As we look back on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seventy years ago today, it may be appropriate to place this event in our national historical development. The attack and our subsequent entry into the World War marked a period of rapid change in the nature of the republic. The federal government, still relatively small on the eve of the war, of necessity grew rapidly in size and activity during hostilities. In the years that followed, the Cold War essentially grew out of the World War, because the latter projected the United States and the Soviet Union onto the global scene. While the Soviet Union, as a totalitarian state born in revolution and civil war, had been heavily militarized from its inception, the United States moved into its state of permanent war from the end of 1941 onward. This did not, of course, mean that the two became moral equivalents. The U.S., even its postwar mobilization, continued to be perhaps the world's most open society, and to retain many elements of its traditional democracy. But the United States did move toward greater political centralization and mobilization.
However, I think we should see Pearl Harbor as marking the acceleration of historic changes, rather than as a turning point. The growth of federal power during the Progressive Era, a half-century before the Second World War, accompanied an expansion of American international activities. The climatic event of Progressive Era international involvement was the Spanish-American War, resulting in our occupation of Cuba and the Philippines. We held on to the latter because of the Philippines' strategic value for an emerging global power. Still, the policies in the new possession reflected political trends at home. I've argued, in Public Education, America's Civil Religion, that the idealistic efforts at nation-building in the islands that followed military pacification were part of the same movement toward reform and redesign from above that characterized domestic Progressive politics. The urge to re-engineer our own society and the societies of other nations through top-down political intervention, seen so clearly in the years following World War II, can be traced to the time around the end of the nineteenth century.
The Progressive Era impulse toward intervention also set us up for later events geopolitically. In their quest for natural resources to fuel their invasion of China, the Japanese could either strike north into Siberia or south into Southeast Asia. The decision to head south meant that they faced conflict with American interests in the Philippines. Greatly underestimating American resilience and resolve, the Japanese intended Pearl Harbor as a preemptive strike that would at least remove the American giant from the scene until they could consolidate their hold on the region and then negotiate a peace favorable to Japanese domination. I certainly do not want to suggest that the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was in any sense the "fault" of the American victim. But it is certainly true that the foreign entanglements created during the Progressive period made us a target.