Pearl Harbor vs. Sept. 11: Some differences, many uncanny similarities

November 29, 2001 | By John Omicinski

Seven and 11.

Luckiest numbers at a dice table, unluckiest numbers in American history.

Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 marked the costliest attacks on American soil—the Japanese navy’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor 60 years ago and this summer’s New York-Washington shock-infernos triggered by suicide pilots sent by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network al-Qaida.

In all likelihood, both forever will be linked in what President Franklin Roosevelt called “infamy.”

“There are many similarities between the two,” said Neil Howe, author of seminal books on demographic dynamics, including “Generations” and “The Fourth Turning.”

“But there is one major difference. Dec. 7 galvanized and brought to fulfillment a generation that already was fired by an era of crisis—the Depression—which changed the way everyone thought. By December 7, 1941, we were a long way from the Roaring ‘20s, the flappers and the speakeasies. With Roosevelt already in a third term, we were very stable politically.

“September 11, on the other hand, was the event that changed everything, bringing to an end an era of celebrity for celebrity’s sake. Suddenly, politics wasn’t entertainment any longer. In that sense, September 11 is more like the October 1929 stock market crash. That, too, changed everything.”

Another generation, another test.

“It seems that every generation has its day of infamy that none would ever forget,” first lady Laura Bush said recently.

“For my parents’ generation, that day was December 7, 1941, when our nation was shocked by the early-morning attack on Pearl Harbor. For my generation, that day was November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a street in downtown Dallas. I was a senior then at Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, Texas.…The horror was so sudden and so unimaginable.”

George DeLong, 79, of Lancaster, Pa., survived the sinking of the battleship USS Oklahoma after being trapped four levels below decks inside the submerged, overturned hull for 32 hours.

Sept. 11, he said, was the “greater tragedy.”

“At Pearl Harbor it was military men against military men. There weren’t any civilians involved,” said DeLong, who will return to Honolulu on Dec. 7 to show his grandson, Ryan Tallmadge, 16, the place where the Oklahoma capsized in 40 feet of water.

But besides the horror, the similarities between Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 are uncanny.

In both:

  • Death tolls were of jaw-dropping size—between 2,900 (estimate by Associated Press) and 3,899 (by New York City) died Sept. 11, 2001. About 2,390 died Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.— They were the two greatest intelligence failures in U.S. history, despite signs and portents and misunderstood warnings. Surprise was total in both cases.
  • Tokyo’s naval genius, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, designed the Pearl Harbor attack but warned against it for fear of “waking the sleeping giant.” But in 2001, the giant was sound asleep once again.
  • In each case, Americans were shocked to find that geography didn’t confer invulnerability and that an enemy could hate them so much.
  • Mass death arrived via airplanes on sunny mornings, in 1941 on a sleepy Sunday and in 2001 on a sparklingly beautiful Tuesday.
  • Attackers destroyed American icons of military and economic power—the Empire of the Rising Sun sank most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii in 1941, while the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon near Washington in 2001.
  • Both Japan and al-Qaida thought that hitting U.S. territory was the best strategy.
  • Panic swept through the U.S. populace, followed by a steely, silent resolve.
  • In both cases, there were clear signs that Americans in and out of uniform chose to ignore. In 1941, war raged with Nazi Germany, and U.S. and Soviet relations with Japan deteriorated daily. In 2001, Americans could look back on a decade when terrorists had bombed U.S. military barracks, ships and embassies. America itself, they thought, would be spared.
  • And finally, the events gave way to long eras of uncertainty, and forever changed American institutions and attitudes.

Yet, the differences may be even greater:

  • To stateside Americans, the Pearl Harbor attack existed only in their radio imaginations on that December Sunday in 1941 as broadcasters barked choppy bulletins and news bits from the scene.
  • The flames and smoke in Honolulu came to Americans in grainy newspaper photos the next day or in newsreel film at movie theaters a week or two later. Sept. 11 happened live, instantaneously, the fatal fireballs bursting in the World Trade Center towers while millions watched on television.
  • The Japanese struck at military targets—there were just 49 civilians among the dead, and some of those were uniformed police. The vast majority of Sept. 11 victims were civilians.
  • New Yorkers and Pentagon personnel never saw their killers. In 1941, Japanese pilots laughed from their cockpits and made eye contact with their American victims as they wheeled over Pearl Harbor.
  • Some Arabs suspected of links to al-Qaida were held for weeks for questioning by U.S. authorities, but thousands of Japanese were quarantined in camps for years in World War II.
  • No one in the U.S. government has been cited for laxity or failure in the Sept. 11 attacks. In contrast, Congress cited both the Navy and Army commanders in Hawaii for “dereliction of duty” less than seven weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • Neither Congress nor the Bush administration so far plans any inquiries into intelligence failures or defense shortcomings that may have preceded the Sept. 11 attacks. Sixty years ago, America wanted to know who was to blame. Between 1941 and 1945, seven investigative committees probed the Pearl Harbor disaster; people were fired, demoted or disgraced. Congress censured both the War and Navy departments.
  • The two events had different cultural impacts. Sept. 11 marked the end of the “Giddy Age,” the era of the golden straitjacket when Wall Street ruled American life. Dec. 7, in contrast, was the beginning of what Time Inc. Chairman Henry Luce predicted confidently would be “The American Century,” despite the comparative poverty of the population.
  • Fear of terrorists threatened to kill the travel industry after Sept. 11. In 1941, in an entirely different dynamic, gasoline and rubber shortages severely limited pleasure travel.