Pearl Harbor +75: All in the Same Boat. Still.

Pearl Harbor +75: All in the Same Boat. Still.

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….

“All in the same boat.” New Bond Street, Lon­don. (Sculp­ture by Lawrence Holofcener)

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.


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