What I fear most for the future of our country is that our leadership seems to be developing the same arrogance that doomed the British Empire.
In early 1941, the British general in charge of the Far East scoffed at the idea that Japan would attack. The Japanese wouldn't dare, he said, because they were a subhuman, inferior race. That same year, Winston Churchill likewise said that the Japanese would not dare attack the British Empire. The Japanese were, he said, the "wops of the East," thus insulting two peoples in one sentence.
The Japanese, who were then and are now among the most brilliant people on Earth, did attack the British Empire. They sank the very battleship on which Churchill made his statement. They completely defeated the British in the Far East in 11 weeks, capturing more than 100,000 British soldiers and officers. It was the largest, most humiliating defeat in Britain's history.
Once, for the fun of it, I went to the microfilm and read the newspapers in the city where I was living that were published immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. People's ignorance of Japan was appalling. In man-in-the-street interviews, many Americans predicted a short and easy war because they thought the Japanese were all small and had poor eyesight from eating too much rice.
What Japan had, in reality, was a 3,000-year history of being a disciplined and warlike people, the only people in the Far East who defeated European efforts to colonize them. They were also the people who made a miraculous transition from a feudal state to an industrial power in an amazing 40 years.
Ironically, the same arrogance led the Japanese leaders into attacking America and thus, in the reported words of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, "awakening and enraging a sleeping giant." Japanese martial spirit was no match for the great, energy-rich industrial power the United States was at that time.
If we look at ourselves honestly, since World War II, we have become a sort of bully. We browbeat and fight minor powers and no-powers while our generals and politicians strut about as if they had conquered the Roman Empire or Napoleon. We were damned lucky the Soviet Union collapsed from its own internal mistakes.
Arrogance and hubris lead to underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. That's very dangerous. We have a beautiful country and a great people, but if we don't get serious about correcting our political and economic problems, we might well follow the British Empire and become a footnote in future history books.
October 15, 2005
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.