Pearl Harbor -- and Our Moral Identity as a Nation

Some months ago I decided to suspend blogging/writing on HP for the simple reason that I'm deeply enmeshed in the research and writing of my new book, FDR at War -- the first book ever to recount President Roosevelt's performance as U.S. Commander in Chief in World War II.

But how can I let the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor go by without marking it with a few words at least? With Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney heading up a desultory field of Republican patriots, all pretending they have a lock on American national pride, I'd like to say a few things as a professional American historian and biographer.

First is: Republicans have nothing to crow about in terms of muscular American foreign policy. Four and a half months after Pearl Harbor, on April 22, 1942, Breckinridge Long noted in his diary: "The Republican National Committee yesterday adopted a resolution which disavowed "Isolation" as a party policy. Nothing has gratified me more in years." Men like Henry Cabot Lodge must turning in their graves, he reflected. "Had the Republican wrecking crew cooperated with us in 1919 and 1920 the League of Nations might have had the virile strength through our membership to exercise a real influence in the world. There might not have developed this devastating war."

Republican isolationists had certainly tied the hands of every U.S. president, year after year -- berating Franklin Roosevelt in particular and his attempts to ready the nation for inevitable attack. Even Roosevelt's plea that Congress extend the military training draft, in the summer of 1941, had only passed by a single vote. It was an uphill struggle -- with men like Charles Lindbergh leading the defeatist charge against the president on behalf of "America First," arguing that it was already too late: that Nazi Germany was too strong to be resisted. (It was small wonder FDR never forgave Lindbergh, and refused ever to reinstate him as an active Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces).

As U.S. intelligence reported on the number of Japanese troop transports and warships gathering off the coast of Thailand and Malaya in the first days of December 1941, it became obvious to all but Republican ostriches that the Philippines would soon be targeted, and that the United States, unless it wished to become a vassal state, would be drawn into the war, whether it wished or not.

On the night of December 6, 1941, discussing the latest intelligence reports with the President in his Oval study on the second floor of the White House, Harry Hopkins remarked sadly that it was a pity the U.S. could not pre-empt the Japanese attack on the Malay Barrier while the menacing Japanese invasion fleet was still off shore.

"No, we can't do that. We are a democracy and a peaceful people," President Roosevelt said. "But we have a good record."

I love that account (which was given to Congress by a witness, Commander L. R. Schulz, who had delivered to the president in person the latest top secret magic decrypts of Japanese diplomatic cables). How well it demonstrates Franklin D. Roosevelt's moral stature as president and commander in chief. The British Empire was about to collapse. The United States would, over the ensuing months, have to take over Britain's role as swordbearer of the democracies -- and the president was determined, in embarking on that noble program so sneered at by Republican isolationists, America should do so on the right moral footing.

The Japanese Empire's attack at Kota Bharu was followed several hours later by its devastating sneak attack on Hawaii. However tragic the results of Japanese military aggression, President Roosevelt's decision not to authorize pre-emptive action against the Japanese fleet had given no chance to even the most entrenched Republican isolationists to argue that the U.S. should dig even deeper into its own hole.

American isolationism thus ended, literally, overnight. Yet the most important factor in terms of American history was not the end of isolationism. It was the president's determination that the United States, in starting upon its fateful new course, should begin with a clear conscience. For all the failures of naval, air and army defense, the men who died at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines would not die in vain. As Franklin Roosevelt swiftly promised President Quezon, the independence of the Philippines had been formally mandated by the U.S. Congress for 1946, and the U.S. would, even if temporarily evicted, stand by its word: a promise that went to the heart of America's moral identity as a nation.

Since his inauguration in 2009, President Obama has upheld FDR's vision of America as a nation that keeps its word -- a nation still committed to uphold the "four freedoms" that President Roosevelt set down in the great Atlantic Charter of August 1941. FDR would be proud of our 44th President. I know I am.

If, on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor, neither Speaker Gingrich nor Governor Romney can summon the courage to acknowledge the moral basis (rather than posturing) of the past seventy years, they should be locked in a windowless classroom and be forced to read my American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, From Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush. And -- when it's finished -- my forthcoming FDR at War!

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