December 10, 2005

A Saturday Query

I meant to ask this back on December 7th, but didn't have the time: 50 yrs or so from now--when major historians look back at the last 100-120 yrs of American history--what date will be deemed to have had a larger impact on the course of this nation's history, Dec 7, 1941 or Sept 11, 2001? There are a lot of angles to approach this essay at prognostication, but as 9/11 is so much fresher in all our minds, let me just remind readers of the critical import of America's decision to join the allies in WWII, ie. how the future of Europe was changed so materially, how an entire post-war security architecture was created by the likes of Dean Acheson that still exists to this day, how the post-war settlement helped lead to a fifty year Cold War with the Soviets, and so much more. Big stuff, all this, very obviously. There is also, of course, the post-Cold War era that lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall to, I guess, 9/11 (though some would say the magnitude of 9/11, while huge, doesn't supersede the post-Cold War era so that, often, you hear that we are inhabiting both the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era, not merely the latter). Still, the post-Cold War era (remember Herbert Walker's New World Order?) now seems to have been relegated to something of footnote status, with the demons of unleashed nationalism that wracked the Balkans (and still do parts of the FSU), now so overshadowed by the reigning hegemon's robust pursuit of the global war on terrorism (nationalist fervor was often portrayed as one of the major potential perils stemming from the end of the Cold War). Comment away, please, and I hope to have analysis a bit down the road in terms of my take. Your input would be appreciated.

Posted by Gregory at December 10, 2005 03:29 PM | TrackBack (2)

How is there any comparison between Pearl Harbor and 9/11? Pearl Harbor and the ensuing effects dwarf 9/11. To the extent there is a difference of opinion here, perhaps it explains a lot of the disagreement between anti-Iraq war crowd and y'all.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim at December 10, 2005 04:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Concur with the Enchanter. . FDR set the path - we now rule this rock, uncontested, because of 12/7.
To say more leads us to Harry Turtledove. Do we really need more words?

Posted by: RabbitofCaerbannog at December 10, 2005 04:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Both dates required the United States to face the same watershed decision, " Can a reluctant giant retire safely into isolation?" Both were answered, "No."

Both, tied together, help reach the conclusion that continuous involvement is essential because events in the world have consequence for everyone now that science has put incredible power in the hands of anyone who cares to learn enough to use it.

Neither single date will have larger impact.

Posted by: stephen at December 10, 2005 05:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If you think of "this nation's history" just in terms of the U.S., then December 7 will probably still be considered the more important, because it drew the U.S. unalterably into the "continuous involvement" in world affairs that Stephen notes. But viewing the U.S. in relation to World History, as time recedes, the period from 1914-1945 will likely come to be seen as the "Thirty Years War" of the twentieth century (not an original observation), producing at least a century's worth of challenges (communism, fascism, Islamofacism) to the trajectory of Western liberal democracy. Historians then will have to grapple with the U.S. response as the "Arsenal of Democracy" in WW II (resulting in the democratization of fascist countries and continued "Cold War" with the Soviet bloc, etc.) as compared to the U.S. response in leading the (poorly named) War on Terror. As the success of this WOT may still be uncertain in 50 years (remember, we are still debating the origins of the Cold War) it may take another century before the question can be answered.

Another issue, as well, is the distance of historians from the politics of the era. Think, for example, of how the historiography on Truman has been shaped as much by the political proclivities of the historian vis-a-vis communism as by the actions of Truman himself. Truman has consistently risen in polls of presidential historians as the historical profession has become less defensive about Stalin.

Posted by: Bill at December 10, 2005 06:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have to say I also think this a peculiar question. We'd not even be thinking about it had September 11 not been televised.

Posted by: JEB at December 10, 2005 06:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

September 11 was huge, or at least it should be for American history. We're going to have to reconfigure and adapt American society and state to deal with this Long War that will be with us for the next few decades in some way... the same way the U.S. did after 1941. Leaving aside the foreign implications (European history changing for instance) we have to focus on the U.S., which became a superpower and hasn't stopped since.

Domestically and most important for the country, 1941 pushed the U.S. into full war production and ended the Great Depression, which the New Deal and FDR's economic policy failed to do.

We can't forget the internal immigration in the U.S. brought from industralizatoin -- blacks going north out of the south. The ensuing civil rights movement was helped by the former intergration of the Armed Forces and the massive black movement north. "Women's rights" experienced a similar shot in the arm, although delayed 20 years.

Pearl Harbor also marked a radical departure from the traditional history of U.S. foreign policy: intervention around the world, not just in our hemisphere; alliances with former rivals like Britain, Japan, Germany, France (Vietnam anyone?), the Soviets during WWII; the primacy of mutual assured destruction/deterrance.

We've since returned to the old way: more assertive unilaterialism; less dependence/faith on international organizations like the U.N. and NATO; the empahsis on American hegemony, not "Western" hegemony during the WWII/Cold War period. Arguably "The West" only existed from 1941-1992 and has since past as a bloc of uniform strategic foreign thinking and alliances.

Lastly and most great" Pearl Harbor a long period of not using pre-emption -- we waited to attack the Axis until we were attacked. The U.S. had not been so patient before 1941 and was not after 2001.

Posted by: Radcliffe at December 10, 2005 07:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My vote is that Pearl Harbor and September 11 will eventually be seen as equally-important bookends that mark the peak of American power.

Please don't get me wrong - I'm not saying America was defeated, or even greatly weakened on 9/11, and I'm certainly not hoping that any of our current work in Afghanistan or Iraq will falter. But it's been my experience that historians like to spin narratives whenever possible to explain larger historical trends, even if the causal relationship between the narrative events and the trends isn't all that great.

In this case, I suspect American power in the next century will be diminished from a relative standpoint, not because the nation itself is any less vital, but because other superpowers - China and India, most likely - will start to rise. A lone giant looks stronger than one giant among two or three.

And, again, 9/11 has nothing to do with these trends... but I suspect it'll be hard for historians not to point to 9/11 and some of the more minor strategic stumbles of the Iraq campaign, and say that these stumbles were symbolic of a nation that was no longer the powerhouse it used to be.

Posted by: Chris at December 10, 2005 08:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Of course, in terms of discrete specific impact, 12-7 dwarfs 9-11 in significance. 12-7 was an attack on the USA by a global military powerhouse that was aligned an equally powerful military force in the USA. 9-11 was an act of a handful of nutcases lead by a villian better suited for a Bruce Willis movie. 12-7 represented an absolute threat to the United States in military terms, 9-11 represented to real threat to the US in the way Pearl Harbor did -- it occurred because the US got complacent about very simple and basic domestic security issues like preventing the hijacking of commercial flights.

That being said, 9-11 is as significant as 12-7 in that those two dates may come to be seen as equally significant "bookends" for the beginning and end of the USA's reputation as the "essential" global power and "the leader of the free world." The enormous wisdom of Roosevelt and Truman that lead to American dominance is being matched by the sheer stupidity of the Bush administration in its moronic approach to the "terrorist threat."

Both Bush I and Clinton understood that Frances Fukayama was full of shit and there was no "end of history". Both understood that change is inevitable, and the key to maintaining American predominace lay in controlling, managing, and adapting to the forces that engendered changes. Bush II has completely destroyed the reputation of the USA as an essentially benign power, and consequently destroyed the US's ability to effectively deal with inevitable change (like the emergence of China, and the "populist/leftist" tilt of Latin America) in a manner that kept the US "first among equals" among nations.

But perhaps even more critically, 9-11 may have seriously damaged the concept of American democracy as a self-correcting form of government. America's brand of democracy is an incredibly tough sell, when the US re-elects someone whose first term was as disasterous on virtually every front as Bush's was.

Posted by: lukasiak at December 10, 2005 08:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

at 8:31 (BD Time) Chris Posted...

My vote is that Pearl Harbor and September 11 will eventually be seen as equally-important bookends that mark the peak of American power.

at 8:43 I posted....

My vote is that Pearl Harbor and September 11 will eventually be seen as equally-important bookends that mark the peak of American power.

I hadn't seen Chris's post when I wrote mine, otherwise I would have given him credit for the "bookends" comparison.... (I'd say something about "great minds" but I don't want to insult Chris :) )

Posted by: lukasiak at December 10, 2005 08:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

geez, I didn't even paste in my quote correctly! DOH!

Posted by: lukasiak at December 10, 2005 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

That is an interesting, though horribly inappropriate, question, Greg.

"Interesting" because the fact that you ask it points to much of what is wrong with right wing thinking concerning "the war on terror", and "inappropriate" because there simply is no comparison between the attack on Pearl Harbor (and our subsequent immediate entry into WW2) and whatever it is we're doing now against whoever it we are doing it against - terrorists if you follow the party line, assorted Moslims with wide ranging affinities if you track reality.

In WW2 we faced a alliance of enemies with millions of men under arms, multiple naval fleets, countless airwings, many armored divisions, etc, etc; all of which were actively attacking the civilized world with a brutality and a level of destruction never seen before or after in the history of the world. It was an immense struggle that could only be won through huge sacrifice on virtually everyone's part. As you note, the ramifications of our eventual triumph were so pervasive and so altering of pre-war orders that the task of a final assessment will have to be left to future historians.

As for 9/11, there was not so much different about that day from an earlier bombing in 1993; only the 9/11 attack resulted in the damage that the 1993 atteckers had hoped to achieve, but failed to.

We were attacked by a handful of radical malcontents that use religion as a binding glue to, what they see, is a fight to drive Western powers out of their lands in the Middle East and perhaps to establish some sort of mideival caliphate.

There were perhaps a few thousand of the enemy. We responded appropriately by entering Afghanistan, though we ultimately failed to appropriately prosecute our effort there. The leaders of the handful escaped to fight another day.

The point is, that we had lived with the threat of terrorist attacks for several years. We knew their intentions. We knew the faces of their leadership. The only thing different about 9/12 and 9/10 was that the handful of terrorists had gotten lucky. Had we killed their leadership in Afghanistan, life could have gone back to status quo afterwards.

Not so with Pearl Harbor and WW2.

Now, this is where the right goes awry is that they actually see Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as being analogous. In fact pre 9/11 they were looking for a "new Pearl Harbor" (see Pearl, Ledeen) so they could motivate the American populace to back certain plans that had been developed and signed off on well before Bush was even elected (see PNAC, etc).

Because so many on the right are inclined to see "the war on terror" as an epic struggle equivalent to WW2 (with 9/11 equivalent to Pearl Harbor), the war in Iraq was more easily sold to the public.
True, some thin excuses (read fear mongering) about WMD and mushroom clouds were tossed out to the public, but the real impetus to invade Iraq came from the pervasive use of the term "war" to describe our efforts to improve our security against terrorist attacks.

The term "war" as used by Johnson in "the war against poverty" occurred in a context where "war" was clearly meant to imply a serious, no-holds barred, unified effort. Clearly we weren't going to end poverty by invading the inner cities and Appalachians and shooting and bombing poor people. The "war on drugs" was the first perversion of the original use of "war" in non-military contexts. Sometime you can and do shoot people involved with drugs. Sometimes you bomb production sites, etc. Policy named "War" was becoming
more militant.

Then came the war on terror. After Afghanistan sort of fizzled out, we had to find some one to bomb and shoot, because, after all, we were at war. It was easy to disolve resistence against an invasion of Iraq with all the images of 9/11=Pearl Harbor and of war. Again, "war" was too close to War for many to discern the difference.

So, at bottom, 9/11 provided an excuse for a group of radical in this country to do what they had planned to do any how.

It would seem that the election of Bush/Cheney itself is more relevant to that historic question than 9/11.

Remember 9/11 was just part of Bush's "trifecta".

Posted by: avedis at December 10, 2005 08:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, 9 -11 is the more important because it marked the end of Imperialism and the rise of Haliburton. It will be seen 50 years from now has the dark dawn of peek oil. Trust me brethern and sistern, I can see it now! Hallelujah! Cold winter coming, going deep for supernatural gas!

Posted by: Oracle Jones at December 10, 2005 09:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Pearl Harbor destroyed isolationism as a legitimate option, I think 9/11 may eventually engender a neoisolationism that many in the world will regret. The original isolationist impulse was that America was so exceptional that involvement with great power politics would sully it. The current view of the avant garde intelligencia is that America is so sullied that there is no atrocity in resisting it that can't be minimised or excused. Look at the coverage of Saddam's trial, nearly turning him into another Mumia, for current evidence, or Reuters refusal to use the term "terrorist." The only unforgivable crime in the world today is to be Bush's lapdog; e.g., Tony Blair.

I think the most overlooked aspect of the GWOT, in Iraq and other theaters as well, is the mass production of suicide bombers. This technique of warfare has become so institutionalised it will not go away with a reduction of hostilities in Iraq, and will be used wherever it will create the most impact. Inevitably, that will be on US soil, and will change our society's receptiveness to foreigners and foreign engagement.

I've seen another commentor on other blogs using my first name, so from here on I will use my initials.

Posted by: wks (formerly wayne) at December 10, 2005 09:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't see how they can really be compared. I mean, I'd put 9/11 right up there with 8/1/90 (was it 8/2?) in terms of significance over the long term.

Look 2 years into the future. The Afgan civil war, into which we were dragged, will be as over as it's ever going to get. (That is, less fighting than in 1999). The Iraq war will be over for us, although there will be jockeying for power in Baghdad until the end of time, and we'll have troops at our bases in quasi-independent Kurdistan.

We won't be having anything that could be called a "war." The Pakistanis will have finally gotten bin Laden and Zawahiri, but there will still be zealots in Cairo and elsewhere -- on the Internet mostly -- railing against western influence in the Muslim world. Every once in a while, some small group of such people, probably still using the AQ brand, will set off a bomb somewhere.

In sum, little will have changed in the wider world, or in the US, as compared with 9/10/01.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at December 10, 2005 10:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Or maybe bin Laden and Zawahiri will still be at large, in which case, every once in a while, zealots upset about the humiliation of the Muslim world at the hands of the West, probably still using the AQ brand, will set off a bomb somewhere.

Posted by: CharleyCarp at December 10, 2005 10:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It's not entirely off-base to compare 9-11 to 12/7. Or, rather, they are completely different in some ways and similar in others.

They're the only two attacks on U.S. soil costing more than a handful of lives in this century.

They'll both be seen as the most signifigant mentality-altering events of their decade amongst the policy/leadership to be sure, and probably amonst the populace as a whole. They have both fueled wholesale and radical change amongst U.S. foreign policy. Both events empowered an entire philosophy of governance that, while advocated before the event, lacked legitimacy and critical mass. Following the event, each philosophy (held in both cases by the chief executive) was implemented with no more than token opposition, and in turn spawned an array of follow-on behaviors, strategies formed by the behaviors and the mentalities behind them, and consequences for the world stage that fundamentally altered alliances and power balances.

They're most similar in the effect they had upon our decision-making process, internal power dynamics, and national zeitgeist. They are also, however, also completely different in the specifics of the policy paradigm and the likely effects for the US.

I think lukasiak is very insightful to see Pearl Harbor as the beginning of the beginning of the New American half-century and 9/11 as the beginning of the end of it. Not because Al-Quieda has any hope of inflicting strategic defeat on us in military terms, but because they are both a symptom and a catalyst of a process of US overextension and depletion.

A corollary to this is, of course, the differing nature of WWII and 9/11 for the rest of the world. WWII altered and/or annihilated entire nations, generations of invididuals, and just about leveled vast portions of the organized political community. Despite terrorist bombings in a variety of locations, 9/11's practical effects on the rest of the world have been vastly less. One evidentiary example of this is the lack of impetus to draw up an entire new set of global institutions in its wake. One of the consequences is, whereas in WWII all organized geopolitical elements had the same perceptions as to the significance of what was happening, after 9/11 the US's perceptions of threat have been warped relative to the perspective of the global community.

Another important point is that, to put it quite simply for once, there is a price to pay for control. WWII marked the beginning of a US investment into the rest of the world that in the very long term benefitted the rest of the world at the relative expense of our ability to control events. 9/11 is a catalyst point of divestment - where the growth in power of the ROW relative to US diverges from our strategic design, as we pour blood, treasure, and divert and subvert the best of our intellectual and moral capital into a struggle to subdue and control the islamofascist outliers, while the ROW - spearheaded by China and India, but only most visibly - runs away with our institutions.

They may not attempt to compete militariliy, not because they couldn't, but because they have no reason to. We have cornered this corner of the market, with its very poor rate of return. Until some NEW global paradigm shift occurs, some crystallizing event, that truly puts us at odds with the global consensus, and it becomes neccesary.

I don't know what that will be anymore than anyone else, but one event that pops to mind would be a broad nuclear response on our part to a WMD event in the US.

wks, I put a lot of effort into my response to you and others on the Rumsfield thread.

Posted by: glasnost at December 11, 2005 03:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

ON DECEMBER 7, 1946:

From the BBC

1941: Germany and Italy declare war on US Germany and Italy have announced they are at war with the United States. America immediately responded by declaring war on the two Axis powers.

Three days ago, US President Franklin Roosevelt announced America was at war with Japan, the third Axis power, following the surprise attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Today Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, made his declaration first - from the balcony over the Piazza Venezia in Rome - pledging the "powers of the pact of steel" were determined to win.

Then Adolf Hitler made his announcement at the Reichstag in Berlin saying he had tried to avoid direct conflict with the US but, under the Tripartite Agreement signed on 27 September 1940, Germany was obliged to join with Italy to defend its ally Japan.

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001:

No nation declared war on the USA.

If the USA is sucessful in Iraq, and it looks like this may happen, the "conflict of civilizations" may be avoided. If so the December 7, 1941 will be much more important.

For those who do not think the USA is winning in Iraq, say what you mean by winning a war?

Do you mean capturing the enemy capitol? Can't be what you mean by winning because we have done that.

Do you mean capturing the enemy chief of state? Can't be what you mean by winning because we have done that.

So it looks like your have invented some new meaning of the word winning.

Do you mean establishing friendly relations with a successor government? Well it looks like we are doing that pretty well.

So what do you mean by winning? And conversely what do you mean when you say we have lost?

Too much of the discussion is simply a bunch of assertions, with no reasonable statement of the basis of the assertions.

Posted by: rich at December 11, 2005 04:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So what do you mean by winning? And conversely what do you mean when you say we have lost?

I'd personally define "winning" as having a favorable outcome, and losing as having an unfavorable outcome. I don't think we're "winning" in Iraq -- and the economic, social, and politic costs of keeping Iraq from descending into chaos constitutes enough of an "unfavorable outcome" to say that we are losing.

Posted by: lukasiak at December 11, 2005 10:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You make some very good points. I agree that the events 12/7 and 9/11 cannot be assessed only on their objective face value, but, as you point out, also in their roles as catalysts for mobilization of policy - policy that may have even been writtin up and blessed by POTUS before the catalyzing event.

However, even in this regard, I don't see 9/11 as all that significant. Afterall, since WW2 the US had already intervened in a large way in situations in which our primary concerns were almost exclusively geopolitical. I am, of course, refering to Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf (iraq war 1), not to mention smaller military incursions in Central and South America, etc.

Iraq war 2, given the thin - if at all present - threat to the US posed by Iraq just seems like another similar adventure.

So why is 9/11 any more significant for having contributed to Iraq War 2 than the day some lame Viet torpedo boat supposedly fired on one of our tin cans in the Gulf of Tonkin?

I often surf hard right blogs and make a nuisance of myself at those sites just to see what's really on the minds of the denizens. I find that if you tick them off in a manner in which they they don't take you entirely seriously they are more likely to reveal themselves as they really are.

One psychological aspect I see coming out consistently is that, for right wingers, 9/11 and the subsequent "war" seem to be circumstances that define life for them. They seem to derive a sense of purpose and meaning in life from this "war" that they see as the true and epic struggle of modern's a big deal for them. They want so badly for current times to be identical to WW2. In fact, again, you can hear this sentiment in the words of neocon heros like Ledeen and Perle. Such men have expressed their view that the US is a warlike country and that our best qualities emerge when we are at war. War , they say, gives us purpose and direction.

Before 9/11 they were only struggling against Bill and Hillary Clinton and assorted other liberal rot.

Now they have have an endless global struggle against clearly demonic enemies.....

So 12/7 = 9/11? No. Wishful thinking on the part of psychologically imbalanced hard right wingers.

Posted by: avedis at December 11, 2005 12:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

glasnost -- that was a very good response.

Posted by: spencer at December 11, 2005 02:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Perhaps such a judgment cannot be made in as short a span as fifty years; the conflict with Islam has lasted over twenty times longer than that.

Still, the question can be quickly disposed of in this sense: WWII made U.S. a superpower. 9-11 can only surpass Pearl Harbor in importance if the U.S. is diminished to its former level or destroyed as a result of Al-Qaeda and its like achieving world-dominating status.

Posted by: Solomon2 at December 11, 2005 03:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Because of a server glitch BD was kind enough to manually insert my comment above. For posterity, the "Stephen" listed as posting the comment usually signs his posts "sbw".

Posted by: sbw at December 11, 2005 04:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So why is 9/11 any more significant for having contributed to Iraq War 2 than the day some lame Viet torpedo boat supposedly fired on one of our tin cans in the Gulf of Tonkin?

The Gulf of Tonkin (non)incident was part and parcel of the Cold War, whereas 9-11 was a catalyst for a new framework in which the US relationship with the rest of the world will evolve. Bush's assumption that there are only allies and enemies (and no neutral/"unaligned" states) in the "war on terror", and his actions based on that assumption, have created a sense that the "global partnership" is over -- and a hugely heightened sense of resentment toward US.

Posted by: lukasiak at December 11, 2005 05:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Still, the question can be quickly disposed of in this sense: WWII made U.S. a superpower. 9-11 can only surpass Pearl Harbor in importance if the U.S. is diminished to its former level or destroyed as a result of Al-Qaeda and its like achieving world-dominating status."

Posted by: Solomon2

No. If the US, as a result of 9/11, is locked in to a self-destructive path for a few decades, it's quite possible that the US is diminished relative to the rest of the world, even if/as Al Qaeda was destroyed.

Posted by: Barry at December 11, 2005 06:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have to disagree, Luka.

I fail to see the difference between our exerting influence by force of arms in SE Asia and our exerting it by force of arms in the MidEast.

In some ways we have been involved in a cold war with the Islamic community over oil access, Israel and regional influence generally.

In many ways it is history repeating itself. In fact, one of the ideas that neocon hawks express is the need for the US to shake off the "Vietnam Syndrome" and to re-assert its influence. So, I suppose, they must recognize the parellels (not of the war itself, of course, but of the American desire to act overtly - if not violently - in its interests in the global community).

The more I think about, over a hundred years ago there was "remember the Maine!" and many hiostorians believed that that incident and the ensuing war was a turning point for American participation in the world.

Fianlly, as you point out it's "Bush's assumption that there are only allies and enemies (and no neutral/"unaligned" states) in the "war on terror".......".

Right. Bush's assuption. When Bush is gone that assumption will probably go with him.

Like I said, the real turning point - if there is one - was the day Bush was elected; not 9/11.

Posted by: avedis at December 11, 2005 08:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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