Trump, Obama and the Missed Opportunity of Pearl Harbor's 75th Anniversary

How many generals are too many at the top tier of a presidential administration? What level of attention to the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is too low?

We now have an answer to the second question, and we may be on the verge of finding out the answer to the first, with Donald Trump having already made the former heads of Central Command, Southern Command, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, respectively, his picks to be the secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, and national security advisor. And the most famous general of all, David Petraeus, is waiting in the wings as what looks to me at least as the best choice among Trump's announced candidates for secretary of state.

We already have the answer to the second question. The 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor received surprisingly short shrift with the commemoration of the catastrophe that catapulted America from relative isolation into the leadership of the modern world essentially left to the Navy.

Perhaps not wanting to step on the toes of the outgoing administration, Trump -- a Vietnam War draft evader who also gave short shrift to to Veterans Day -- merely tweeted a Pearl Harbor remembrance linking only to a slightly longer, though nice enough, statement on his Facebook page.

But Obama put out only a brief statement of his own for the 75th anniversary of the most famous thing ever to happen in his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. The vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, none took the lead in Obama's stead. Aloha.

As it happens, Obama will host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a first ever visit to Pearl Harbor by a Japanese head of government on the two days after Christmas.

That may well be an epic event. But it will of necessity be about the two nations, and the heartening and critically important alliance they have forged together after years of brutal fighting across the Pacific in the war that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress officially declared 75 years ago today.

What will likely be lost in what should be a kumbayah moment for two nations amidst our slow-rolling Asia-Pacific Pivot is the importance of Pearl Harbor for this nation, especially as it transitions to the first president never to have served in government or the military.

It was a shocked and still strikingly insular nation that that the supremely worldly FDR led into war 75 years ago today. He had prodded, cajoled, schemed, inspired, and ramrodded America through the Great Depression and into the rejection of a profound isolationism. An isolationism, let's recall, epitomized by the "America First" slogan Trump appropriated for his own campaign from aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh. Who was, to be very clear, a Nazi sympathizer who privately accepted a high Nazi decoration from Hitler and who, in the guise of aviation expertise, provided gross disinformation about the supposed strength of Nazi air power that led to bad strategic decisions by the democracies trying to defend Western Europe.

Clearly Trump did not know this, nor does most of America, which in the present ADD media culture starts getting very vague about ancient historical events taking place before 9/11.

Showing his love for generals, which is perhaps an adjustment for his own lack of military or intelligence background, Trump keeps touting Douglas MacArthur and George Patton as his heroes. But he also does not know that MacArthur, who was a brilliant but very uneven figure, essentially lost the Philippines 75 years ago today by leaving his powerful air force sitting on its runways and in its hangers to be pulverized by Japanese bombers.

In contrast, Patton's record holds up extremely well across the board. His combat record, that is. Patton had grave fits of intemperate behavior away from the battlefield. FDR had to personally intervene to save Patton's career, though the general was far more politically conservative than his president, because he recognized Patton's brilliance in combat command.

Trump keeps on saying that his pick as defense secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis, is the Patton of our time. Fortunately, Mattis's temperament is by all accounts much more even-keeled than that of Patton, who you definitely would want to command a critical offensive but would not at all want to oversee the overall with its panoply of complex and sensitive relationships.

The story of how FDR and the nation pulled together after Pearl Harbor, carrying on to a complex and hard-fought victory and what would have been an even more effective and sophisticated role as global superpower had Roosevelt lived is essential for understanding today's world.

That is especially so with such an inexperienced and, for all his obvious shrewdness, under-educated president about to take office.

Unfortunately, it's another missed opportunity for Obama, who I had hoped would be a great explainer for a complicated world.

At the least, I hope that the dwindling ranks of veterans of that fateful day -- which FDR called "a date which will live in infamy" but which also served as the bloody crucible for the birth of a new and greater America -- will get their deserved attention when Obama and Abe meet after Christmas.

Facebook comments are closed on this article.

William Bradley Archive