Originally Published: December 6, 2007 9:06 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Today is the anniversary of a day that lives in infamy: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Historical experts from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University took time Thursday to remember, analyze and reflect on the attack that shaped the outcome of World War II and changed our nation forever 66 years ago.
"Obviously it was a pivotal event, the surprise attack that got the U.S. into World War II," said Nick Manderfield, assistant professor with the ERAU College of Aviation. "It took the country by surprise. A lot of people wanted us to enter the war, and this gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt the excuse to do so."
Manderfield said Billy Mitchell, an American Army general who pushed for the creation of an independent air force, predicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, specifically, in a report he wrote nearly 20 years before.
"Mitchell predicted that air power would be a bigger factor in the next war, and he was right," said Manderfield. "From an aviation history standpoint, the war greatly influenced how we thought of security for our air forces. Before Pearl Harbor our primary concern was sabotage, so we kept all our planes close together to make them easier to guard. That, unfortunately, made them easy pickings for attack."
Manderfield said the impact of the attack was far reaching, altering the nation's ideas about war, national security and the Japanese people.
"There was a lot of paranoia about the Japanese after the attack," said Manderfield. "The important thing is that it was an unprovoked sneak attack that startled and shook the nation. Like 9/11, nobody believed it could happen, and immediately afterward it mobilized people in a massive way."
Stephanie Trombley, ERAU assistant professor of history, recognized that time has given historians additional information and added perspective that was not available at the time of the attack.
"We often view Pearl Harbor as central to the war, but in fact it was intended as a distraction more than anything," said Trombley. "Japan was desperately short on the resources it needed to continue the war, like oil, rubber, and so on. The real attack was on Indonesia and southeast Asia, as a grab for resources."
Trombley said historians must balance the perspective of those later years, with additional data to guide them, and the viewpoints of those who lived and acted at the time.
"We can't judge their decisions on what we know now," said Trombley. "At the same time, we can't ignore what we've learned since then; that's what makes us historians.
"Remembering this event is very important for historians, and for everyone. It's interesting how as each anniversary ticks by, we have less people who recall, firsthand, that event. That's why I went into the profession of history; to learn and tell those stories."
Trombley said that the comparison between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is both accurate and flawed in various ways.
"They had a similar emotional impact on the people, definitely. Also, there were similar massive failures of intelligence that allowed them to happen," said Trombley. "They're dissimilar, primarily, in that the attack on Pearl Harbor was strategic, of military importance, and the 9/11 attacks were symbolic."
When teaching her students, Trombley tries to balance the wider historical perspective with putting herself and her students in the frame of mind of the people who lived through the events.
"In my classes, I don't just have my students learn the list of events; it's the surrounding events, the context, that breathes life into it," said Trombley. "For those who lived through it, they didn't have all of the context at their disposal. To them, it was an attack on America by an evil force, an aggressive imperialist power with a flawed national character. With that guiding them, they did what they had to do."
Contact the reporter at email@example.com