Seventy-six years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese fleet surprise-attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the home port of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Japanese carrier planes killed 2,403 Americans. They sank or submerged 19 ships (including eight battleships destroyed or disabled) and damaged or destroyed more than 300 planes.
In an amazing feat of seamanship, the huge Japanese carrier fleet had steamed nearly 3,500 miles in midwinter high seas. The armada had refueled more than 20 major ships while observing radio silence before arriving undetected about 220 miles from Hawaii.
The surprise attack started the Pacific War. It was followed a few hours later by a Japanese assault on the Philippines.
More importantly, Pearl Harbor ushered in a new phase of World War II, as the conflict expanded to the Pacific. It became truly a global war when, four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
The Japanese fleet had missed the three absent American carriers of the Pacific Fleet. Nonetheless, Japanese admirals were certain that the United States was so crippled after the attack that it would not be able to go on the offensive against the Japanese Pacific empire for years, if at all. Surely the wounded Americans would sue for peace, or at least concentrate on Europe and keep out of the Japanese-held Pacific.
That was a fatal miscalculation.
The Japanese warlords had known little of the tireless efforts of one Democratic congressman from Georgia, Carl Vinson.
For nearly a decade before Pearl Harbor, Vinson had schemed and politicked in brilliant fashion to ensure that America was building a two-ocean navy larger than all the major navies of the world combined.
Vinson had assumed in the mid-1930s that fascist Japan and Germany posed existential threats to the United States. For America to survive, he saw that the U.S. would need mastery of the seas to transport its armies across the Pacific and Atlantic.
From 1934 to 1940, Vinson pushed through Congress four major naval appropriations bills. The result was that the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which Japan thought it had almost destroyed in December 1941, was already slated to be replaced by a far larger and updated armada.
A little more than seven months after Pearl Harbor, the USS Essex — the finest carrier in the world — was launched. Essex was the first of 24 state-of-the-art fleet carriers of its class to be built during the war.
Vinson’s various prewar naval construction bills also ensured the launching of hundreds of modern battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines. As bombs fell at Pearl Harbor, ships of the new American fleet were soon to be deployed, under construction or already authorized.
Vinson’s foresight would save thousands of American lives in the Atlantic and Pacific. American naval power quickly allowed the U.S. to fight a two-front war against Japan, Germany and Italy.
Vinson, a rural Georgian, was an unlikely advocate of global naval supremacy.
Before World War II, the battleship was still thought to be queen of the seas. Yet Vinson emphasized aircraft carriers over battleships. That decision would result in absolute American naval supremacy of the oceans within two years of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Stranger still, Vinson had fought for naval expansion in the middle of the Great Depression, at a time when the U.S. government was already deeply in debt and poor Americans had no desire for large peacetime defense spending.
Vinson lived in the heart of impoverished rural Georgia, not on the east or west coasts, the traditional homes of U.S. warships. He was elected for 26 straight congressional terms. For 50 years, Vinson insisted on military preparedness, especially through naval power, to ensure deterrence and thereby keep the peace.
Vinson’s remarkable congressional career began in 1914, before the American entry into World War I. He championed a strong Navy during the Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the start of the Vietnam War and the Cold War before retiring in 1965 at the age of 81.
Before Vinson, the U.S. Navy was basically a small coastal patrol force fueled by coal. But as the chairman of House Naval Affairs Committee and later the House Armed Services Committee, Vinson ensured that American sea power — eventually led by behemoth nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (including the USS Carl Vinson) — would win wars and keep the peace through its global reach.
Vinson would live 16 years beyond retirement, dying at the age of 97 in 1981.
Today, most Americans do not recognize Vinson’s contributions to American security. But the real strategic story of the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor was that Japan foolishly bombed a mostly obsolete fleet, soon guaranteeing terrible revenge from America’s far greater and more modern replacement armada — thanks largely to the global visions of a rural Georgia congressman.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” (authorvictorhanson.com).