By Tim Holmgren
On December 7, 1941, America was victim to a sneak attack that reverberated around the world. A hostile foe, in a clear act of war, let alone an attempt to influence U.S. policy, had struck a dastardly blow that many see, even today, as the single event most responsible for shaping the geopolitical landscape our country has dominated for over 70 years. Special edition newspapers reported the chaos, and broadcasters spent hours assessing the damage, while grim-faced men formed long lines in front of recruiting stations. Their country had been attacked, and it was the diabolical sneakiness of the act which was as enraging as anything. Congress quickly assembled, and President Roosevelt gave one of the most impassioned, resonant speeches in history – his words even now a familiar rally cry that defines those dark days. Our country was enraged, and war was declared. It was without a doubt THE seminal event of the middle years of the 20th century.
On Friday, December 9, 2016 – 75 years and two days after Pearl Harbor -- America’s foremost intelligence agency, the CIA, claimed indisputable evidence that our nation had again been victim to a sneak attack from a foreign foe. This time the perpetrator was Russia, and there are 16 other government bureaus focused on foreign intelligence which support the CIA accusation. But in this case it wasn’t a remote naval station that was targeted, it was the very essence of democracy itself – the rock on which virtually every aspect of American government is anchored. This foe, which many Americans already view as ruled by hate-filled villains, used electronic subterfuge in its strike – an attack that aimed a digital dagger at our backs, this time using computerized espionage to influence one of our most sacred rituals – the Presidential election. But this time, both the attack and our reaction differ substantially – the preliminary reaction, however, is definitely befuddling.
In the months following Pearl Harbor, America recovered her footing and began a relentless effort to track down and punish Japan -- and eventually America had her victory. The fools that had sucker-punched us to start the fight lay in tatters at the feet of our weary soldiers, but it wasn’t the cost, blood or energy America had sunk into the fight that mattered -- the important thing was that the perpetrators of that evil sneak attack had finally been beaten down to a pulp: Their just reward for daring to strike us. They should have expected no less, and we offered no quarter, insisting on a total surrender that thoroughly emasculated Japan for 50 years, at least.
The initial reaction to the CIA’s allegation of a Russian sneak attack aimed at the heart of our democracy could not be more different than the response America mustered following Pearl Harbor. No, this reaction, at least over the weekend, was more of a bored, collective yawn. Few headlines screamed out the news, no entertainment broadcasts were interrupted, no angry volunteers gathered to sign up and fight, and our politicians reacted with lethargic shuffling – seemingly figuring out how to turn the alleged strike, and its aftermath, to their favor rather than contemplating revenge. In a display of what seems like cynicism that would shame the brave volunteers who signed up to avenge our nation 75 years ago, today’s America appeared to merely shrugged and mumble with resignation, “Yeah, well, these things happen. Whatcha gonna do?”
There are unquestionable differences between the two attacks, that is obvious. The Japanese struck with a huge wave of conventional weapons, clearly declaring their intention to wage a formal war. The Russian attack, however, was all technical cloak-and-dagger – hacking of government computer networks and a slow, steady stream of embarrassing interoffice memos and policy papers intended to cast one candidate, Hillary Clinton, in a particularly bad light. Yes, both were the actions of what most consider unstable dictators who thought more of their own masculinity than they did of America’s might, but there the stories diverge. In the first case, the Japanese came to regret their actions very deeply – so much so that it was written into their Constitution their country would never again field weapons that could be used in aggression. The second case, however – the Russian effort to deliberately alter the Presidential election in favor of Donald Trump – may or may not have resulted in what they undoubtedly see as a great victory. Although there are inarticulate cries for someone, somewhere, to do something, there appears to be very little chance anything will change before Mr. Trump takes the oath of office. And so, yes, the Russians got exactly what they wanted – a man-child who appears to be more proud of his own hair than he is of his country, and one the Russians apparently view as a patsy they can maneuver like a puppet on strings.
Regardless of the specific results of the Russian attack, our nation is now faced with the prospect of four-years of neo-Republican rule, featuring a man many see as a blustering bully who manipulated, lied and insulted his way to the top – helped along, at least a bit, by the periodic release of unflattering Clinton campaign emails courtesy of the Russians. According to the CIA report, there is little doubt Mr. Trump benefited from the actions of the Russians, who some feel view Trump as a small man full of big talk who will be easy to twist into whatever position they desire. The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, apparently did not want to face Trump’s opponent, Mrs. Clinton, which is enough in itself, for some, to make her the more qualified candidate. Putin apparently views Trump as a piece of cake to deal with compared to Clinton, a woman who, despite her unmistakable faults, does possess a substantial resume of interactions with world leaders every bit as sleezy and snide as Putin. She appears to know a snake when she sees one, while Mr. Trump, on the other hand, might overlook such danger and thus stumble within range of venomous fangs. Putin saw an opportunity to stack the deck in Trump’s favor and he took it. The question is, was it Putin’s subterfuge that propelled Trump to the top, or did it really have as much an effect as Clinton supporters would like to believe? Many pundits point out that Clinton stumbled badly several times, and failed to devote sufficient attention to the key states that were supposed to deliver her to the Oval Office. In addition, many election-watchers blame FBI Director James Comey, and the incriminating letter concerning Clinton’s email, which he released less than two weeks before the election, as the final nail in her political coffin (an assertion that is difficult to ignore). And then there’s Trump – a man no one can accuse of lacking in showmanship or self-confidence – who played the media like a fiddle and tapped into a very real vein of populist disgust with the “ruling class” in Washington. His voters wanted CHANGE, damn it, and many of them apparently did not really care what it took to get it, or what form it would assume once it was elevated to power.
That is all history now, however – the toothpaste is out of the tube -- regardless of who gave the final, hard squeeze. Donald Trump is, in fact, going to be President of the United States (assuming the last, desperate ‘Hail Mary’ aimed at manipulating the Electoral College fails, and if it – against all odds – succeeds, then we’ve got a whole new batch of trouble to worry about). That does NOT, however, end the discussion, for the fact remains that regardless of its consequences, our country WAS attacked by Russian techno-spies. Some would argue that the impact doesn’t matter, it is the intent that is the crime. Imagine for a moment some unnamed Secretary of Defense running into the Oval Office and crying out to an imaginary President: “Sir! The North Korean navy just launched two torpedoes at one of our aircraft carriers! They hit their target, but fortunately the torpedoes were duds, and there doesn’t seem to be any real damage!” What would you, Mr. or Mrs. patriotic American, expect this fantasy President to do? Shrug his shoulders and say “well, I guess it’s our lucky day. I’m glad that worked out.” No, I don’t believe many see that as a legitimate response to an attack on our country, even one which may have caused less damage than was intended. The question is: what WOULD be an appropriate response, and where, or who, should it come from?
These questions remain unanswered, but it strikes many that the Russian’s deserve some sort of rebuke – a slap on the wrist and a stern scolding? Some sort of tit-for-tat manipulation of THEIR government computer network (perhaps switching off the electric grid in snow-bound Moscow for a day or two)? Something even more provocative, like a shoot-down of one of their aircraft currently bombing civilians in Syria? It is a difficult question, for the possibilities of escalation are certainly high, and the Russian’s act, dastardly as it appears, doesn’t really seem like a valid excuse to start World War Three. On the other hand, however, it somehow tastes like very weak tea to offer no response at all, or even merely an angry shake of the finger. Trump is certainly not going to offer any retaliation, and thus the issue appears to fall onto President Obama’s desk. It is the latest (and hopefully last) foreign policy mess to land in his lap, and his actions could, depending on their severity, theoretically become THE defining act of his presidency – a notion he undoubtedly does not relish.
Thus it seems likely that America will offer nothing other than, at most, a harsh glare toward Moscow as retribution for their hostile intrusion. That is a troubling thought for many Americans, and it certainly stands in stark contrast to the spanking we laid on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. It’s hard to see any other likely outcome, however, and thus the real winner of our recent election could be Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who got the result he wanted whether he caused it or not. It is not an auspicious start for a new administration – particularly one that many feel is as savy as a new-born lamb on the international stage. We should all hope that in this case, as unlikely as it seems to some, appearances regarding our new President are deceiving.
Tim Holmgren is an award-winning journalist with a BA degree in Mass Media and History from Chadron State University in Nebraska.