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A SUNDAY IN DECEMBER : CHAPTER 5 : Fighting the Good Fight

December 03, 1991

One day, several years before Pearl Harbor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur rose in fiery outrage before a congressional committee. He demanded an apology or he would walk out.

At issue was toilet paper.

Congress had shown the Army little respect as it pleaded for funds. Now the committee questioned whether MacArthur was requesting too much money for toilet paper. One member of Congress asked him snidely whether he was, perhaps, expecting an outbreak of dysentery.

MacArthur stood in anger. "I have humiliated myself," he said, his words dripping with contempt. "I have almost licked the boots of some gentlemen to get funds for the motorization and mechanization of the Army. Now, gentlemen, you have insulted me. I am as high in my profession as you are in yours. When you are ready to apologize, I shall be back."

Before he could walk out, says historian William Manchester, an apology was, indeed, proffered. And, thanks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was one of the last times any American general ever had to fight for toilet paper. A generation of Americans and their elected officials took from Pearl Harbor a grave lesson--that the United States should maintain a high level of defense and should seek unabashedly to convey its military strength throughout the rest of the world. Nor was that the only lesson. In a number of other ways, Pearl Harbor left a profound legacy for America and its people.

For instance:

* Defense policy. The United States is haunted by the fear of another surprise. This has meant restructuring the military under a single secretary of defense; building a military-industrial complex; stationing American forces at a network of foreign bases that enable them to fight far from home and targeting adversaries with nuclear missiles ready to fire in minutes.

* Foreign policy. No longer is America isolationist, sometimes to its discomfort. Its foreign entanglement in Vietnam, for instance, cost the United States dearly. Some say it renewed isolationist sentiment in America. But this and isolationism kindled by the end of the Cold War are different from the leave-us-alone mentality of post-World War II Fortress America.

* Intelligence. The CIA can thank Pearl Harbor for its existence. America well understood that the Japanese surprise represented an intelligence failure--whether a failure in intelligence gathering or analysis. From this was born the Office of Strategic Services and then the Central Intelligence Agency, charged with preventing nasty surprises.

* Economic policy. While changes in U.S. security policy have endured, changes in economic policy have not. Pearl Harbor prompted America to mobilize its industry. But when the war ended, so did industrial mobilization. The Japanese did not give up their wartime control over their industries. Their economic approach has reversed the U.S.-Japanese trade balance--and an economic contest is on.

American attitudes toward Japan have changed, as well. They sometimes seem to have come full circle. It is noteworthy that never have these views been entirely realistic, much less very well balanced.

In the popular American stereotype of the time, Pearl Harbor turned the Japanese into sneaks: a cruel people who were unscrupulous and who broke the rules of civilized warfare, as if that were not an oxymoron. This American attitude prevailed throughout World War II. But then, as the war ended and the six-year American occupation of Japan began, America's image of the Japanese changed. At that point, says Edward Seidensticker, a retired professor of Japanese, "Japan . . . was once again what it had been in 1867--the eager student, this time learning about democracy. It was a quick change."

Indeed, on the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the event was viewed as little more than an occasion for nostalgia. "The fury at Japan has subsided," Newsweek reported at the time. "Bitter enmity long since gave way to cordial alliance."

But then, in the 1970s, American perceptions of Japan began to change once again. And by the 1990s, some scholars were saying that Pearl Harbor had become a symbol for U.S.-Japanese trade disputes.

These scholars note that reporting this attitude does not mean they endorse it. "For many, the surprise attack remains a symbol of enduring Japanese treachery," says John Dower, a historian who specializes in Japanese and American affairs. "The little yellow men who sank the Arizona without warning, this bitter refrain goes, have carried on with deceitful strategies to attack Silicon Valley, Detroit and points east. Someday they may actually sink the American ship of state. This is the crudest form in which Americans remember Pearl Harbor. It is a view echoed in high places and (is) premised on an abiding belief that the Japanese are fundamentally fanatic, unscrupulous and unstable."


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