Are we at a hinge of history? When I heard the news about Osama bin Laden, my mind went back not just to Sept. 11, but to a couple of other dates that mark the course of global events, pregnant with promise or peril.
In 1943, the United States was engaged in heavy combat in the Pacific. The 16 months since Pearl Harbor hadn't gone as well as Americans had hoped. U.S. forces prevailed at the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal, but casualties were heavy. Japanese forces were largely intact and the leadership in Tokyo still expected to win.
The mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor was Isoroku Yamamoto. "Get Yamamoto," President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Navy Secretary Frank Knox. On April 18, 1943, a squadron of P-38s intercepted and shot down the plane carrying Yamamoto. The impact on morale in both the United States and Japan was immediate. Much heavy fighting lay ahead, but the psychological balance shifted with Yamamoto's death.
We can't know how bin Laden's death will shape the war on al-Qaida. But we just won a decisive battle.
A failed military operation had the opposite effect as Yamamoto's demise. In late 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage. With the nation riveted and the government paralyzed, President Jimmy Carter ordered a mission by Delta Force commandos to free the hostages. But a sandstorm crippled two helicopters and, after the mission was aborted, a third chopper collided with a C-130 transport, killing eight U.S. servicemen on April 24, 1980. The failed rescue became a symbol of American ineptitude and impotence.
President George W. Bush rallied the country after 9/11, but his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were long, painful slogs marred by intelligence failures, counter-productive chest thumping and the knowledge that we hadn't brought the perpetrator of 9/11 to justice.
Changing that sense of control over events required a big win like getting bin Laden. That demanded good intelligence and good planning but also good fortune. It's still too early to surmise whether Barack Obama will be a great president, but we now can be confident that he isn't Jimmy Carter.
Should al-Qaida retaliate, Americans will rally around their president as they did after 9/11. Were bin Laden still at large, even a small attack on U.S. soil would have seemed more menacing and lapses in security would have been blamed on the president. Obama now has a freer hand to de-escalate without worrying about criticism from hardliners.
Beyond politics lie the intangibles of the American spirit. The killing of bin Laden won't end the war on al-Qaida or let us keep our shoes on in the airport. The economy is still a rough place for millions, the deficit is rising, and China is gaining on us. But the old can-do competence that beat the Depression and won World War II isn't dead yet. Happier days may be here again.
Jonathan Alter, author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," is a Bloomberg News columnist. © 2011 Bloomberg News