Remembering Pearl Harbor

"Arguing in My Spare Time," No. 4.25

by Arnold Kling

September 12, 2001

I remember Pearl Harbor. Actually, I was born a dozen years later, but I steeped myself in the history of World War II, and I tend to view current events through that lens.

One thing I remember is the pictures of American airplanes on air strips in the Pacific in December of 1941. They were parked out in the open, wing tip to wing tip. The Japanese could not have asked for easier targets. Many military experts at the time were stunned and dismayed at the stupidity of this.

With America so completely unprepared, Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of many defeats and catastrophes--Bataan, Singapore, etc. However, eventually, we learned our lessons and won the war.

Right now for America in the war against terrorism, it is December 1941. Our country is as confused and clumsy as it ever will be in the fight against terrorism. We will continue to make mistakes, and we will continue to suffer failures of intelligence and security. But eventually we will get a handle on the problem and gain skill and experience in dealing with it.

Even now, it is remarkable how well some of our systems have worked. For example, I have read that the emergency backup computer systems of the companies that were located in the WTC kicked in properly.

In the long run, we will minimize the risks from terrorism without having to give up much in terms of freedom and convenience. In the short run, we will make sub-optimal trade-offs, because we are new at this and have a lot to learn.

Another lesson from World War II is that a seemingly impossible problem can be solved. It is much too early to say that "terrorism can never be stopped."

In World War II, the seemingly insoluble problem was submarine warfare. Winston Churchill believed that the gravest danger that the Allies faced was losing what he called the Battle of the Atlantic. Just as we wonder today how you can possibly find terrorists in a sea of humanity, in World War II we wondered how you can possibly hunt submarines in a vast ocean.

The Battle of the Atlantic was won with a combination of defensive and offensive measures. Defensively, the convoy system helped to protect Allied shipping. Offensively, the Allies learned to track U-boats and to attack them near the ports where they were launched or refurbished.

The saying that "there is no defense against terrorism" is only true in the sense that a strategy that relies only on defense cannot succeed. We would have lost the Battle of the Atlantic if we had never gone on the offensive against U-Boats. To win against terrorism, you need more than security and defense.

It appears that our government understands the need to take the offensive against terrorists. For example, the President said that he will draw "no distinction" between terrorists and those who harbor them. (I wonder what the Palestinian Authority was thinking when they heard those words. Even though the Palestinians are not suspects in yesterday's attacks, the "no distinction" doctrine would seem to lay down a marker for Arafat.)

I hope that my readers and their loved ones are safe.

May we all one day live in peace.