(A version of this editorial was originally published Dec. 7, 1997.)
Seventy-six years ago, Americans awoke to a Sunday that probably began pretty much the way most Sundays begin. People got up and made coffee, fixed breakfast, got ready for church, or maybe just rolled over to catch that extra couple of hours' shuteye on their day off.
By the time that day ended, their lives, their nation and their world had changed forever.
December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,'' as President Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed it, is also a date which lives forever in the memories of all those old enough to remember it. It is the “What were you doing when … ?'' date for one generation, as Nov. 22, 1963 is for the next, and Sept. 11, 2001 is for the one after that.
By the time that day ended, a 33-ship Japanese strike force under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had traveled in darkness to within 200 miles of Hawaii and launched some 360 airplanes in an early-morning attack on the United States' Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, west of Honolulu. Long before the sun set on Dec. 7, 1941, 21 American ships and more than 300 American airplanes would be destroyed, and U.S. casualties would number over 3,700.
Before that day, U.S. participation in a war that already had raged in Europe for two years was limited to equipping nations allied against the Axis powers with planes, ships, tanks and ammunition. Roosevelt, calling on Americans to become “the arsenal of democracy,'' had successfully appealed to Congress to rescind neutrality laws that forbade such sales, and with war-ravaged Britain virtually bankrupt by 1940 the president proposed the Lend-Lease Act, under which the U.S. continued to provide war materials to allied nations.
By the time that day ended, we were sideline participants no longer. Pearl Harbor awakened the “sleeping giant'' of American military might and moral outrage, and transformed democracy's “arsenal'' into its most efficient and essential strike force.
By the time that war ended, it would have claimed uncounted millions of lives (military deaths alone probably topped 17 million, civilian deaths incalculably higher), radically redrawn the maps of Europe and Asia, given rise to the Soviet Union and the Cold War and, in one blinding, white-hot flash that all but obliterated the city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, ushered the world into the nuclear age.
By the time that day ended, the Great Depression that had tested American endurance, courage and ingenuity for more than a decade would be yesterday's news, pushed into the inside pages by the more immediate threat of mortal combat on the ground, in the air and on the seas, and by the uncertainty of the nation's very survival.
By the time that day ended, events would have been set in motion that would see Americans die at Anzio and on the beaches of France; in steamy, mosquito-infested South Pacific jungles and in the freezing Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg; in fiery air battles and shark-infested seas.
Seventy-five years ago, America awoke to what would be one of her darkest moments. Four years, hundreds of thousands of American lives and countless acts of valor and self-sacrifice later, she stood on the brink of her brightest.