1941, 2001

Repeating the past isn't necessarily bad

Issue: "No time to celebrate," Dec. 1, 2001

With the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack coming up next week, we can expect more comparisons between the Dec. 7 day of infamy and our own Sept. 11 version. You can bet that some liberal pundit, commenting on how America was once again caught by surprise, will quote George Santayana's line about how "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

There's truth in that saying, but also a false implication that repeating the past is necessarily bad. Let's look at the true part first. Some Americans had warned of danger for years before 1941. As early as 1932 two U.S. aircraft carriers on a Sunday morning had simulated an attack on Pearl Harbor that demonstrated how the entire fleet was vulnerable to aerial assault. (Japanese spies on Oahu watched and learned.)

In January 1941, leaders such as Frank Knox (secretary of the Navy) and Joseph Grew (U.S. ambassador to Japan) noted the possibility of "a surprise attack" on Pearl Harbor. One Hawaii Air Force colonel in August presciently warned the War Department of a potential Japanese attack featuring the planes of six aircraft carriers coming in from the north and striking at dawn. But amid a flurry of other communications, these messages-and some explicit last-minute warnings as well-were either set aside or reported on too slowly to save American lives and battleships.

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During the eight years after the bin Laden network's first, 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, many individuals predicted bigger and worse terrorist efforts, and some even contemplated assaults by air. But Bill Clinton was busy with other matters, and some of his officials emphasized emasculating the CIA and spending FBI resources on hindering the work of those notorious public enemies who demonstrated in front of abortion clinics.

So Santayana was right: Forgetting the need for hard-nosed preparation, America was condemned to suffer a new sneak attack, even more costly in lives than the one 60 years before. But repeating the past-responding to new difficulties now as America did then-will not be bad at all.

Reader's Digest in February 1942 reported that before World War II "the counter-subversive branch of the FBI had been the laughingstock of foreign agents. Trained to deal with the American underworld, it has little knowledge of the technique and skill of the Axis.... Officers of the intelligence service had been frowned on as 'snoopers' by many private citizens and many in control in the government, who had restricted their personnel to a minimum."

But the FBI changed, and fast. In June, 1942, as part of "Operation Pastorius," four German saboteurs were landed by submarine on Long Island, and four more in Florida. All had lived in the United States. Two were American citizens. Nevertheless, the eight came to destroy and kill by blowing up hydroelectric plants, railroad terminals and bridges, and aluminum plants. They carried high-explosive bombs disguised as pieces of coal and wooden blocks.

Within a month the FBI had all eight in prison. The FBI caught big breaks along the way: A Coast Guardsman encountered the German agents when they first landed, and out of fear or a desire to switch sides one of the eight soon surrendered and told FBI agents how to catch the others. But the FBI was positioned to take advantage of opportunities, which it had not been before the war.

A military court quickly tried the saboteurs. Six were sentenced as spies to death in the electric chair; that verdict was quickly carried out. The prime informant plus another who cooperated received long sentences. Adolph Hitler had taken a personal interest in terrorizing Americans, but he was so dismayed by the quick collapse of Operation Pastorius that he closed it down. German plotters saw that America had quickly become a hardened target, so they pursued opportunities elsewhere.

Today's FBI is also trying to remake itself quickly into an anti-terrorist force. Many in academia and media, though, scorn the "snoopers." Historical revisionists claim the FBI of World War II and the Cold War was an enemy of freedom. But just as America in the wake of one surprise attack needed to toughen up 60 years ago, we need to do the same now. President Bush took a good step on Nov. 13 when he approved use of special military tribunals for accused terrorists.

Former cabinet member John W. Gardner said, "History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable." The next few years will be uncomfortable, but we need to make sure that terrorists and their allies feel most of the pain.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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