A slightly extended version of my piece on Pearl Harbor: “How, 75 years ago today, we were saved,” in The American Spectator, 7 December 2016….
Seventy-five years ago today, Winston Churchill was pondering survival. Hitler gripped Europe from France to deep inside Russia. Nazi U-boats were strangling British shipping; Rommel’s Afrika Korps was advancing on Suez. Britain’s only ally beside the Empire/Commonwealth, the Red Army, was fighting before Moscow. America remained supportive…and aloof.
Eighteen months earlier he had become prime minister. No one else had wanted the task. “God alone knows how great it is,” he muttered, his eyes filling. “I hope that it is not too late.”
On the evening of December 7th, despondent over odds against him, Churchill was alerted to a radio broadcast. The Japanese had attacked the American fleet in Hawaii. Quickly he telephoned Washington: “Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?”
“It’s quite true,” came the booming voice of his friend across the Atlantic. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor….We are all in the same boat now.” A supreme climacteric had occurred. For generations, Americans would ask where they were on December 7th, as we do now for 9/11.
“No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy,” Churchill wrote:
I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!…Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.
Pearl Harbor not only awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve (as Admiral Yamamoto is said to have observed). It welded an enduring relationship among the English-speaking Peoples. Today we call it the Anglosphere: the great democracies—and by that I mean to include India—which share to a great extent the same values, the same ideals.
What are they? Churchill defined them: “Common conceptions of what is right and decent; a marked regard for fair play; especially to the weak and poor; a stern sentiment of impartial justice; and above all the love of personal freedom, or as Kipling put it: ‘Leave to live by no man’s leave underneath the law’—these are common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking Peoples.”
To know the present, know the past
Churchill’s wisdom is Hillsdale College’s privilege, as publisher of his official biography, to refract. Every day we pour through his archive, spanning fifty years of global prominence. Every day we are struck, as biographer Martin Gilbert before us, “by the truth of his assertions, the modernity of his thought, the originality of his mind, the constructiveness of his proposals, his humanity, and, most remarkable of all, his foresight.”
He was right, of course, 75 years ago. We were saved after all. “We stood together, and because of that fact the free world now stands. Let no man underrate our energies, our potentialities and our abiding power for good.”
The spirit of common purpose which Britain, America and the Commonwealth forged in 1941 serves today in countless relationships: commercial, economic, political, military: a fresh focus on national security in an un-national world. Whether the challenge is tyranny or globalization, fanaticism or free trade, our past is the key to our future. And hanging together, as the patriot Richard Penn said, is preferable to hanging separately.
Raymond Seitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Britain, likes to picture the park bench in London where a sculptor placed a life-size bronze of Churchill and Roosevelt sitting together, smiling and shooting the breeze:
“They may be talking about where matters stand and how to handle things. They may be doing in someone’s reputation. Or maybe they’re recollecting that day a long time ago when they heard about Pearl Harbor and strapped their nations together in joint purpose. And maybe they’re saying that, even if today the ocean is different, we’re still in the same boat.”
Let no one underrate our energies, our potentialities, and our abiding power for good.