero fighter plane was the best in the world until 1943. While Germany’s industrial might, coupled with their will to fight, were even more formidable.

The critical point to remember is that at the beginning of the war, America’s participation was never a given. National sentiment was against becoming involved in yet another European bloodbath.

As Germany’s blitzkrieg smashed Belgium, Holland and France, and threatened the island fortress of Britain, the American people were largely unwilling to send their boys across the ocean to save their old allies. Gallup polls taken at the very beginning of the war show a majority of Americans wanted to stay out. Surprisingly, a month later, as the invasion of Poland took its terrible grip, they showed that more than 70% of Americans favoured not helping. Even more tellingly, as the Nazis overwhelmed western Europe in fire and blood in mid-1940, polls jumped to show about 90% of Americans were against going to fight.

While President Franklin Roosevelt realised that America eventually would have to fight for freedom for Western Europe and much of the wider world, he was limited when the war began to giving Britain, China and the Soviet Union diplomatic and financial aid under the Lend-Lease programme. He knew that public opinion wouldn’t allow him the votes in Congress to take America into the war.

Over time polls began to show a shift to a more equal, but still largely hesitant, divide, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the situation changed dramatically: overnight, 91% of Americans wanted war.

What Admiral Yamamoto had so clearly, if reluctantly, understood was the power of people’s hopes and motives in a democracy.

Pearl Harbour and the dramatic shift in what voters believed, not only made war finally possible for Roosevelt, it made it inescapable. His people now demanded nothing less than vengeance. A few days later, Nazi Germany and Italy declared war on the US; and their doom became inevitable.

A doubting and self-centered American people had overnight become true believers – not in the arrogant but seductive visions of autocracy, like the Japanese and the Germans – but in becoming painfully aware of the grim reality they confronted: fight now and try to win the war, or watch their allies crumble and face a world controlled by the depraved whims of genocidal tyrants.

So isolated, even giant America would have been deeply vulnerable. A Japan victorious in the Pacific might have successfully invaded Hawaii and bombarded the US west coast. The Atlantic and America’s east coast would have been controlled by Germany’s navy and U-boats. These are all fanciful scenarios today, but they were serious considerations in the early 1940s.

Public opinion is, of course, often dangerous, fickle and irrational. It is potentially the greatest weakness of any society. The chanting maniacs of Nazi Germany swept aside the weak and faltering democracy of the Weimar Republic. Japan’s uncertain experiments with civilian government in the early 20th century were replaced by a clique of powerful army officers with a perverted form of racial purity and Emperor worship that led to the fanatic, suicidal kamikaze attacks. The madness of World War 2 is a never-forgotten reminder that democracy and freedom are not the natural order of any society.

Today, those same wild and absurd instincts led maniacal, chanting Americans to attack their Capitol building, the revered heart of their democracy, on 6 January this year. This dark totalitarian reflex in the American psyche embodied by Donald Trump and his atavistic supporters has by no means disappeared.

Germany and Japan are now high-functioning social democracies. It has taken much introspection and political determination to create these new societies out of the literal ashes of their total defeat. And yet, the old impulses of cruelty and fascism still exert a powerful hold on a number of their people.

We in South Africa certainly don’t face any threat of external war. Instead, we must conquer the 21st century curse of all developing nations, the cancerous ravages of corruption and growing inequality that lead to hopelessness. We are not safe from the catastrophe of irrational rage taking hold of our society.

Burned into our memory is July of this year – when the chaotic forces of poverty, injustice and a perverted public discourse led by the discredited Zuma faction of the ANC led tens of thousands of South Africans to loot, attack, burn and destroy trucks, shopping malls and factories across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Following in its wake was the terrifying spectre of armed race war. We still hardly even know a fraction of what actually happened. July’s bitter truths lurk barely hidden below the surface of the present calm.

We have learnt now for certain what millions across the globe learnt 80 years ago – that our hard-won democracy is not immune to the dangers of self-immolation. What threads of decency and accountability exist in our government are deeply endangered, especially after our dismal recent elections.

We are a beleaguered republic, with diminishing capacity to rejuvenate. But we are not lost yet. Though much of our miracle transition of 1994 has been lost, much remains. There were so many ways after the July riots that South Africans rose above the potential of real horror and came together to help one another and to rebuild.

Let us all keep this spirit alive, working in any way we can for greater justice and a saner public dialogue to carry us beyond the legacy of July. Democracy can only survive if each one of us chooses it above all else. DM

The grim lessons of Pearl Harbor: Democracy everywhere is under threat and South Africa is no exception

Hamilton Wende

Hamilton Wende is an author, journalist and TV producer. He has worked all over the world, covering historical events and some 17 different wars and conflicts. He is based in Johannesburg and travels from there. He has worked for a number of international networks including BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. He has also reported on events in South Africa for the last three decades. He has published many articles in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world. He is the author of 9 books. House of War, Only the Dead and The King’s Shilling are thrillers based on his travels around the world as a journalist. His latest book Red Air is based on his experiences filming with the US Marines in Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wits University.

He is also the author of the popular children’s books: Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella the Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu which are set in Johannesburg and Knysna. He is working on the third volume in the series.