Sundin column: ‘Day of Infamy’ a yearly reminder about U.S. role in world history

Hal Sundin
As I See It

At 7:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy,” the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, plunging the U.S. into World War II. What would the world be like if that attack had not happened?

World War II had started on Sept. 3, 1939 when France and England declared war on Germany after Germany and Russia invaded and divided Poland. On May 10, 1940 Germany invaded France and defeated French and British forces in six weeks, also conquering Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Netherlands. Within a year, Germany also controlled all of eastern Europe.

A month later, Italy, Germany’s Axis partner, invaded Egypt from its adjoining colony, Libya. When the Italian army was defeated by the British late in 1940, Hitler sent Erwin Rommel and the Africa Korps into North Africa. They pushed the British back into Egypt, threatening to take Cairo and cut off the Suez Canal. But the British dug in and were able to turn the tide in October. On May 13, 1943, they defeated and captured 275,000 Axis troops, who could not be evacuated because the British Navy controlled the Mediterranean Sea.

On June 22, 1941 Germany invaded Russia, ignoring a non-aggression pact between the two countries which they had signed in August 1939, before they invaded Poland. German forces steamrollered over Russia until they were within a few miles of Moscow, when the early onset of a severe Russian Winter stopped them cold.

With the retreat of the Russian Winter in the Spring of 1942, the German Wehrmacht renewed its pressure on the Soviet army. Premier Joseph Stalin — fearing that his army, which had lost several million troops, might not be able to hold out against the German onslaught — pleaded for help from Britain and the U.S. Fortunately, Germany also had its hands full fighting a war on two fronts: Russia and North Africa, which strained its manpower, fuel, armament and air transport resources.

Without the massive amount of military aid the U.S. had supplied Britain, Germany might have defeated the British in North Africa and concentrated all of its forces on also defeating Russia.

On Sept. 5, 1939, two days after the war started, the U.S. declared its neutrality in response to a very strong isolationist sentiment. After our involvement in World War I, in which 53,000 American soldiers were killed, popular sentiment was strongly against intervening in Europe’s wars.

When the Africa Korps surrendered in Libya in 1943, among them were several high-ranking generals, who were interned in British manor houses, and someone had the bright idea of bugging the buildings and the trees around them. They were astounded to learn that Germany was developing rocket weapons.

Rocket-scientist Werner Von Braun had convinced Hitler that rockets were the key to defeating Britain and got a $2 billion complex built at Peenemunda on the Baltic Coast in far eastern Germany, with a staff of several hundred. The British immediately sent a “destroy at all cost” bomber mission, which did just that, setting the German rocket program back 18 months — which made the D-day invasion possible.

On Aug. 2, 1939 (a month before the start of World War II), Albert Einstein drafted a letter to President Roosevelt urging that the U.S. needed to develop a nuclear weapon, because he strongly suspected that that’s what Germany was doing. The letter didn’t raise much of a sense of urgency. The Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb was not authorized until June 1942 — six months after Pearl Harbor.

Deuterium (heavy hydrogen), which is needed for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, requires massive amounts of energy to extract the heavy water out of water. Germany needed all the energy it could muster to fuel its armament industry and its aircraft, tanks and trucks, which was one of the reasons it invaded Norway (which had enormous amounts of hydro-power) in 1940, and Russia (for its petroleum) in 1941.

The Norwegian Underground blew up a ferry carrying several tank cars of heavy water across one of the fjords, which scuttled Germany’s atomic bomb project for the duration of the war.

Had the U.S. not entered World War II, Hitler would have been able to develop atomic bombs and long-range missiles, which would have allowed him to fulfill his dream of world conquest.

The Japanese may have done us a favor by attacking Pearl Harbor. It was a brutal wake-up call, but it may very well have saved us and the rest of the world from a far worse fate.

“As I See It” appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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