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ATTACK! Pearl Harbour vs. 9/11: Home

This libguide looks at the similarities and differences between the two most significant attacks on Americans in recent history.


September 11, 2001: A War on Terror

American Decades, 2011

September 11, 2001: A War on Terror

The Attacks

On 11 September 2001 the United States suffered its first large-scale attack on native soil since Japan’s bombing raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. At 8:46 A.M., a commercial airliner out of Boston flew into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. As the nation watched the smoldering top floors of the building and media outlets argued over the implications, another airliner from Boston flew into the second tower. New York City officials shut down the ports and bridges, and President George W. Bush broke away from a speaking engagement in Florida to declare that the country had been attacked. At 9:37 A.M., a plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The White House, State and Justice Departments, United Nations buildings, and World Bank were evacuated. Finally, a fourth plane crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. Bush was flown from Florida to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana where he declared, “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” He then left aboard Air Force One for Nebraska, while the navy gathered warships along the East Coast. Airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco (destinations of the hijacked planes) were shut down. By this time, the twin towers of the World Trade Center had fallen, sending a smoky cloud of debris throughout lower Manhattan, and a portion of the Pentagon had buckled and collapsed. Across the globe, people watched the events unfold, with network anchors and reporters logging record hours in their attempts to make sense of the tragedy. The next day, leaders around the world joined Bush in condemning the attacks and mourning the thousands of people who lost their lives. However, the realization that a dangerous enemy had carried out a terrorist plot against Washington, D.C., and one of the world’s great cities, New York, cast a long shadow.


In the wake of the attacks, the United States entered a painful period of fear, sorrow, and anger; aggressive foreign policy; and heightened patriotism. The human toll was staggering: 2,819 men and women died from the attacks. Citizens of the New York City metropolitan area suffered the most devastating casualties. More than two thousand employees at the World Trade Center and hundreds of rescue workers—including firemen, para-medics, and police officers—died. More than 400,000 New Yorkers were ultimately diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder related to the attacks. Furthermore, the glaring absence of the towers from the skyline became a constant reminder of the massive loss of life. Indeed, the site of the fallen twin towers, later labeled Ground Zero, became a troubling symbol of the deep social and political changes of a post-9/11 America. As crews searched for survivors in the rubble and recovered remains, the country grappled with grief and anxiety triggered by the tragedy. Patriotic sentiment surged, manifesting itself in feelings of not only pride and unity but also fear and anger. Retailer giant Wal-Mart reported a nearly 2,000 percent increase in the sale of American flags and a 100 percent rise in ammunition sales.

Bin Laden

On 15 September, President Bush declared, “We’re at war,” and pointed to the Islamic fundamentalist group al Qaeda and its leader, Saudi fugitive and millionaire militant Osama bin Laden, as the culprits behind the terrorist attacks. Bin Laden, a prime suspect in a series of international terrorist plots, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had for years eluded efforts to bring him to justice. He was already an established villain, rumored to have circulated a poem via video congratulating the perpetrators of the USS Cole bombing. Intelligence reports suggested that bin Laden had been planning to attack the United States for its support of Israel. A military response was a priority for the Bush administration, but “who to target” and “where to strike” remained important questions. As investigations eventually revealed, the nineteen men who hijacked the planes were jihadists of varying origins within the Middle East, trained in far-flung terrorist cells. However, bin Laden’s global terrorist network, al Qaeda, linked them together. For Bush, the goal was not simply a war against bin Laden, but a war against terrorism and those countries suspected of harboring terrorists. His administration intended to target al Qaeda, but also the Taliban, a powerful Islamic fundamentalist sect in Afghanistan, accused of protecting bin Laden. Yet, as Bush eyed the troubled country of Afghanistan to challenge the Taliban and root out al Qaeda, he delivered a message to the rest of the world, as well, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Bush also took pains to assure Muslims around the world that the United States intended to wage war on terrorists not Islam.

War on Terror

Congress quickly authorized military force to fight terrorism in a sweeping resolution that expanded the president’s authority. When the Taliban refused to assist the United States and hand over bin Laden, Afghanistan became the first military target. Officials insisted that a military strike against Afghanistan would loosen the Taliban’s hold on Afghan citizens, end bin Laden’s powerful influence, and serve as a definitive warning to other countries protecting suspected terrorists. The Bush administration launched a campaign to construct a global coalition to combat terrorism, encouraging nations


President Bush delivered the commencement address at West Point on 1 June 2002. In his speech, excerpted below, he clarified his administration’s position in the war on terror and expounded upon the principles that became known as the Bush Doctrine:

For much of the last century America’s defense relied on the cold war doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking.

Deterrence, the promise of massive retaliation against nations, means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long.

Homeland defense and missile defense are part of a stronger security. They’re essential priorities for America.

Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge.

In the world we have entered the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

Our security will require the best intelligence to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories. Our security will require modernizing domestic agencies, such as the FBI, so they are prepared to act and act quickly against danger. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead. A military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

The work ahead is difficult. The choices we will face are complex. We must uncover terrorist cells in sixty or more countries using every tool of finance, intelligence and law enforcement.

Along with our friends and allies we must oppose proliferation and confront regimes that sponsor terror as each case requires. Some nations need military training to fight terror and we will provide it. Other nations oppose terror but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror and that must change.

We will send diplomats where they are needed. And we will send you, our soldiers, where you’re needed.

All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price. We will not leave the safety of America and the peace of the planet at the mercy of a few mad terrorists and tyrants. We will lift this dark threat from our country and from the world.

Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the cold war. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.

America confronted imperial communism in many different ways: diplomatic, economic and military. Yet moral clarity was essential to our victory in the cold war.

When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles and rallied free nations to a great cause.

Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong.

There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name.

By confronting evil and lawless regimes we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.


to denounce the Taliban, cut ties with Afghanistan, and help the United States militarily. In addition to the military commitment promised by industrialized nations—including Germany, France, and Great Britain—Japan pledged humanitarian assistance, former Soviet satellite Kyrgyzstan offered air space, and Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic and economic ties with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Bush attempted to garner support among Afghan citizens with promises of $320 million in food and medical supplies. By 7 October the United States, with British forces and broad international support, initiated air strikes in the Afghan capital Kabul, marking the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. Within hours of the strikes, bin Laden, in his first public acknowledgment of the 9/11 attacks, praised the hijackers and connected his cause to theirs, calling Americans “the cowards of the age” and Bush “the head of the infidels worldwide.”

Bush Doctrine

American military actions in Afghanistan were among many far-reaching escalations in U.S. foreign and domestic policy, aimed at heightening security and protecting U.S. interests. Within days of the invasion of Afghanistan, the White House issued rules of engagement guiding the war on terrorism. Labeled the Bush Doctrine, the policy demanded that the world choose sides, and those countries that did not line up beside the United States could suffer military consequences. In effect, any nation suspected of harboring terrorists would be considered a target for preemptive strike. Expanding the scope of their rhetoric to reach beyond bin Laden and al Qaeda, the Bush administration included Iraq on their list of seven states that sponsored terrorism, labeling three the “axis of evil”—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. A little over a year later, Bush declared war on Iraq.

Unlawful Combatants

The war on terrorism inevitably led to captured militants and suspected terrorists allegedly associated with the Taliban and al Qaeda. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the United States would hold these prisoners at a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, questions quickly arose about the status of the detainees. The war on terror did not have physical boundaries and Rumsfeld, along with other members of the Bush administration, claimed that international rules of war stated in the Geneva Convention simply did not apply. Secretary of State Colin Powell defied some in the administration, voicing his concerns that circumventing the protections afforded prisoners of war would forever muddy the waters of diplomacy. He argued that using the status of “unlawful combatants” for those held at Guantanamo threatened policies that sought to preserve integrity and sovereignty during times of war. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, insisted that unlawful combatants who targeted civilians and held no national allegiances presented new challenges. He emphasized the need to interrogate detainees, an imperative that the White House did not want complicated by the Geneva Convention. Military tribunals, with officers as judges, were organized to try combatants. But the existence of the detention center, combined with the use of extralegal proceedings, began to raise red flags. Critics claimed that the search for terrorists undermined the freedoms that the Bush administration promised to protect and preserve.

Protecting the Home Front

As the White House increased efforts to combat terrorism abroad, plans to eliminate security threats on the home front faced scrutiny. The Bush administration introduced initiatives that loosened restrictions on the federal government, opened new intelligence channels, and expanded the reach of law-enforcement agencies. The federal government gained access to conversations between attorneys and terror suspects, detained hundreds of people domestically without releasing their identities, and interrogated thousands of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. On 26 October, Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act), commonly known as the Patriot Act, into law. At the urging of Attorney General John Ash-croft and with overwhelming support from Congress, the antiterrorism legislation was passed quickly to give the federal government and executive branch, in particular, unprecedented powers of surveillance and law enforcement. Civil-liberties advocates decried the Patriot Act for giving the government free rein in accessing emails of suspected terrorists, wiretapping, and the sharing of information. Some critics compared the legislation to past civil-liberties abuses during wartime, including the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. However, the White House claimed that it was creating a stronger infrastructure to suit dangerous times. When in early October, anthrax traced from a mailbox in New Jersey showed up in Florida, New York City, and several U.S. senators’ offices in Washington, D.C., the need for an enhanced security network became more pressing for the White House.

Department of Homeland Security

On 8 October 2001, President Bush issued an executive order establishing the Office of Homeland Security. Initially an entity within the White House, the new office was created to protect the United States from domestic terrorism. Bush appointed Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to head the agency. While prior to the attacks, forty federal agencies had managed homeland security, Ridge’s role was to centralize the effort to combat terrorism. By November of the following year, Homeland Security became a cabinet-level department and was expanded to include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Coast Guard, Customs Service, and United States Secret Service. It eventually constituted twenty-two government agencies. The department inflated the security industry, as well, with lobbyists, law firms, and technology companies flocking to Washington, D.C., to bid for federal dollars. Notably, the Department of Homeland Security did not include the FBI or CIA and critics claimed that rather than create another separate intelligence agency, the nation needed more collaboration between its existing departments. Still others worried that


In May 2006 a Zogby poll revealed that 42 percent of Americans believed the 9/11 Commission or the federal government had “concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation” of the attacks. Conspiracy theorists asked: Had the government hindered the reaction of the air force to ensure an attack that would trigger a war against Islam? Was the World Trade Center professionally demolished? Was the fourth plane shot down by the air force over Pennsylvania? The 9/11 myths have largely been debunked, but for critics the troubling legacy of 9/11 continues to be seen in the wars, military occupations, civil-rights abuses, and heightened security of a nation struggling to feel secure again.

The following is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the 9/11 Commission Report:


At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a nation transformed.

An airliner traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and carrying some 10,000 gallons of jet fuel plowed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. At 9:03, a second airliner hit the South Tower. Fire and smoke billowed upward. Steel, glass, ash, and bodies fell below. The Twin Towers, where up to 50,000 people worked each day, both collapsed less than 90 minutes later.

At 9:37 that same morning, a third airliner slammed into the western face of the Pentagon. At 10:03, a fourth airliner crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania. It had been aimed at the United States Capitol or the White House, and was forced down by heroic passengers armed with the knowledge that America was under attack.

More than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center; 125 died at the Pentagon; 256 died on the four planes. The death toll surpassed that at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

This immeasurable pain was inflicted by 19 young Arabs acting at the behest of Islamist extremists headquartered in distant Afghanistan. Some had been in the United States for more than a year, mixing with the rest of the population. Though four had training as pilots, most were not well-educated. Most spoke English poorly, some hardly at all. In groups of four or five, carrying with them only small knives, box cutters, and cans of Mace or pepper spray, they had hijacked the four planes and turned them into deadly guided missiles.

Sources: Richard A. Clarke, “Conspiracy Theories,” Time (July 2009);

Richard A. Falkenrath, “The 9/11 Commission Report; A Review Essay,” International Security (2004 Winter/2005 Winter);;

“The Truth about 9/11 Revealed,” Popular Mechanics (1 September 2006).

the size and scope of the department made management a problem, leaving the largest security agency in the United States impervious to federal oversight.

Political Fallout

The attacks on 9/11 sparked a seismic shift in the American political landscape. Invoking the Bush Doctrine, the United States waged preemptive wars against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In both countries, long American occupations laid bare bitter ethnic rivalries. But investigations on the home front became a priority as victims’ families appealed to the federal government for answers. The 9/11 Commission, an independent congressional committee organized to investigate the attacks and the aftermath, attempted to provide a narrative of the events and to evaluate the federal government’s and, more specifically, the Bush administration’s response. Dramatic moments of the investigation included successfully gaining unprecedented access to Bush’s cabinet for interviews, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She along with former assistant secretary of state Richard Alan Clarke, another interviewee, publicly accused the Bush administration of undermining the war on terrorism by invading Iraq. The report was published to surreal fanfare for a committee report and became a best seller, largely due to its account of the tragic days. The commission’s findings were notable for their judgments regarding the federal government’s failings before the attacks, chiefly a lack of communication among intelligence agencies, though it refrained from blaming either the Bush or Clinton administrations. The commission also argued that the United States could have been more vigilant and more imaginative in its preparations against such an attack. However, the report’s official recommendations fell short. The investigative mandate ended on 20 September 2001, leaving little opportunity for committee members to suggest a new course for the war on terror.


Julian Borger, “President Broadens War on Terrorism,” Guardian, 31 January 2002;

“Brief Documentary History of the Department of Homeland Security: 2001–2008,” Department of Homeland Security, (2008);

“Bush’s Coalition Falls into Line,” St. Petersburg Times, 26 September 2001;

“Chronology of Terror,” ;

Adam Cohen and others, “The Law: Rough Justice,” Time (10 December 2001);

Dan Eggen and Vernon Loeb, “U.S. Intelligence Points to Bin Laden Network,” Washington Post, 12 September 2001;

Richard A. Falkenrath, “The 9/11 Commission Report: A Review Essay,” International Security, 29 (Winter 2004/2005): 170–190;

Jack A. Goldstone, “Homeland Security’s Secret for Success,” Christian Science Monitor (21 June 2002);

Michael R. Gordon, “After the Attacks: The Strategy; A New War and Its Scale,” New York Times, 17 September 2001;

Jill Lawrence, “Suspected Mastermind Salutes Hijackers on Video,” USA Today, 8 October 2001;

Laurence McQuillan, “‘Bush Doctrine’ Sets Up Rules of Engagement,” USA Today, 9 October 2001;

Martin Merzer, “U.S. Wants Him Dead or Alive,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 September 2001;

“9/11 by the Numbers: Death, Destruction, Charity, Salvation, War, Money, Real Estate, Spouses, Babies and Other September 11 Statistics,” New York Magazine, ;

“9/11 Timeline,” Christian Science Monitor (11 March 2002);

Tim Padgett, “Are They POWs or Terrorists?” Time (28 January 2002);

Frank Pellegrini, “The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation,” Time (21 September 2001);

Jessica Reaves, “Tom Ridge Has the Biggest Job in Washington,” Time (21 September 2001);

Reaves, “Why the Anthrax Scare Isn’t as Bad as You May Think,” Time (19 October 2001);

Judy Sarasohn, “Explosion in Homeland Security Field,” Washington Post, 12 December 2002;

Katharine Q. Seelye, “A Nation Challenged: The Detention Camp; US to Hold Taliban Detainees in ‘the Least Worst Place,’” New York Times, 28 December 2001;

Elaine Shannon and Amanda Ripley, “Osama’s Trail: Soft Evidence,” Time (1 October 2001);

“Timeline: A Day-by-Day Look at the Attacks, Response,” USA Today, 8 October 2001;

Robin Toner and Neil A. Lewis, “A Nation Challenged: Congress; House Passes Terrorism Bill,” New York Times, 13 October 2001.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning.

Source Citation

"September 11, 2001: A War on Terror." American Decades: 2000-2009. Ed. Eric Bargeron and James F. Tidd, Jr. Detroit: Gale, 2011. 223-228. Student Resources in Context. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.

Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1929800108


Pearl Harbor Attack

UXL Encyclopedia of U.S. History, 2009

Pearl Harbor Attack

December 7, 1941, was called a “day which will live in infamy” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). On that day, Japan conducted a surprise attack on the U.S. naval fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii . Though the United States had avoided participating militarily in World War II (1939–45) up to that point, the attack destroyed the U.S. fleet and provoked the United States to enter the war.

The importance of Pearl Harbor

The United States has a naval base on the south coast of the Hawaiian Island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor. In 1887, before Hawaii was an American territory, the Hawaiian government granted the United States exclusive rights to use this area as a naval fueling and repair station.

Gradually over the years, the United States expanded Pearl Harbor to include naval, military, and aircraft bases. The bases had ammunition dumps, machine shops, radio towers, fuel oil storage facilities, and bar racks for the military and naval personnel stationed there. By 1941, Pearl Harbor was large enough to accommodate the entire U.S. fleet in the Pacific Ocean. It served as an important defense post for Hawaii and for the west coast of the United States.

Tensions with Japan

Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued an aggressive policy of expansion into China. In pursuit of natural materials for its industries, Japan seized Manchuria, on China's eastern seaboard. Eventually it moved to attack the mainland of China, and by 1939 Japan had gained power over much of it.

As the Western world was distracted by German aggression in Europe, Japan began to consider further attacks. With the signing of the Tripartite Pact in September 1940, Japan officially became part of the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy. By summer 1941, Japan had gained power in Indochina, and was threatening to take Thailand, Russia's Siberian provinces, the British bastion of Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

As Japan extended its influence in Asia, the United States was unwilling to oppose Japan by force. The United States wanted to avoid military conflict in Asia and was more concerned with the threat of Germany in Europe. Trying to avoid a two-ocean war, the United States instead attempted both diplomatic talks and economic sanctions in Japan. It imposed an embargo on shipping aviation fuel to Japan in August 1940, followed by similar restrictions on the export of scrap iron and steel in September.

On October 18, 1941, an even more militant Japanese government took power. At this time, diplomatic efforts between the two countries began to fail. The United States's economic sanctions were forcing Japan to choose peace or war within a year, when its oil reserves would be depleted.

Meanwhile U.S. intelligence gathered bits of evidence that the Japanese were planning a surprise attack against the United States. While there were few specific details about the plan, it was known that Japan would attack when diplomatic efforts failed. On November 10, 1941, the Japanese presented a final proposal to the United States. The United States felt it was unacceptable and on November 26 made an alternative offer. Japan rejected it, and diplomacy came to an end.

Japanese military actions

Evidence suggests that the Japanese had expected diplomatic efforts to fail. Though talks lasted through 1941, early that year the Japanese began tactical preparation for an attack on Pearl Harbor. Pilots began training for the attack by September. To cope with the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, Japan devised wooden torpedoes and new methods for their delivery. Abundant intelligence was gathered about the movements of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and extensive measures were taken to preserve secrecy.

In early November, while final negotiations continued with the United States, a special task force of thirty-one Japanese vessels gathered in the southern Kurile Islands northeast of Japan. Six aircraft carriers carried 432 airplanes. Their movements continued to a place 275 miles north of Pearl Harbor, where they awaited final orders. On December 2, the plan was confirmed and the fleet advanced.

December 7, 1941

At 7:55 AM on December 7, the first wave of Japanese bombers began to attack U.S. airfields and the Pacific fleet, particularly battleships, anchored in the harbor. Another wave came at 8:50AM with attacks on the harbor, airfields, and shore installations. The Americans fought courageously, but they were tragically unprepared. Virtually the entire U.S. Pacific fleet of ninety-four vessels, including eight battleships, was concentrated at Pearl Harbor at the time. The unprepared state of the troops, airplanes, and antiaircraft guns made effective defense nearly impossible.

The resulting destruction crippled the Pacific fleet. Casualties were 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded. Three battleships sank, another cap-sized, and four more were damaged. Several smaller warships also sank, and others were seriously crippled. Almost all combat aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Three carriers of the Pacific fleet were not in the harbor that day and were spared.


President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress the next day. Roosevelt asked for recognition of a state of war, which Congress granted with only one dissenting vote. Declarations of war from Germany and Italy followed quickly. World War II was now a reality for Americans. The United States was confronted with the war on two oceans that it had so hoped to avoid.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning.

Source Citation

"Pearl Harbor Attack." UXL Encyclopedia of U.S. History. Sonia Benson, Daniel E. Brannen, Jr., and Rebecca Valentine. Vol. 6. Detroit: UXL, 2009. 1205-1207. Student Resources in Context. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.

Document URL

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3048900472

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