Chance and Circumstance: Pearl Harbor in History

Memorandum for files of Lewis L. Strauss. Dec. 6, 1953
Memorandum for files of Lewis L. Strauss. Dec. 6, 1953

History is strange.  It has a perverse way of folding back on itself like a Mobius strip.  I once listened to an entire lecture by a seasoned historian who, after years of research and thought, ascribed the cause of the 1967 Detroit riots to chance and circumstance.  Really?  Can we resolve complex events to such simple elements?

History is an argument, presenting relevant facts, stripped of detritus, into a coherent case.  I was making this point to a group of National History Day students recently.  They were young, innocents unaware of subtleties like thesis statements.  I used the Pearl Harbor attack as a means to show how different perspectives can lead to different thesis statements, different research approaches, and different arguments.

You could argue that Pearl Harbor was a triumph for Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy as it gave the United States reason to enter World War II.  You could argue that it was a triumph for Roosevelt because the war greatly increased his power as President.  You could argue that Pearl was a tragedy because thousands of lives were lost that day and the Pacific fleet was shattered.  You could argue that is was a triumph for Japan because they hamstrung American military power, secured control of the Pacific, and ran rampant in South East Asia.  You could argue that Pearl Harbor was a tragedy for Japan because they misread the United States will to fight, using any means necessary, a war that culminated in dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

One of my colleagues offered that you could read Pearl Harbor as a triumph for Great Britain foreign policy as it forced the United States to enter World War II as a British ally.  This had never occurred to me.  Having just opened my mind to this possibility, I was thunderstruck to discover a memoranda to the files in the Lewis Strauss Atomic Energy Commission Series which validated the point.

The December 6, 1953 memo reads: ‘At lunch today with the President, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Secretary of State Dulles, and Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, the conversation turned to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Mr. Churchill made the following statement.  The Japanese attack was naturally greeted with great satisfaction in England since it brought the United States into the war….  When the news reached him in the country, Averill Harriman and Ambassador Winant could not conceal their joy.  They did an Indian dance several times.’

Chance, or circumstance, led me to examine Strauss’ memoranda.  Serendipity brought these two events together in the week before December 7th.  Life is strange.  It has a perverse way of folding back on itself like ourobos eating its own tail.

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