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Americans Say Sept. 11 Will Be More Historically Significant Than Pearl Harbor

Americans Say Sept. 11 Will Be More Historically Significant Than Pearl Harbor


PRINCETON, NJ -- Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. President George W. Bush will not be at Pearl Harbor itself to commemorate the occasion, as was his father in December 1991, but will instead remember the historic event aboard an aircraft carrier at the U.S. Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia.

The anniversary comes at a time when many Americans are comparing the events in 1941 to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington -- the first time that America has been attacked by foreign powers on its own soil since World War II.

When we ask Americans to compare the historical significance of these two events, there is a clear consensus that Sept. 11 will be perceived as more important:

A hundred years from now, which event do you think historians will say had a greater impact on the United States -- [ROTATED: the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, (or) the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001?


Dec. 7, 1941

Sept. 11, 2001

No opinion

2001 Nov 26-27




One might expect that Americans now 65 and older -- many of whom have memories of both Pearl Harbor and the war that followed -- would be most likely to give historical preference to Pearl Harbor. They do, but only to a degree. Seventy-seven percent of young Americans, ages 18-29, say that a hundred years from now historians will claim the Sept. 11 attacks will have had a greater impact on the United States. A somewhat smaller, but still substantial, 62% of those 65 and older agree.

A majority of both men and women say Sept. 11 will be more important in the long run, although men are somewhat more likely than women to favor the importance of Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor looms most important to Americans with post-graduate educations, perhaps because they are better schooled in history. Forty-seven percent of those with these higher levels of education say that, in 100 years, Sept. 11 will be seen as more important than Pearl Harbor, while 49% take the opposite view. By comparison, only 17% of Americans with a high school education or less choose Pearl Harbor.

Like Today, Americans Were Highly Supportive of War After Attack

Americans are highly supportive of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan taken in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. There was a similar, and even slightly stronger, reaction to the idea of going to war after Pearl Harbor. An overwhelming 97% of Americans in a Dec. 12-17, 1941 poll said they approved of the Congressional declaration of war against Japan.

By the time of a Dec. 20-25, 1941 Gallup poll, 82% of Americans were satisfied with the government's conduct of the war, although at that time there had been very little U.S. military response against the Japanese.

Overall, there was relatively little polling conducted in the United States at the time of Pearl Harbor, but a review of the limited public opinion research that was conducted in its immediate aftermath is quite revealing and interesting.

  • In the weeks after the Pearl Harbor attacks, a National Opinion Research Center poll showed that few Americans were worried about the fact that the U.S. government censored news about the bombing. Only 7% said "there was absolutely no excuse for holding back the Pearl Harbor news for a whole week." Most agreed that it was probably best that the news was held back, or that the public "had no right at all to expect the story of our losses at Pearl Harbor any sooner that we got it."
  • Similarly, a Gallup poll conducted Dec. 12-17 showed that two-thirds of the public felt the U.S. government was giving the public as much information as it should about the war.
  • To some degree, Americans were actually more optimistic about WWII than they are now about the war on terrorism. In a December 1941 Gallup poll, 51% said that the war against Japan would be a long one. In our most recent poll asking about the war against terrorism, 87% of Americans say that it will be a long one. After Pearl Harbor, 65% of Americans said that the war against Japan would be a difficult one. Now, 95% say that about the war against terrorism.
  • Since Sept. 11, a sizable percentage of Americans have expressed worry about additional terrorist attacks. Similarly, after Pearl Harbor, Americans were worried about Japanese attacks on the U.S. mainland. A third of the public in December 1941 said there was a chance that the town or neighborhood in which they resided would be bombed. About a third in a NORC poll said that there were aliens "around here" not loyal to the United States. A quarter thought it very probable that there would be enemy air raids on the Pacific Coast cities within the next few weeks.
  • Interestingly, a Roper poll in late 1941 showed that almost seven out of 10 Americans thought that Japan was "doing her part as Hitler's ally, and her move was part of German strategy."


Some controversy about Pearl Harbor has evolved over the years. The United States was caught essentially flat-footed the day of the attacks, even though historians have shown that there was considerable evidence -- including intercepted Japanese radio transmissions -- suggesting that such an attack was imminent. Some observers and theorists have gone so far as to hypothesize that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not do as much as he could have to prevent Pearl Harbor, since -- as the theory goes -- he wanted an aggressive action taken against the United States in order to provoke public support of the U.S. entry into the war.

Our review of polling shows that in December 1941, there was little support for the idea that FDR's handling of the situation was somehow deficient. Eighty-four percent said that the president had done "everything he should have to prevent war with Japan," while only 9% disagreed. In 1991, at the 50-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we asked Americans about the theory in a somewhat more complex way. Gallup found 31% who agreed that "Roosevelt knew about Japanese plans to bomb Pearl Harbor but did nothing about it because he wanted an excuse to involve the United States on the side of the allies in the war." Forty-seven percent disagreed, and 22% had no opinion.

Also, in 1991, only 19% of Americans said that they had not forgiven the Japanese for the attack.

Attitudes Towards Japan Today Very Favorable

Despite the Pearl Harbor attack, attitudes towards the Japanese people quickly became positive after the war. In 1951, Gallup asked Americans "It has been six years since the war with Japan ended. What would you say your feelings are toward the Japanese people at present?" and found that 51% had a friendly attitude, 18% had a neutral attitude, and only 25% had an unfriendly attitude. Some 40 years later, in 1991, at the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the responses to the same question (which this time mentioned that it had been a half a century since the war ended) found a smaller percentage unfriendly -- 8%, with a larger percentage neutral 47%, and 43% friendly.

The Gallup Poll has tracked overall attitudes towards the country of Japan over the past quarter century. In 1976, 17% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Japan. When we replicated this question earlier this year, even fewer, 15%, of Americans viewed Japan unfavorably.

By way of comparison, Japan's image today is only slightly below the top tier of nations we ask Americans to rate. A trio of English-speaking nations -- Canada, Australia, and Great Britain -- is most highly evaluated by Americans, but Japan comes in next, roughly tied with France, Germany and Italy.

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