National Missile Defense: Learning the Lessons of Pearl Harbor, by Grant Threlfall

I remember sitting on my grandfather’s knee as he told me about Pearl Harbor. In 1941, while war raged elsewhere, America was at peace. Then, from across the sea, an enemy struck our naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing over 2,000 Americans in an attack most people thought would never happen. The next day, my grandfather left college and enlisted in the Marines. Millions of other young men, including my other grandfather, also joined the armed services to defend our country.

The American military has come a long way since Pearl Harbor. American soldiers are now the best-trained and well-armed force in the world. American forces dominate the air, land and sea in every aspect of warfare. Our military leadership in the Gulf War led to one of the most decisive victories in the history of armed conflict. In all, only 313 American troops were killed in the Gulf War, while the fourth largest army in the world – that of Iraq – was left devastated.

Yet even the most advanced, powerful defense can still be vulnerable. The worst Gulf War loss suffered by the United States came in one incident when a lone missile hit a barracks in Dhahran and killed 28 soldiers.

My father was an infantryman in Vietnam. More than once, he has reminded me that “there is only one truth in war; young men die.” To let them die needlessly, however, is a travesty.

Today, the Army is developing anti-missile systems to protect its troops from missile attacks. An advanced version of the Patriot system known as PAC-31 is nearly ready for deployment, as is a high-powered laser system called THEL.2 The Navy has protected ships against missiles for 20 years with the AEGIS system.

Our military will be better protected against missiles than the U.S. civilian populace. That is not how it should be. The United States military has learned the value of protecting itself from missile attacks. Why haven’t more of our politicians realized the importance of protecting civilians? It makes sense for our enemies to want us to fail to defend ourselves, but it is unconscionable that some politicians and liberal interest groups still oppose creating a national missile defense to protect all Americans from attack.

Politicians opposed to developing and deploying a national missile defense system know the threat is real. The new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), admitted it, noting, “it is clear that the threat is a real one from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.”3

Senator Levin wants to divert proposed missile defense funding to address quality of life problems facing military personnel. It is true that Clinton-era military cutbacks have led to soldiers relying on food stamps, and this is an outrage and should be addressed. But we should not, and need not, risk millions of civilian lives in order to do so.

Our greatest national security danger right now is not an invasion. It takes the shape of a mushroom cloud over one of our cities. It is a threat against which no rifleman, sailor or airman can, by himself, defend us. A national missile defense is required.

When President Ronald Reagan proposed developing missile defense, critics derided it as “Star Wars” fantasy and said it would never work. They were wrong. On Saturday, July 14, 2001, a missile interceptor successfully distinguished between a decoy and its intended target – another missile launched 4,800 miles away and traveling thousands of miles an hour. The interceptor scored a direct hit and utterly destroyed the missile.

Missile defense clearly can work. All that remains is to deploy this protective shield.

In 1941, almost no one thought the Japanese would strike at Pearl Harbor. Those few who did warn of the possibility of an attack were considered alarmist. We were complacent in our defense policy, and we paid the price.

The threat today is much greater than in 1941. The cost of ignoring the problem in 1941 was over 2,000 young men and a few ships and planes. Tragic as that loss was, it pales in comparison to the potential loss today: Millions of lives and entire cities.

Grant Threlfall is a research associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 “Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3): Overview,” The Boeing Company, Incorporated, Everett, WA, downloaded from on July 11, 2001.
2 “Laser Systems: Government Products and Programs, Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL),” TRW Inc., downloaded from,,4_39_841_844_853^5^853^853,00.html
on July 11, 2001.
3 Senator Carl Levin, remarks at the National Missile Defense Symposium, CATO Institute, the Council for a Livable World Education Fund and the National Defense University Foundation, Washington, D.C., June 27, 2000, downloaded from on July 11, 2001.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.