World War II is becoming very much like World War I and the Civil War: black-and-white photographs of a time long ago, with fewer and fewer people around to possess actual memories of the events. Fortunately, despite the usual historical amnesia of my fellow Americans, some people do remember important events like this one.
It's not that hard to understand the shock of the people alive on that date of infamy. If you were around on November 22, 1963, you understand. If you were around on September 11, 2001, you understand.
Many Americans in 1941 knew in the backs of their minds that war was coming. Some pretended it would never come. Others wanted it because they felt that if the Nazis won in Europe and knocked off Great Britain, we were next. Most of the attention was on Europe, so the attack on Pearl Harbor was probably even more of a shock. Many Americans didn't even know where Pearl Harbor was. It was a U.S. Navy base, with the Army stationed at nearby Hickam Field, and unless you were in the military or knew someone who was and had been stationed there, why would you know about it? But on December 7, 1941, all of America found out.
The great Japanese Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto opposed war with the United States. He had studied at Harvard in 1919-1921 and served as a naval attache in Washington for two postings, traveling the country and learning about Americans. He had seen the industrial capacity of the United States at first-hand and knew that a long war with the U.S would be a disaster.
He did plan the attack on Pearl Harbor as ordered, but upon learning that the diplomatic notification to the Americans had been delivered late, casting the attack in the light of a "sneak attack", he was famously quoted as saying, "I fear all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." He predicted that he could "run wild" for six months to a year, but could offer no guarantees for the years after that. He was extremely prophetic.
The loss of life and ships was a psychic blow. The particular horror of what happened to the U.S.S. Arizona is commemorated today with the famous memorial in the harbor. Fortunately, the aircraft carriers were not in port that day, and would prove invaluable in battles like the Coral Sea and Midway.
It was a long time ago, but the events of 1941 and the subsequent years formed history (the Cold War and our current era) and led to the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It's good to remember the sacrifices.