Military Historian: 3 Myths about Pearl HarborHistorians in the News
tags: military history, memorials, Pearl Harbor, World War 2
Tuesday marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing some 2,400 American servicemen and leading the U.S. to enter World War II. And 80 years later, myths and misunderstandings persist about what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.”
“The attack on Pearl Harbor was a crime, a military attack that took place without a declaration of war,” says Rob Citino, senior historian at the National World War II Museum. “But at the same time, all these stories are very, very complex.”
Here, Citino highlights, in his own words, a few common misconceptions about how, and where, Pearl Harbor fits in World War II history—and shares what they say about what America chooses to remember about the war.
Myth: World War II began with Pearl Harbor
It’s in movies, it’s in books. The big myth we have to get rid of is [marking] December 7, 1941, as the date World War II began. The U.S. was the last of the great powers to get involved in the war, but Pearl Harbor didn’t start World War II, not by a long stretch.
Picking a discrete moment to kick off [World War II] is underselling its complexity. Asia and Europe are already at war. The Japanese had occupied Manchuria in northeastern China in 1931. They launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. Germans invaded Poland in September 1939 and that, of course precipitated full scale war in Europe. If you’re a citizen of the Soviet Union, your war didn’t start until June 1941 when the Germans invaded you—that’s Operation Barbarossa. But if you happened to live in Ethiopia, World War II opened for you in 1935, when the Italians invaded your country.
We don’t talk about this much—Americans don’t like to hear this—but of all the great powers, [America] got in last.
Myth: Virtually everyone in America volunteered for military service in the days after Pearl Harbor
The myth that we’ve read many times is that the American people rose up as one after Pearl Harbor; that they broke down the doors of recruiting offices coast to coast. If you think this [is real], you’ve probably seen too many movies. A lot of Americans fired up by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor volunteered for some military service in the weeks after the attack, but the vast majority of U.S. forces in World War II—about two thirds of the 16 million Americans who put on a uniform—got into the military the old fashioned way: They got drafted.
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