Here is the scenario: The U.S economy has hit the skids. Millions of Americans are unemployed. Federal stimulus programs have piled up debt but haven’t brought back jobs for most Americans. Critics charge that the stimulus funds have mostly gone to friends of the President. At the same time, the defense budget has been cut to the bone, and America’s troops have neither the weapons nor the personnel to carry out their assignments.
Sound familiar? Actually, we are describing the U.S. on Dec. 7, 1941—the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and dragged the U.S. into World War II. What can we learn from the Pearl Harbor disaster?
A lot. In FDR Goes to War, we tell how President Franklin Roosevelt spent his first seven years showering money on social welfare programs that bolstered his party’s majority. FDR showed the world how federal spending, when carefully targeted, could win elections from coast to coast. Roosevelt and his social engineers designed programs for farmers, for city dwellers, for needy youth, and especially for voters living in key battleground states.
At the same time that FDR was pouring out cash for welfare programs, he was starving the military of supplies needed to defend America. In 1935, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur said that his “hopeful” goal for the coming year was a 30-day supply of bullets for the U.S. Army. Even as America’s enemies gained strength in the late 1930s, FDR refused to arm the military for an adequate defense. By 1940, the U.S. still had fewer than 50 heavy bombers in its continental defense, few antiaircraft guns, only primitive tanks, and little ammunition for either bombers or guns.
Such weakness is noticed by other nations, then and now. High unemployment and a weak defense attract aggressors: Germany and Japan in the 1930s. Iran and North Korea today. And maybe Russia. The more decrepit our defense, the more aggressive the tyrants will be.
In 1940, neither the Germans nor the Japanese respected the American economy or our military. Our Army listed only nine divisions on paper, at a time when Germany had mobilized more than 90, and Japan controlled parts of China with 50 divisions. When FDR decided to enforce an oil embargo on Japan, Tokyo knew that both the United States and Great Britain had only minimal forces scattered throughout the Pacific. Japan decided to attack both powers in December 1941, in a misplaced belief that it could set up “A New Order” in the Pacific: “Asia for Asians” was their slogan, which really meant “Japan Will Rule All Others.”
Japan also taught its people that their home islands were invincible, protected by divine forces from harm. And because Japanese troops in Manchuria and China rolled over the weak Chinese forces that opposed them, the Japanese people continued to believe this myth. The U.S. in a Great Depression posed no challenge.
Thus the stage was set for the tragedy at Pearl Harbor. On the morning of Dec. 7, more than 350 Japanese planes bombed and strafed military installations in Hawaii for more than two hours. The attack crippled the U.S. fleet stationed there, destroyed 188 aircraft, and killed 2403 Americans. Within hours, the Japanese also bombed the Philippines in an offensive that would eventually reach the borders of Australia. Tens of thousands of American and British troops in Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong and the Philippines went into a terrible captivity.
A strong U.S. presence in the Pacific in the 1930s would have made the Japanese hesitate before launching such sweeping attacks. Today, we would also do well to remember that strength discourages attack. Because of Congress’ failure to cut social spending, we may be faced with automatic cuts to our defense totaling more than $600 billion during the next 10 years, and that is in addition to currently scheduled cuts of $489 billion.
Seventy years ago, at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. learned that a weak economy and a weaker defense are no deterrent to war. Let’s not forget that lesson today.