On September 11, 2001, four passenger planes were hijacked by terrorists. Two of the planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, causing huge fires that led to the collapse of the towers less than two hours later. One plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. The last plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania; it is believed the hijackers had planned to also crash this plane into a building or landmark, but were foiled by the actions of the plane’s passengers. Many of these horrific events, including the second plane’s crash into the World Trade Center and the collapse of the towers, were witnessed live by millions of television viewers. It was by far the worst terrorist attack on American soil; conservative columnist George F. Will labeled it “the most lethal terrorism in human experience.”
As the dust settled in New York and Washington, Americans were left to ponder what the attacks meant for the nation. In search of a historical precedent or point of comparison, many Americans reached back to Japan’s surprise assault on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, another “day of infamy” in which the United States was suddenly attacked. In both instances, a seemingly secure nation was jolted by massive assaults on its own soil. “As Pearl Harbor snapped America out of a false sense of security,” NBC news anchor and author Tom Brokaw writes, “September 11 had a similar effect on young Americans.”
The comparisons Brokaw and others made between the two dates dealt not only with the attacks themselves, but also how the American people responded to them. Many people wondered whether the resolve and unity shown by the American people in 1941 would be matched in 2001. Others wondered whether September 11 would become a defining experience for this current generation of Americans, much as Pearl Harbor had been for members of a previous generation. In attempting to answer these questions, it is instructive to note both the parallels and differences between the two events.
Casualties and perpetrators
Both Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks resulted in a large loss of human life. The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,388 people. The September 11 carnage was even larger, although an exact number was difficult to ascertain at first. In the initial weeks following September 11, the rough media consensus for the total number of fatalities at the WTC, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania was six or seven thousand (numbers cited by some of the articles in this volume). As weeks and months went by, that number consistently shrank, eventually reaching three thousand.
The September 11 casualties were not only numerically larger than a military attack against American military targets. Most of the casualties were sailors or soldiers; of the 2,388 people killed, forty-eight were civilians. For the most part, the September 11 attacks were directed not at soldiers or military targets, but at civilians going about their everyday jobs. For many, the fact that the September 11 terrorists targeted civilians made these acts even more outrageous and horrific than the events of 1941.
Another important difference between the two events was the identities of the attackers. On December 7, 1941, Americans knew who the enemy was—the Japanese Empire—and what its intentions were—to wage war against the United States. On September 11, 2001, Americans knew they had been attacked and perhaps were even at war, but they did not know who the enemy was or what their future intentions were.
In the days following September 11, 2001, some answers to these questions were found. Investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies identified the nineteen air passengers that they believed were responsible for the attacks. The presumed terrorists were all men from Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Suspicion quickly zeroed in on an organization called al-Qaida (the base), a terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian exile who had taken up residence in Afghanistan.
Thus, Americans were facing significantly different enemies in 1941 and 2001. Historian and World War II veteran Frank Mathias notes that Japan was a powerful nation with 191 infantry divisions and a large navy, as well as the support of Germany and Italy, while al-Qaida had “no navy, no organized army, no airforce.” However, the absence of such resources did not prevent the shadowy terrorist organization from inflicting the damage of September 11.
In both 1941 and 2001, Americans responded quickly and patriotically, but were called upon to do different things. In 1941 Americans swamped military recruiting stations or waited for draft notices and sacrificed personal comforts for the war effort. In 2001 Americans expressed support for the paid professionals of the U.S. military and were called upon to spend the United States out of economic recession. Both eras were marked by upswings of patriotism and unity that extended to the federal government. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress and called for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress, previously divided and strongly isolationist, passed a war declaration with only one dissenting vote. Following the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush addressed Congress, argued that the evidence pointed to al-Qaida, and called for a “war on terror” that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” He issued an ultimatum against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which he accused of harboring bin Laden and his network of terrorists. Congress, which earlier in 2001 had been preoccupied with domestic issues and partisan disputes, passed (again with one dissenting vote) a resolution authorizing Bush to use military force.
America’s war against Japan in 1941 resulted in victory in 1945. America’s war against terrorism is incomplete. On October 7, 2001, after marshaling diplomatic support worldwide, the United States began a bombing campaign in Afghanistan. By the end of 2001, Afghan rebels, assisted by U.S. bombing and special forces, had toppled the Taliban regime, and numerous al-Qaida officials were either killed or captured (Osama bin Laden himself, however, remained at large).
The successful yet inconclusive results of America’s initial military campaign again highlight the differences between 1941 and 2001. America’s war against Japan not only had a clear enemy, but a clear objective—Japan’s defeat and official surrender. America’s war against terrorism promised no such clear-cut solution. Even if Osama bin Laden were to be captured or killed, that would not necessarily signal the end of terrorism’s threat to America. Bin Laden’s followers and other terrorists hiding in nations such as Pakistan, Somalia, and the Philippines will likely prove to be elusive targets.
Patriotism and dissent
Both the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks resulted in an upsurge of patriotism. Following September 11, Americans purchased and proudly displayed the national flag. Hundreds of millions of dollars of charitable contributions flowed to organizations and individuals to help the families of those killed. Partisan differences in Washington were temporarily put aside to pass national security legislation. But the unity of spirit that the United States showed in the days, weeks, and months following September 11 did not necessarily translate into uniformity of opinion. Virtually all American and foreign observers condemned the actions as horrible and unjustified. Differences of opinion remained, however, on the difficult question of why these particular individuals did something so horrible (at the cost of their own lives).
Even commentators who see parallels between Pearl Harbor and September 11 disagree on the meaning of these events. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson writes that the lessons Americans learned from Pearl Harbor and September 11 are essentially the same: “There is no quarter to be given criminals, whether they be fascist states or murderous fundamentalists,” and the American people, “self-absorbed” in times of peace, are quickly roused to eradicate enemies when attacked. Religious studies professor Ira Chernus, on the other hand, argues that just as Pearl Harbor needs to be seen in the context of American foreign policy in Asia, September 11 needs to be analyzed in light of U.S. actions in the Muslim world. He asserts that it is a “myth” that the United States was “naïve and innocent, isolated from the world” prior to Pearl Harbor and that the Japanese were simply “the devil incarnate” with “no possible rational motive” for attacking. It is a similar myth to portray the September 11 terrorists simply as “agents of the devil, doing evil for evil’s sake, as if their own history and the world’s history had nothing to do with it.”
A point of agreement between Hanson and Chernus is that Americans cannot ignore events beyond their borders—in times of peace or war. The events of September 11, 2001, much as Pearl Harbor before it, will color how the United States interacts with the global community for years to come. The articles in this volume provide opinions and views on the causes, meaning, and potential consequences of the events of September 11, 2001, for the United States and the world.