Penn State Professor Reflects on Pearl Harbor

HARRISBURG – On a Sunday morning 66 years ago, a pre-emptive military strike on the United States Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, demolished U.S Navy battleships, cruisers, aircraft and destroyers, and killed more than 2,000 personnel.

The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy was intended to neutralize the U.S. Pacific Fleet so Japan could advance into other countries in the Dutch East Indies to take their major natural resources: oil and rubber.

In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, Dec. 7, 1941 is “a date which will live in infamy.” On this day each year, many reflect on the incident that led to the United States’ involvement in World War II.

Penn State Harrisburg’s Michael Kenney, assistant professor of political science and public policy and an expert in terrorism, counterterrorism and homeland security, compares and contrasts this foreign attack on America with the most recent significant terrorist attack in the country — on the World Trade Center.

Kenney said that when attacks like these happen, there are generally three phases the country goes through.

“The first thing that happens is experiencing shock and horror of the attack itself and all the attention is focused on the tragedy and what happened,” said Kenney. “The second phase is understanding why and playing the blame game.”

Kenney said that after surprise attacks, intelligence agencies come under extremely close scrutiny. It looks like an intelligence failure, which suggests serious problems with that community.

Scrutiny over changes that need to be made to increase national security would be the final phase, said Kenney.

“The incident on 9/11 showed us that surprise attacks can certainly happen,” he said.

But he said since the attack on Pearl Harbor, many improvements in the country have been made.

“What resulted was the creation of better technology and sensors to pick up attacks. Now we monitor military forces in hundreds of countries throughout the world.”

Kenney said the intelligence community has improved since the attack on Pearl Harbor, primarily because the CIA and National Security Counsel were created as a result.

“There were some major reorganizational changes that the U.S. underwent in the military and intelligence sectors of the government (after Pearl Harbor) that compare somewhat to 9/11,” said Kenney. “There also was reorganization going on after Sept. 11. These large disasters tend to create pressure for change.”

However, there are major differences between the two attacks. First of all, Kenney explained, while Pearl Harbor was on U.S. soil, it wasn’t on the mainland. Not only was Sept. 11 on the mainland, he said, it was an attack on the nation’s and possibly even the world’s financial capital. In addition, Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military base, killing numerous military personnel. While there were security and intelligence personnel based in the World Trade Center, it was primarily an attack on civilians.

Pearl Harbor also was an attack by a formal state — Japan — as opposed to the non-state actor al-Qaida. In the earlier half of the 20th century, tensions between Japan and the United States were on the rise and Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany in the war. At the time, Kenney explained, President Roosevelt had been trying to increase American involvement in World War II and was struggling with a more reluctant Congress and American public to increase participation.

“Pearl Harbor de-legitimized the isolationist position, which sought to keep the U.S. out of what was then viewed as primarily a European conflict,” Kenney said. “With the surprise attack on American forces by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the isolationist position lost support, making it easier for the U.S. to enter World War II than before the attack.”

Kenney said Pearl Harbor significantly increased the pressure for the U.S. to enter World War II. As for Sept. 11, he said it significantly increased the pressure for the U.S. to attack Afghanistan, the country which was harboring Osama bin Laden.

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