Deja Vu? Comparing Pearl Harbor and September 11. (Intelligence)

By Wirtz, James J. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Deja Vu? Comparing Pearl Harbor and September 11. (Intelligence)


Wirtz, James J., Harvard International Review


During my first trip to Hawaii, I made my way to a place considered sacred by most US citizens the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. Survivors often greet visitors to the memorial, answering questions and retelling their memories of the day that the Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet. When it came my turn, I asked what the weather was like that fateful morning. The answer was "like today." A few puffy clouds dotted the blue

Hawaiian skies, a light breeze pushed ripples across the turquoise water of the harbor, stirring the warm tropical air to create one of the most idyllic anchor-ages on earth. September 11 also dawned clear and blue over New York City, the kind of late summer day that highlights perfectly the United States' front door, the spectacular edifice of promise and prosperity that is lower Manhattan. Given the setting, it is no wonder that the events of both Pearl Harbor and September 11 came as a complete shock to eyewitnesses. Neither could have happened on a more pleasant morning.

We now know, however, that initial eyewitness interpretations of both of these surprise attacks, as bolts out of the blue, were incorrect. Indications of what was about to happen were available before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, one of the accepted tenets of the literature on surprise attacks is that in all cases of so-called intelligence failure, accurate information concerning what is about to transpire can be found in the intelligence system after the fact. It is thus to be expected that revelations will continue about the signals that were in the intelligence pipeline prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11. And as in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the US government will hold a series of investigations to discover how organizational shortcomings or mistakes made by specific officials were responsible for the intelligence failure that paved the way for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon.

It is not surprising that similarities exist between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of September 11 because both events are examples of a more general international phenomenon--the surprise attack. Despite the fact that they occurred over 50 years apart and involve different kinds of international actors with highly different motivations, a pattern exists in the events leading up to surprise and its consequences. Exploring these similarities can help cast the tragedy of September 11 in a broader context, an important initial step in reducing the likelihood of mass-casualty terrorism in the future.

Warning Signs

Although Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks are sometimes depicted as totally unanticipated events, both incidents were preceded by clear indications that the United States faced an imminent threat. Prior to Pearl Harbor, US-Japanese relations had reached a nadir. By the summer of 1941, the administration of US President Franklin Roosevelt had placed economic sanctions on the Japanese to force them to end their war against China. These sanctions were the proximate cause of the Japanese attack. Japanese officials believed that the US embargo against them would ruin their economy, while destruction of the US fleet would provide them with some maneuvering room. They intended to quickly seize resource-rich lands in the Far East, fortify their newly conquered lands, and then reach some sort of negotiated settlement with the United States.

The Roosevelt administration recognized that it faced a crisis with Japan, although senior officials in Washington did not realize that Oahu was in danger until it was too late. In their minds, it made no sense for the Japanese to attack the United States because they simply lacked the economic resources or military capability to defeat the US military in a long war. In an ironic twist, the Roosevelt administration was ultimately proven correct in this estimate. …

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