Book Review: Pearl Harbor

I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.

Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).

Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.

I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.

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