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By Catherine Johnson

Congressional Research Service (CRS) prepares reports for Members of Congress on the issues of the day. Examining reports about Pearl Harbor prepared since the end of World War II by CRS and its predecessor, Legislative Reference Service (LRS),  provides us with insight into the changing focus of Congressional interest over time towards the Japanese bombing of U.S. military installations in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. For the second half of the 20th century, the attack on Pearl Harbor served as a defining moment in time,  much as the 9/11 attacks mark a dividing point for Americans today.

The early post-war reports reflect upon legal issues related to the U.S. response to the Pearl Harbor attack and implications of these legal issues for security in the Cold War era. Executive powers allow the military to respond to an attack such as Pearl Harbor without waiting for Congress to declare war, and prior to the attack, President Roosevelt as Commander in Chief asserted executive authority in many ways. He guessed that he could safely split the Pacific fleet, leaving half of the fleet safely massed at Pearl Harbor, but he guessed wrong.

On the day after the  attack, Congress gave official consent to the war on Japan and pledged financial support until the conclusion of hostilities. As part of the proceedings, the Chaplain of the Senate offered a prayer to bless Congress with intuition and courage, and strengthen and comfort the President. On Dec. 8, 1941, a typical sentiment of Congress was that Japan would never live down the attack on Pearl Harbor so long as the present generation was alive and probably much longer; it was anticipated that Japanese diplomacy would be the “subject of scorn, derision, and contempt.”

Twenty years later, however, an LRS report presented a more nuanced perspective by including the views of Dr. Gordon W. Prange, a professor at the University of Maryland. According to Professor Prange, “U.S. military and civilian leaders in Washington must bear some of the responsibility.  So must the American people and our newspapers and magazines as well. For we as a people we were patently ignorant of the Japanese and so smug and complacent.”

The same LRS report also reprinted an interview with Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, who took part in preparations for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Vice Admiral Fukudome explained that Japan feared the U.S. and preferred war and death rather than sitting idly by waiting for national destruction. He described the greatest American weakness at the time as complacency. When asked if that company was still a fault, he replied in the negative. Americans “remember Pearl Harbor,” he said, “and are now prepared for any eventuality. In this sense, it might be said that Japan through its attack on Pearl Harbor, helped to educate the American mind, put it on guard against ignorance and negligence.”

In recent times, Pearl Harbor analysis includes an obvious comparison with 9/11. On September 14, 2001, CRS analysts examined the impact of Pearl Harbor on U.S. securities markets, as part of an assessment of the potential impact of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. stock prices. The loss of lives in the 9/11 attack was characterized as being greater than the number of lives lost at Pearl Harbor. But despite the similarities between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, there are also differences. James Schlesinger, former DOD and Energy Secretary, testified before Congress that terrorism presents a different challenge. “It is not a question,” he said, “of responding to Pearl Harbor and the four years later accepting surrender in  Tokyo Bay” because “terrorism is the tool of the weak and the weak will always be with us.”

There are no simple answers, but understanding differences of culture, ethnicity, and religion can surely help us make better decisions. CRS reports and other congressional documents offer us the opportunity to form more nuanced opinions of the present by understanding the past.

Learn more about World Conflicts.

[Top image: The impact of the Pearl Harbor attack on the U.S. stock market was minimal. Lower image: Pearl Harbor plan of attack.]


- Powers of the President as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the U.S.; June 14, 1956
- Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941: A Compilation of Selected Materials and a Selected Bibliography, October 01, 1970
- Stock Market's Response to Dramatic Historical Events; September 14, 2001
- Homeland Security: Compendium of Recommendations Relevant to House Committee Organization and Analysis of Considerations for the House; December 29, 2004

05 Dec 2014

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