The politics of surprise attacks

Coincidentally, the House of Representatives passed the Bush administration’s comprehensive intelligence reform bill on Dec. 7, 2004 — Pearl Harbor Day.

Dec. 7, 1941, shocked an insecure but insular America into joining the reality of enormous global war. Soon thereafter, the Gallup Poll registered that overwhelmingly isolationist public opinion had been transformed into equally decisive support for engagement in world affairs. Having made that basic change, collectively we have never looked back.

Our blinders before Sept. 11, 2001, were more subtle in nature. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations were guilty of short-changing the military, focusing on domestic agendas and viewing terrorism as a troublesome but very limited threat.

Beware of politicians and others who argue the world fundamentally changed in the wake of al Qaeda’s mass murders in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field, because that is a dead giveaway of a historical ego-driven self-absorption. The world remains the same as always — a highly dangerous, uncertain, at times terrifying place. What changed as a result of the terrorist attacks was the American fantasy that the end of the Cold War had rendered us somehow invulnerable.

Initial American response to the al Qaeda attacks demonstrated noteworthy maturity. There was no mass Moslem incarceration along the lines of the internment of West Coast Japanese-Americans after Dec. 7. Pearl Harbor commanders Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short were publicly condemned and cashiered. President Bush deserves credit for not seeking political scapegoats for the Sept. 11 shocks.

Failure to foresee Pearl Harbor reflected inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic turf-protection, plus complacent assumption that Japanese could not defeat Western forces. Arrogance came from historical ignorance: the Japanese Navy with stunning efficiency had utterly destroyed the Russian fleet only a few decades before Dec. 7.

Likewise, Sept. 11 was facilitated by secretiveness and rivalries among our intelligence and security services, and no little cultural arrogance.

Pearl Harbor demonstrated Tokyo’s innovative use of tactical air power for strategic destruction of capital ships. American commanders were occupied with less imaginative threats. Even Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey, more worried than most about a Japanese attack, and one of history’s great combat commanders in the Pacific War, was concerned primarily about submarine rather than air attack at Pearl.

The two best books about Pearl Harbor were published years ago. “At Dawn We Slept” by Gordon Prange and “Pearl Harbor _ Warning and Decision” by Roberta Wohlstetter underscore the continuous challenge of securing accurate intelligence.

After the shock of Pearl Harbor, FDR, Gen. George Marshall and other U.S. war leaders, working closely with the British, showed great discipline in realistic assessment of the enemy and thorough planning for after the war.

U.S. voters should assess contemporary leaders _ and aspirants _ by this standard.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War (NYU Press). He can be reached at