Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is rightly viewed as a lesson in surprise, unpreparedness, and poor decision-making, despite a wealth of indicators and warnings. As Roberta Wohlstetter famously wrote of the failures that enabled the Japanese attack to succeed, “Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy.”
Pearl Harbor’s foremost lesson for Americans, however, should be a positive one.
No other modern event so clearly demonstrated America’s foremost strategic advantage: the unique, special providence of American geography. America’s swift recovery from Pearl Harbor, and its overwhelming victory in World War II, has lessons that should guide American grand strategy today.
To be sure, America’s most important military tool, its Pacific Fleet, was badly damaged at Pearl Harbor. Nearly twenty ships and 180 aircraft were destroyed or crippled and 2,403 Americans lay dead. A worse disaster was only avoided by a lucky break: the aircraft carriers Lexington, Saratoga, and Enterprise were all at sea. The “day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dubbed it, dealt a crippling blow to America’s most important military instrument.
But consider what happened next. Within nine months (the time it took to write the Department of Defense’s recent Global Posture Review), America was already blunting Japan’s spear and beginning to turn the tide in the Pacific. The United States mobilized at a prodigious rate, one not seen before or since. American factories manufactured a ship every day and a plane every five minutes. America’s greatest contribution to victory in World War II was not the brilliance of its generals nor the valor of its soldiers, but its industrial power. It was as the “Arsenal of Democracy” that the United States provided overwhelming materiel superiority to the Allies. American factories and ships delivered shipments of fuel, ammunition, telephone cable and vehicles that kept the British in action and enabled the Red Army to endure the brunt of Hitler’s enormous offensives.
America could do this because its industry was unmolested, unlike the ravaged cities of Europe. Every other major belligerent in World War II suffered heavy strategic bombing and at least the threat of invasion. Seven million Soviet citizens starved to death; 100,000 Japanese civilians died in one night during the firebombing of Tokyo. The United States, meanwhile, was shielded by the world’s biggest moats: the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Surrounded by only water and a pair of weak, friendly neighbors, the United States has faced no serious threat to its territory since crushing Mexico in 1848. A total of six Americans were killed by enemy action in World War II in the Continental United States, victims of a Japanese fire balloon in Oregon in 1945.
The United States suffered another intelligence failure sixty years after Pearl Harbor, when Islamists hijacked aircraft to torpedo financial and military nerve centers, slaughtering thousands. But once again, despite the twin disasters of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American homeland remained secure. For Americans, terrorism, it is now safe to say twenty years after 9/11, is a nuisance, if an occasionally deadly one.
Contrary to facile mantras like “the world is flat,” America’s geographic advantages are, if anything, even more pronounced than they were in the last century. Neither international terrorism nor intercontinental ballistic missiles have changed the basic realities of national security and territorial defense.
Ballistic missiles are a theoretically terrifying but ultimately hollow threat. America’s enormous nuclear arsenal and the logic of mutually assured destruction still means that, absent a truly game-breaking technological breakthrough, the continental United States is safe from attack. In fact, nuclear weapons have lessened the risk of conventional strategic bombing or missile exchanges between nuclear powers. The inability to distinguish conventional from nuclear attack means that states are sure to be extremely cautious when striking the home territory of nuclear-armed enemies with bombers or ballistic missiles.
As the crisis of the past two years has constantly reminded us, in the face of pandemics, migration, and other major “non-kinetic” security threats, borders matter. Even with the hyper-violent states of Central America’s Northern Triangle to its south, America remains remarkably insulated from serious threats.
What does Pearl Harbor’s central lesson suggest today, in an era of great power competition, with burgeoning Chinese power in Asia and serious fears of a war in central Europe? Twenty-first century American warfighting has been predicated upon information dominance, overwhelming firepower, and quick decision. Whether it goes by maneuver warfare, the late AirSea Battle, or multidomain operations, this has been the professed doctrine or concept for all of America’s military services.
Yet in the face of both an eroding technological edge and the enduring realities of geography, does a bias for rapid, short wars play to America’s advantage? America’s greatest strength, as Pearl Harbor perfectly illustrated, is its endurance and resilience. The United States has unequalled strategic depth and the ability to recover from enormous initial reverses. Perhaps America should not be putting all its eggs in the short war basket.
When its vital national interests are threatened, America’s inherent strategic resilience must be paired with instruments and policies to enable American endurance. Our latest moment of strategic surprise and unpreparedness, the COVID pandemic, demonstrated the weakness of American productive capacity, as industries hollowed out by offshoring and consolidation struggled to manufacture sufficient ventilators or even basic masks. In the face of the Chinese threat, the decline of American shipbuilding is receiving long-overdue attention. The truly exceptional thing about America is where it physically sits in the world.
Eighty years after Pearl Harbor, this factor should guide American grand strategy more than any other.
Gil Barndollar is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. From 2009 to 2016 he served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan twice, to Guantanamo Bay, and to the Persian Gulf. He holds an AB in history from Bowdoin College and MPhil and PhD degrees in history from the University of Cambridge.
Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.