On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes bombed American ships in Pearl Harbor. In the blink of an eye, the United States was at war.
The attack took place in Hawaii, but it dramatically changed attitudes on the mainland about the war and America's involvement in it. In an interview with National Geographic Today, Stephen Ambrose, one of America's most respected historians, talked about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Explaining the sentiment of the American people in 1941, he said: "Before December 7th, we were a divided people. It wasn't a civil war going on, but there was a great deal of argument about whether we ought to or ought not to [enter the war]."
Only 20 years earlier, World War I had been proclaimed the "war to end all war." And yet, once again, Americans were being called on to fight on European soil.
"So it wasn't the 'war to end all war,' and it would be silly for the United States to get involved in another bloodletting like that—or so 40 percent or more of the American people believed on December 6, 1941," said Ambrose.
"Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, like that, it turned American opinion. You had more enlistments on December 8 than any other day in American history," he said.
Ambrose cited a letter written by General Dwight Eisenhower warning that Hitler should "beware the fury of a roused democracy."
Yamamoto Isoroku, commander of the Japanese combined fleet, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, had worked in the United States. He warned the Japanese high command of the strength of the American spirit. Despite the warnings, the Japanese went ahead with the attack because, said Ambrose, they underestimated American perseverance.
But the Americans did not get too tired to continue the fight. Even though they paid dearly in human lives, determination outweighed that price, according to Ambrose:
"We did not quit fighting, because the determination [that] 'They're gonna pay' was so high. It was felt by everyone in this country, whether they were old people or young people, men or women, whether they were of British descent or African descent or Norwegian descent—wherever they came from, that determination that 'We're never going to let this happen. And we're going to come back, whatever the price.' And they did."
As American soldiers went off to battle, the country's citizens came together to support them, Ambrose pointed out. Troops from across the country were shipped to battlefields around the world.
Faced with a common enemy of totalitarianism, regional schisms within the country lost their importance.
World War II "strengthened us as a country," said Ambrose. "We were much more committed to the idea of country, rather than region. People didn't speak of themselves any more as being, 'Well, I'm a rebel, I'm from Mississippi.' 'I'm a Yankee, I'm from Wisconsin.' [It was], 'I'm an American.' That would always spring first to their lips."
From the time when Japanese fighters dropped the first bombs, it was an American fight. And as the first troops were shipped off to battle, it became an American effort.
According to Ambrose, the widely acclaimed "American spirit" began in World War II. When there is a genuine threat to a democracy, "We're all in this together, and we will fight it out together," he said.
Stephen Ambrose is retired Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, director emeritus of the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans, the author of more than 20 books, and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
He was profiled on National Geographic Today on Wednesday, May 23. He will appear in the TV special Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack, which will air Sunday, May 27, on NBC and the National Geographic Channel.