Pearl Harbor, 9/11 attacks have similarities, differences

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Wichita State history professor John Dreifort says both the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks were unprovoked, without benefit of declaration of war on U.S. soil.

Pearl Harbor, 9/11 attacks have similarities, differences

Posted September 6 10:54 AM

By Joe Kleinsasser

This WSU Newsline Podcast is available at See the transcript below:

You're listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU — the home of Thinkers, Doers, Movers and Shockers — on the Web at

For a generation of younger Americans, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., are the equivalent of Pearl Harbor. But how legitimate is the comparison? Wichita State University history professor John Dreifort examines the similarities and differences of the two national tragedies.

Dreifort: "One similarity between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor is the fact that these were unprovoked attacks, without benefit of declaration of war on U.S. soil."

Dreifort: "Another similarity would be the fact that public opinion was galvanized in the aftermath of both attacks, and this was aided by presidential speeches that drew public support for action against the aggressors."

And Dreifort says those aren't the only notable similarities between the two attacks.

Dreifort: "Another similarity is the failure of intelligence in both instances. Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, there was plenty of intelligence to indicate the Japanese were up to something. And the same thing was true prior to 9/11. The problem for any intelligence-gathering organization is it's difficult to connect the dots. We had information, but it was difficult to put into a picture."

According to Dreifort, both attacks led to exaggerated fears and overreaction.

Dreifort: "Another similarity is the fact that in the aftermath of both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 there were exaggerated fears of subsequent follow-up attacks. In California, people feared that a Japanese attack on the West Coast would occur. In 9/11, our air space was closed down for several days in the aftermath of the attacks, fearing another airplane attack."

And the attacks led to a restructuring of government, as Dreifort explains.

Dreifort: "In both cases there was a significant restructuring of government. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act gave the government significant powers that it had not enjoyed up to that point in peace time. And after Pearl Harbor, of course, significant growth of the government for waging war was important."

Dreifort goes on to point out some of the major differences in the two attacks.

Dreifort: "An obvious difference between the two attacks was, in 1941, the attack was primarily against military targets, military installations. Whereas 9/11 was against civilian targets."

Dreifort: "Another significant difference is that after 9/11 the United States was able to retaliate against the aggressors much quicker. Within a month we were waging war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Whereas after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it took us six months to stop the Japanese and probably nine months before we were able to start launching an offensive against them."

According to Dreifort, the force of strength differed significantly in the two attacks.

Dreifort: "A difference was the fact that the Japanese attack was a government-sponsored attack using significant force strength. There was a whole naval task force, 360 planes, six aircraft carriers that launched this attack. Whereas in 9/11, it was a nongovernment-sponsored attack, involving 19 people with four aircraft."

And Dreifort says America's response differed following the attacks.

Dreifort: "Another difference is that in the aftermath of the attacks, the American government and people responded differently. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans, particularly on the West Coast, were rounded up and placed in relocation centers, where many of them stayed for months or years. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, President Bush and the American public overall tried to avoid that kind of overreaction against Muslim Americans."

In 1941, millions of Americans listened to news of the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio. On 9/11, millions of Americans watched the attacks live on TV or on computers.

The comparisons of the two attacks are inevitable. After the 9/11 attacks, the shock, loss and outrage were similar, but the course of action was less clear against stateless, ill-defined enemies who preferred killing civilians to battling armies. But both the Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 attacks led to the same consequence – pushing the United States into war.

Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.

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Reference: Kleinsasser, J. Pearl Harbor, 9/11 attacks have similarities, differences - Wichita State News

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