Seventy-one years ago today, Americans received what, for many, remained the biggest shock of their lives. From newspapers, radios and word-of-mouth, they learned to their horror that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, the people of our nation had hoped and prayed to be spared the horrors of World War II, which was already in progress throughout Europe and Asia, and on the high seas.
It was not to be. Within hours of the announcement that thousands were dead in Hawaii in that sneak attack, Americans - as if of a single, united mind - were joined in anger and determination.
Some of those who remembered Dec. 7, 1941, and who also witnessed the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were struck by the difference. On both days, bloodthirsty enemies staged massive and deadly attacks on Americans. Yet the horror of 9/11 did not result in the same comprehensive mobilization that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In some ways, the difference is because the enemy today is different. In 1941, the foe included nations with extensive military power, able to confront us openly, consistently and powerfully, in a very struggle for the existence of our country and others. More than 407,000 Americans died in World War II. Tens of millions of lives were claimed worldwide.
World War II truly was, in many ways, a great crusade mounted by the greatest generation of Americans. We observe holidays such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day in part to honor them.
But today, Pearl Harbor Day, is important for a different reason. It is a reminder of the necessity for vigilance and preparedness if we are to avoid a similar catastrophe in the future.
Too many Americans, most of them born too late to have personal recollections of Dec. 7, 1941, do not understand its lessons, we fear. Sept. 11, 2001, indeed was a horrifying wakeup call in terms of threats to us - but, again, the reaction was very different. That may be because our enemy today is a shadowy, loose coalition of Islamic terrorists, not an alliance of powerful countries. It also may be because the terrorists have not been able to mount a major attack on our soil since that terrible day in 2001.
But the threat remains. And today, the terrorists may have access to weapons more fearsome than any in the Japanese arsenal before World War II.
By the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were united in a determination to destroy the enemy that had attacked us. It remains to be seen whether a similar dedication to self-defense will continue now, as we face what is, in some ways, a peril just as great.