In an interview last month with Accuracy in Media, historian Craig Shirley described how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II marked a transition for this country, and in doing so, he offered insights that are very relevant today.
“This is a story about a country that goes from being a country of the past to becoming a country of the future, and all the things that spring out of it, big and small,” said Shirley. “The big, obviously, is that we become a permanent internationalist country. We never again retreat to isolationism, as we did after the Spanish-American War, and as we did after World War I. After we defeat Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, we then rebuild them and make them into allies under the Marshall Plan and Douglas MacArthur. We establish military bases around the world—that was unthinkable five years before, that we would have military bases all around the world. We had military bases in the Philippines, and several other locations, but those were the exceptions, not the rule.”
As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, and absorbs the significance of President Obama’s new plans for America’s foreign policy and the use of our military, Shirley’s newest book, December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World, serves as an important reminder as to how and why America became a superpower during the 20th century.
We discussed the current political scene and started with his views on the notion, put forth by several liberal commentators, that President Reagan couldn’t win the Republican Party nomination this year because he would be considered too moderate.
Below, in italics, are excerpts from the interview, starting with his comments on Reagan.
You can listen to the complete interview (about 45 minutes) or read the transcript here.
SHIRLEY: I’ve heard that, and that’s utterly ridiculous. The people who say that about Ronald Reagan [that he couldn’t get the Republican nomination this year because he was too moderate] don’t know about Ronald Reagan. He was a conservative. Some of his positions had evolved over the years—he started out, in the ’30s and ’40s, as what he called not a “bleeding heart liberal,” but, as he said, “a hemophiliac liberal.” He was a rip-roaring supporter of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt, and in 1948 he campaigned for Harry Truman as part of “Hollywood for Truman.” In 1950 he campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas against Richard Nixon for the Senate out there. His long political climb had started, and he didn’t really arrive at a conservative philosophy that was based on the individual—and, more importantly, based on the spiritual individual—until the late ’70s, and by then, his philosophy was fully formed as far as individual freedom, rights, privacy, a hatred of totalitarianism—especially as embraced by Soviet Communism—and an oppressive welfare state here in this country. I’m hard pressed to think, when they say—I think it’s just a dumb throwaway line, Roger, to be quite honest. To say that Ronald Reagan wasn’t conservative enough for the Republican Party, it’s ridiculous. When they say that, they don’t offer up any evidence. I’ve spent a lifetime studying Ronald Reagan, working for Ronald Reagan, writing books for Ronald Reagan…I don’t think there’s anybody who has been as steeped in Reagan history as I have. Those people who make those statements, they’re just making foolish statements.
The balance of it is, yes, he raised taxes, but he also cut taxes, and he also cut taxes much more massively, and more widespread—and reformed the tax code, which was far more consequential, and brought down capital gains, the inheritance taxes, and other things like that—than he ever raised. Even the one time he did work with Tip O’Neill, in 1982, to raise taxes, the deal was, there was supposed to be $3 in federal cuts for every $1 in taxes raised. Well, Reagan kept his side of the bargain, the Democrats didn’t. Tip O’Neill didn’t. Federal spending increased. He vowed, in his diaries, and said repeatedly afterwards, that he got snookered and he would never fall for it again—and he never did. He never embarked on any type of deal after that with the Democrats on Capitol Hill, as far as balancing cuts for a tax increase.
In ’91, Bush 41 got snookered by them, too, on the 1991 tax increase. There were supposed to be corresponding spending cuts. There weren’t corresponding spending cuts. So there’s a pretty good track record of Democrats being duplicitous on this issue. The Republicans have simply wised up. Now, they have not explained it well, so it makes them seem like they’re being obstructionists, but if they did a better job explaining their position to the American people, they would look like they’re creating solutions and leaving the American people alone instead of simply stopping spending cuts.
[Reagan] wrote in his diaries, too, that the amnesty bill wasn’t an amnesty bill per se, because amnesty means the abdication of any punishment for a crime committed. There were heavy penalties and citizenship classes and all sorts of things for those people who were here illegally—and we’re talking about a much smaller group of people in 1986 than we’re talking about today. That’s number one. Number two is, the laws were never implemented, and he wrote that in his memoirs. Number three, a lot of these illegals were people, Cubans and Nicaraguans, who had escaped Communist oppression and were here, for all intents and purposes, as political refugees, and not simply here for the economic opportunities. They were escaping the murderous tyrannies of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, and there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned!
What Reagan wanted to do was to move power away from Washington, back to the states and individuals in the fashion as envisioned by the Founders, the fashion envisioned by Paine and Jefferson and others who believed in individuality over the State.
That’s what Jimmy Carter did in 1980. He had no record to stand on: The economy was a mess, kind of like what we’re going through now; foreign policy was a mess, kind of like what we’re going through now. Carter had no record to run on, so his only option was to destroy Ronald Reagan, and he ran a campaign of invective, of cruel and mean things, and really angered Reagan. He was quite furious about it, because he knew these things about him were untrue. The President of the United States, in 1980, went out and told the American people that if Reagan was elected President, he would divide America—black from white, North from South, Christian from Jew. Now if that isn’t a vile thing to say about your opponent, I don’t know what is. But whoever the Republican nominee is, they can expect that and much more from Barack Obama.
The upcoming election
I think we all should be concerned [about the integrity of the upcoming election]. I think this idea of early voting is just a recipe for corruption. But this is what collectivism has become: Collectivism has always bordered—embraced—corruption. We need to settle this argument once and for all about whether or not [Obama] is a socialist. It really doesn’t matter—he is on the left of the political spectrum.
Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” What we need is for everybody who’s worried about the integrity of voting, the integrity of the ballot box, and ensuring that the election isn’t stolen, is to put as much sunlight as possible on the process, and embarrass—if nothing else—those who attempt to thwart, steal, or deny the individual franchise of everyone of legal voting status in this country—and, if necessary, bring it before a magistrate or a judge to enforce fair voting in this country.
Conservatism is about freedom, whereas liberalism is about government and power and gaining power—whether you gain it legitimately or not, that is the object of American liberalism.
His new book, December, 1941
There have been many, many fine books about Pearl Harbor, about World War II, about the War in the Pacific, the home front, the War in the Atlantic—but there’s never been a day-by-day accounting of what happened in this country, and the enormous upheaval that occurred in this country after December 7th. Franklin Roosevelt is a player in this drama. Douglas MacArthur is a player in this drama. Dwight Eisenhower is a minor figure in this drama. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are minor players in this drama. There are many noteworthy people from government, from the military, from sports, from Hollywood, and from the media—radio broadcasters, mostly—who are minor or major players in this drama, but the central player in the drama of December, 1941 is the United States of America.
On December 6th, 1941, which was a Saturday, the country, at the time, had almost 2,000 newspapers—now it has less than 500—and at that time there were actually more afternoon newspapers than there were morning newspapers, because news occurred during the day, then it was reported on, written about, at one, two, three o’clock, in time for the afternoon paper. The early “Bulldog Edition” might come out around three, four, five o’clock, and then they’d add stars for later editions, one, two, three, four stars, which would tell you how late that paper had been issued.
We knew that the Japanese had become increasingly militaristic. They’d resigned from the League of Nations. They’d signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and with Italy. They had invaded Manchuria. They’d invaded Indochina. They were increasing their military capability, and they had designs on expanding their empire throughout Asia and the western Pacific. We had inklings that they might have military designs against the United States—or against Great Britain—but there was no concrete evidence, because there was a failure of imagination on our part. Nobody thought that on the morning of December 7th that the Japanese would sail a massive armada across thousands of miles of ocean—it featured six aircraft carriers and hundreds of escort ships—stop in the middle of that ocean to refuel, then get up steam again, travel as much distance again to arrive at the doorstep of Oahu, and launch 350 planes on a bright, clear day to obliterate the American navy and the American air force at the time, killing 2,402 military men and maiming and injuring another 1,289. Simultaneously, they’re also launching attacks against Guam, Midway, Wake Island, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Malay Peninsula. It is an astonishing act of aggression that was beyond the ken of anybody’s imagination. But it also was an astonishing act of naval execution. It stands as one of the most impressive acts of military success in the annals of naval history.
There were editorial writers on both sides. You had Colonel Robert McCormick, who was President of the very powerful Chicago Tribune newspaper chain—there was the Washington Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, and other Tribune papers around the country—who was a rabid isolationist, a rabid Roosevelt-hater, and who used his editorial policy in his newspapers and his columns to repeatedly bash Roosevelt. But then you had other newspapers that were fawning at the feet of Franklin Roosevelt. It was an era of yellow journalism, but we’ve always had partisan journalism in this country. But after December 7th, what I will say is that there was a lot of growing up in the newspaper industry. Most of the reporting I’ve detected was very responsible. They tried to hold back on rumors.
Lessons for today?
I think we know now, after September 11th—that two giant oceans do not make us secure, that we need to take other steps. That is the role of the national government. The role of the national government is to preserve the security, peace, and freedom of the American people. We need somebody in the White House who understands that. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s Barack Obama.