Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The event still has much to teach beyond the obvious one of the need for military preparedness.
America’s entry into World War II also marked the abject failure of isolationism.
When World War I came to a close, America was suddenly revealed as the world’s dominant power. The relentless slaughter that came with trench warfare left Europe prostrate and heavily indebted. Yet the United States was not psychologically ready to assume the burdens of leadership.
The Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations. War-weary Britain and France were essentially left alone to police a weakened security system.
In the Depression years, Italy, Germany and Japan turned to militarism. Italy invaded Ethiopia. Japan invaded Manchuria. Germany, in clear violation of the treaty, reinstated conscription and began rearming.
All these moves met with little response from the League. A major step was taken when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland. Once again, the world was sliding toward war.
A contributing cause was the failure of the United States to lend leadership and support to the effort to keep the peace. By the time Pearl Harbor arrived, the stakes had risen enormously and the ultimate cost was staggeringly high.
Today’s Pearl Harbor observance comes as war weariness has strengthened the voices of those who again suggest America should hold itself remote from the world’s problems and conflicts. One sign is the still-buoyant candidacy of the libertarian Rep. Ron Paul.
But it won’t do. America is the pre-eminent world power, and the world will come calling whether we like it or not. To end foreign aid or overseas U.S. deployments, as some suggest, would send a clear signal to powers eager to take the United States down a peg or two, or worse.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how such a course would read in Tehran or Beijing.
The essential lesson of Pearl Harbor is the risks that accrue when a world power tries to sit on the sidelines.