Global Policy Studies & International Security

Lessons from the Past


The tragic attack against the United States killed thousands. The protection granted by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans no longer mattered. On that day, everything changed. The world power base began to shift and the world order would begin a drastic change unlike anything in decades. The President declared that it was a date “which will live in infamy.” The date: December 7, 1941. The place: Pearl Harbor. Yet, how many of us think of Pearl Harbor as the major event of the 20th century? How many of us recalled the date before reading it here?

I cannot recall December 7, 1941. To me, that day is part of a history which I struggle to understand through books, movies and documentaries. I appreciate its significance in 1941, but it does not play a great part in my interpretation of the world in 2011. I understand that it provided the United States the opportunity to declare war on Japan without being the aggressor and it drew the United States into a war in which it was desperately needed. Yet, if someone asked me today to identify the 10 most important events of the 20th century, it would not be on my list. It would probably not make my top 20, either.

So what is the fate of the “new Pearl Harbor”? There can be no doubt that the September 11 terrorist attacks, much like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had a significant and immediate effect on world politics. It was a catalyst for a number of important, contemporary events, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new travel restrictions and security measures, a questionable imprisonment system, new questions in international law, new political alliances, and various social reactions (from hate crimes to great compassion). To those of us who were old enough to understand the implications of what was unwinding before us on TV screens that day, the event will remain imprinted in our memory. We shall forever remember the images and the heroes of that day.

However, how many really feel the same about December 7, 1941, as we do about September 11, 2011? Perhaps only those precious few who are old enough to have lived though – and remember – both events. For most of us, December 7, 1941, is a date which occurred in black and white, in a far away time. We are more likely to remember Elvis and The Beatles, the Cold War or the invention of the computer when we think back to the 20th century. It is not that Pearl Harbor has lost its significance or that sacrifices of those who fought and died on that day are diminished. Its importance in understanding the world today, however, has diminished. It is an event that defined a specific generation, much like September 11 defined a newer one.

To me, September 11 will always have a special significance. Not only because I am old enough to remember and understand what was happening that day, but because I had friends who worked in the towers. That day is personal. The war on terrorism is personal. This made my reactions to what was happening emotional and I wanted to punish those responsible. But I do not expect those too young to remember to feel the same. With each passing generation, their interpretation of September 11, will be more like my generation’s understating of December 7; which is as it should be.

The lesson that we all – especially policy makers – need to take away from history is that what is important and relevant changes. The impacts of events fade over time. It is crucial not to overreact and act hastily; all things need to be considered in their context and in their time.  Of course, that is much easier to say than do, especially when we feel vulnerable and feel the need to lash out at those who harm us. The United States reacted decisively following Pearl Harbor and the American people were galvanized to act (irrespective of their political leaning). That unanimous support made it easy for the government to make decisions.

In 2001 we saw the same phenomenon. People stood together, united as Americans not divided as Republicans and Democrats. In fact, most of the world stood with the United States, horrified at the brutality of the terrorist attacks. Everyone expected the United States to strike back and for the NATO allies to stand by the United States. Much like Japan and Germany both expected the United States would enter the war in 1941. However, in 1941 the enemy was much easier to identify. The belligerents in 2001 were far more difficult to identify and locate, and that alone should have given us reason to pause. Yet it did not and consequently we failed to consider the long-term implications of our reaction.

At the very least, we owe a memory with positive outcomes to those who died and the heroes who risked their lives. We cannot risk entering costly wars or shortchanging our freedoms, for it will be future generations which will pass the ultimate judgment on our decisions. By acting rashly, we played right into the hands of our enemies: we threatened our own way of life and alienated the Muslim world from our cause. We must think ahead and we must do so rationally if we expect our society to prosper. The decisions we make today will be judged by future generations and the spin we place on our actions will be worth less than the tangible effects of our decisions. In this respect, at least, we failed.

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