Our Views: New debate, old attitudes

When Japanese warplanes hit Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, America’s period of isolation was over, with a bang. More than 2,000 sailors, soldiers and Marines died, and the United States was a full-fledged participant in World War II.

As we remember the losses of that terrible day it’s also important to remember that the strike was a culmination of a long national debate over the war waging in Europe since September 1939, and in China since mid-1937.

Just as before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America had spent some years before Pearl Harbor not only in debate about its role in the world, but in actual conflict. American ships patrolled the Atlantic and already had been attacked by German U-boats.

Before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government had entered into extensive and controversial steps to aid Great Britain against the threat of Hitler’s Germany. That story is getting much new attention these days, in part because of new biographies of such figures as Charles Lindbergh, the flyer and champion of non-intervention.

What also should be remembered is though the isolationists were proved spectacularly wrong in the skies above Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, their position on the war was not at all unpopular.

Say what you will about the average American congressman or senator, he — almost all were male then — felt the tug of Americans’ reluctance to become involved in the war.

Congress was bitterly divided over many pre-war preparations pushed by Roosevelt, and often blocked them. Only the president’s canniness and alliance with internationalist Republicans, as well as the prestige of Gen. George C. Marshall, moved Congress to baby steps of preparation.

Fast forward to today, and we see new debates about international obligations, including a couple of now-unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention troubles with terrorism from Boston to Benghazi.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations suggests Americans would prefer more emphasis on domestic versus foreign affairs, and disapprove of the way President Barack Obama is handling foreign policy.

A majority of respondents said the United States is less powerful in the world than it was 10 years ago — the first time since the 1970s the public has said it felt American influence was on the decline.

The lesson of history, though, is that until Pearl Harbor, many Americans were of about the same opinion about the mess abroad. Domestic concerns were predominant, even if the public was aware of the foreign war, and concerned about it.

The shock of Pearl Harbor filled recruiting stations and our armed services won the war with some difficulty, in part because public opinion that had resisted spending money on the preparations that would have made mobilization more effective.

A couple of the famed aircraft carriers of the Pacific war were built as Depression-era jobs projects. They were part of the stimulus budget of the day.

Today, America’s military might is substantial, in part because our economy — despite the deficit in the budget — can pay for a first-class military establishment. Few others can or want to pay, even as they benefit from America’s deterrence of rogue regimes and protection of sea lanes from pirates.

So the real lesson of the new poll is less about internationalism vs. isolationism, but about a democracy’s willingness to look ahead. There is no free lunch, and the benefits of a military that can protect the peace should be appreciated.