Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness

Craig Nelson (Rocket Men) sails into crowded waters with Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness, his history of the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. Enough has already been written about the attack to keep history buffs reading from here to eternity. However, considering the depths already sounded by books on the subject, Nelson's work feels surprisingly fresh.

Pearl Harbor begins long before that fateful Sunday morning. Nelson gives a concise history of Japan, through the country's extraordinary modernization in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and its burgeoning militarism as exemplified in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). This period, and the decisive naval engagement of Japan's war with Russia (the Battle of Tsushima), helps explain why Imperial Japan launched what seems, in hindsight, like a suicidal sneak attack on Oahu. The immediate background of the attack, the day-by-day duplicitous diplomacy and handwringing among Japan's leaders, is incredibly tense.

The account of the attack itself shows Nelson's keen eye for humanizing detail. He skillfully depicts the blood and smoke and burning oil, and the roar of Zero engines as they strafe sailors, with unforgettable touches like the sound of record players stuck on certain songs as ships sink. Nelson also chronicles the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the rest of Pearl Harbor's aftermath, and debunks the conspiracy theory that FDR knew about it in advance and did nothing to stop the attack (a theory begun by the two senior navy and army officers on Oahu at the time). This important new piece of Pearl Harbor scholarship is published in time for the attack's 75th anniversary. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

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