Pearl Harbor's global impact

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, followed by declarations of war against the United States by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy on Dec. 11, transformed the course of World War II, but not as the Axis expected.

The Japanese hoped to cripple the U.S. in the Pacific, while Germany and Italy believed that their declarations would allow them a free hand against a nation they already regarded as a belligerent. With its material resources, political will and population base, the United States quickly became decisive for the Allies, spearheading successively the wresting of North Africa from the Axis, knocking Italy out of the war and liberating Western Europe. Beyond the success of the United States in World War II, the conflict had a broader impact, the results of which still shape events.

The end of World War II signaled the end of half millennium of European ascendancy. From the 15th-century voyages of discovery by Spain and Portugal, to the division of the African continent by the European powers in the late 19th century, it was in London, Paris, Madrid and later Berlin and Rome, where the fate of entire civilizations was decided.

Fueled by the ideas and inventions of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, explorers, entrepreneurs and engineers carried European flags as they laid claim to the world. Even as they fought each other in bitter wars over religion, territory, dynastic succession and diplomatic affronts, Europeans imposed their commerce, religion and imperial visions onto native populations across six continents. Christianity and Western Civilization ruled both land and sea, mostly for good, but for ill when accompanied by disease, exploitation and slavery.

The First World War devastated the economies of Europe but also led to the expansion of the British and French empires, as they carved up the former territories of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to what had been expected, colonial possessions were almost always a financial drain, with only a few -- such as British India -- generating profits. By the 1930s, even before World War II began, the European powers, France, Britain, but also Germany and Italy, were headed for bankruptcy. The war temporarily forestalled economic collapse, with Germany able to exploit its conquests, and Britain able to borrow from the United States, but by 1945 the European era was over.

The conclusion of World War II demonstrated as much the exhaustion of Europe as the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union. Both new superpowers had exerted Herculean efforts to defeat the Axis -- with the Soviet Union, for example, facing over 90 percent of Germany's combat power from 1941 to 1945 -- but the conflict was as much about the self-destruction of Europe as the intervention of previous peripheral powers.

Europe today still reflects the crippling impact of World War II. What we now see as the foreign policy timidity of Europe, the search for consensus above all else and the drive to create a supranational European Union, emerged from the trauma of war. So too has the engagement of the United States in world affairs, a drive to act and to lead that now, for the first time in generations, is endangered by the inability of the current U.S. government to restore its fiscal stability.

The path of Europe, from global dominance in the 19th century, to international weakness in the 21st, should stand as a warning to those who believe the international presence of the United States can be a force for good and, even more importantly, our own national interests.

Dr. Wayne Bowen is a professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

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