today is december 7th, 'a day that will live in infamy' as those of my generation came to know it. seventy-three years ago, the imperial navy and air force of japan launched an attack on the u.s. naval base at pearl harbor, in hawaii. the next day, president franklin delano roosevelt asked for, and received from the congress, a declaration of war. i was seven years old, twenty days from my eighth birthday.
america was transformed by the war. the armed forces, which had after the end of the first world war dwindled to a slender force, were rapidly expanded by volunteer enlistments and by a draft that remained in effect for forty years. those who were not then alive will have difficulty imagining the total mobilization of a society and economy. sugar and meat and gasoline were rationed. as men went off to war, women were recruited into the factories. we school children were asked to collect old newspapers and the tin foil from cigarette packs, which we rolled into balls, all to be brought in to our schools 'for the war effort.' everyone bought savings bonds to finance the military effort. $18.75 bought a bond which could be redeemed for $25 when it matured.
america entered the war as a regional hegemon. despite imperial adventures in the south pacific, it held sway only over the new world. it emerged from the war the heir to the global british, french, and german empires, its war department transmuted into the modern defense department. possession of the atomic bomb made the united states for a while the unchallenged imperial overlord of the entire world, until the emergence of the soviet union as a nuclear power compelled it to settle for an uneasy balance of power.
at first, america continued to fill its military ranks with conscripts, a fact that indirectly contributed to the expansion of higher education in the 1960's [the availability of student deferments for full time graduate study drew a generation of academically inclined undergraduates into academic careers as a way of avoiding the draft.] however, the disastrous viet nam war, which came close to destroying the army at the platoon and company level, forced the general staff to switch to a volunteer professional army, which for the past forty years has been available as a well-trained, readily available instrument of imperial policy.
every american president from fdr to barack obama has embraced the post-war imperial project, and the entire american ruling class has been committed to it for more than half a century. the american economy has been on permanent war footing since the attack on pearl harbor. december 7th is indeed a day that will live in infamy, though some of us may interpret that eloquent phrase somewhat differently.