THE MAN who was the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 once told his junior officers that in order better to understand the United States, they should read a biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku came here as a young man in the 1920s, studied English at Harvard, traveled extensively throughout the country and several years later returned here as a naval attache. He well knew the gigantic reserves of strength in the United States.
Recently, I have begun to think about that period before World War II. In the 1930s and into the '40s, the branches of the armed services (and the Washington establishment) were bent on protecting their own frontiers and their own capacities, each operating nearly as an exclusive club. It was impossible for an integrated military machine to be properly built. The consequences were, of course, devastating.
Thus, before the might of the nation could be galvanized and tTC unleashed, we saw the tragedies of Pearl Harbor, Wake Island and Guam, followed by the nightmarish horror for some 20,000 American soldiers in the ignominious loss of the Philippines. The early part of that decade was a terrible time, and the nation did not deserve to absorb such grief and heartbreak before the tide began to turn in the war.
But lessons of courage and insight learned under fire can be quickly forgotten in the shuffle of happier times. One of the great early sages, Plotinus, said, "All things are filled full of signs, and it is a wise man who can learn one thing from another." This wisdom from the 3rd century should guide America into the 21st, for I think something similar to what transpired before World War II is happening now. This time, though, it is happening on a social and political level. The common good is being undermined -- yes, right now.
There is a preoccupation with special grievances, special causes, special interests. Well, we've heard such phrases for a long time, you'll say. But if these things are so special, then the country should be the beneficiary, not the placard-carrying group bellowing down some avenue with an escort of weary police officers.
The group might represent the perceived rights of the teachers' union, of animals, the "unborn," artists, feminists, homosexuals, blacks -- the whole gaggle of activists protesting up to their fists. But when we are obsessed with our rights and somebody else's wrongs, the common good of the country, its intactness, cannot be maintained, and, as we are seeing increasingly, that good is wizened to the point that it means appeasing -- not addressing -- a whole lot of demands.
These demands are intensifying, becoming more insistent, more detailed, harder to meet. Handling all this must be like trying to put shoes on an octopus. In the meantime, there is less and less attention to the practical defense of the United States, the true education of its youth, the moral fiber of its people and the diminishing of a criminal element that has taken over many of its streets.
This sort of distraction, by highly organized, self-consumed groups cannot possibly help "form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
The founders were a redoubtable, quarreling lot, but they quarreled about larger things and they leaned unashamedly on divine providence. They had, after all, a country to mold. They worked things out even when they disagreed passionately. (John Adams once said to Thomas Jefferson, "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.")
With prisons filled with snarling society haters, vengeance and mischief permeating the political arena and government circles, virtue and self-control laughed at, the judicial system wanting and the meaning of allegiance up for grabs, the country reels in disturbance. The United States of America faces an era not unlike that one half a century ago, when its vulnerability was sensed by the Japanese and the Germans.
It seems quite a propitious time to lay down the placards and pick up a biography of Lincoln.
8, Eleanor Lee Wells is a Baltimore writer.