Dec. 2, 1941, came and went pretty much as usual for bad guys and baseball in New York City. Mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was sentenced to death for ordering the shooting of a garment trucker. Future Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mel Ott was named New York Giants player-manager. With mobsters put away and spring training months away, surely Americans could afford a long winter’s nap.

However, that same day, Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Navy ordered his fleet on its stealth approach toward Hawaii. Their attack commenced at 7:53 Sunday morning, Dec. 7, while sailors rested in their bunks. “Why were we caught napping at Pearl Harbor?” Military history writer James A. Warren argues: “The simple truth is that we did not believe it could happen.”

In 1940, Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy published his thesis, Why England Slept, explaining: England did not anticipate Hitler’s huge deceptions as he rearmed Germany.

Two decades later, President Kennedy’s eloquent inaugural address advocated realistic peace with adversaries through strength: “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” Despite his realism, Kennedy was simply shocked when at breakfast Oct. 16, 1962, he was served news that Soviet nuclear missiles sites were being constructed in Cuba. No mortal could predict whether Kennedy’s naval blockade of Cuba would trigger a nuclear war. But, President Kennedy said, “The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”

The 1942 film, Casablanca challenges Americans to wisely wake up while there is time. The story opens on Dec. 2, 1941. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick Blaine, owner of Café Americain. After closing time, Rick drowns his sorrows, hoping sweetheart Ilsa will return. In a moment of moral clarity, he asks Sam a rhetorical question: “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?  I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.”

As time goes by, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Gary Altman


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