A Book A Week: At Dawn We Slept

If you’re a space geek then you remember December 7, 1972 as the day we sent the last of the Apollo missions (Apollo 17) into space.

For everyone else in the U.S. December 7, 1941 remains, as FDR said 71 years ago, a day that “lives in infamy.” If you need proof, just Google “Attack on Pearl Harbor” and watch the hits you rack up (I got 13.8 million hits on my search with the full phrase; drop the word “attack” and it goes up to 47.5 million ). Other than 9-11, it remains the best known example of a sneak attack by an enemy power on American soil. I don’t have access to the traffic stats on Wikipedia.com but I’m pretty sure the hits on their “Attack on Pearl Harbor” page are no less impressive.

I was in Japan teaching high school English classes for two of these days, in 1993 and 1994. Over there the big day to remember is December 8 (due to the fact that Japan had already passed the international date line when the attack began.) It’s a day when students study government-approved* literature describing the facts of the event. There is some discussion and questions are asked and answered as best as they can be.  Anyway, the moral that is taught is: this attack was a bad idea. A really, really, REALLY bad idea. You kids should know better.

None of the kids in my classes ever expressed the desire to be a soldier or sailor. So far, so good, I guess.

Of the many, many books on the subject that have been written since the end of the war, one that continues to stand out is Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept: the Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. I came across this book by accident. I knew it existed as the men in my family are big WWII buffs (despite no Frater serving in the Pacific Theater that I know of) and Prange’s name had come up in conversation over the years. While on vacation I spotted copies in three different used book stores, each one asking less money for it,  and I took the hint. A perfectly good copy was obtained for three dollars.

It’s a dense book by any reckoning, and it took me months to finish. It’s not a quick read, but for historians and history buffs alike, the effort is very much worth it.

Prange’s attention to detail within these pages is legendary. Every actor, every decision-maker, every soldier and sailor who could be located was interviewed and their observations and recollections recorded for Prange’s research. Additionally, Prange dove deep into the collective archives and official documents regarding the working of government policy and military directives on both sides. As a result, the book details the who, what, where, when, why, and how of both sides, right down to meetings, phone calls, documented minutes, and personal notes and correspondence.

There is also a lengthy appendix on his source material, reproduced verbatim from a letter Prange wrote when first approaching publishers about his project. Included is a selected bibliography and lists of the people involved in both the attack and the post-attack investigations.

But for all the grueling attention to detail the story the book tells is clear and lucid, beginning with the position the Japanese military finds itself in as the global race for colonies comes to a close and the Japanese government finds itself with much less territory than its immediate rivals. Its answer: seize what can be seized and hold it for the growing Japanese Empire. Their plan to nullify the American Pacific fleet was part of a long, detailed process of planned expansion devised and developed by the Tojo cabinet.

The American side of the story is hardly left to the imagination. Prange’s narrative runs deep under the surface of the US military command structure and illuminates the systemic weakness that led to the catastrophic level of unpreparedness the world witnessed that morning. Prange was probably the first historian to attach major significance to the role of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner in obstructing the smooth flow of intelligence reports from Washington to Hawaii.

At any rate this book is the  most comprehensive treatment of the events in print, and as such, probably the most worth reading.

*All literature used in Japanese schools is approved by the Japanese governments. This has caused some real academic friction concerning Japanese actions in World War 2. The war crime status concerning the Rape of Nanking in particular remains a real point of contention between the Japanese and Chinese governments.

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