Attack on Pearl Harbor
Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
7 December 1941
author Paul Boșcu, December 2018
The attack at Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike made by the forces of the Japanese Empire against the American base at Pearl Harbor. The attack marked the entry of the US in World War Two.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise offensive carried out by the Japanese Imperial Air Force against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese attack was intended to be a preventive action against the US Pacific Fleet, to keep it from interfering with the Japanese plans of conquest for South-East Asia. The attack was a shock to American public opinion and led to the US entering the Second World War against Japan and Germany.

There are still those who consider that Admiral Husband Kimmel and the Army commander in Hawaii, Lieutenant-General Walter C. Short, who were both dismissed soon after the attack, were made political scapegoats to protect the Administration, but in fact they were both culpably negligent and complacent. That said, the attack on Pearl Harbor was minutely and brilliantly planned.

The nakedness of America’s Pacific bases continues to puzzle posterity. The thesis advanced by extreme conspiracists, that President Roosevelt chose to permit Pearl Harbor to be surprised, is rejected as absurd by all serious historians. It remains nonetheless extraordinary that his government and chiefs of staff failed to ensure that Hawaii, as well as other bases closer to Japan, was on a full precautionary footing.

Having devastated the battleships of the US Pacific Fleet, the Japanese then fulfilled their longstanding ambition to seize the American dependency of the Philippines, together with the vast natural resources of the Dutch East Indies – modern Indonesia – together with British Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma. Within the space of five months, against feeble resistance, they created an empire. Even though this would prove the most short-lived in history, for a season Japan gained dominance over vast expanses of the Asian landmass and Pacific seascape.

Japan had been fighting a vicious war of aggression against China since 1937. The Roosevelt Administration was understandably concerned that she was attempting to dominate the Far East by force. So America and Britain froze Japanese assets in protest at the extension southwards of the occupation of French Indo-China. Days after freezing the assets, the Administration revoked US export licences for petroleum products, effectively placing an oil embargo on Japan, which at that time bought 75 percent of her oil from the United States. This had the effect of making Japan seek alternative energy supplies and look to the colonial empires of South-East Asia, especially the oil-rich Burma and Netherlands East Indies.

The Japanese government decided to ally itself with Germany. Now was the time to move in an alignment with Germany to seize all of Southeast Asia, quite possibly adding Burma and India and the islands of the South Pacific. If that meant war with the United States, so be it.

US president Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed that Japan would respond rationally to such external stimuli, both positive and negative, whereas in fact her military-dominated, extreme nationalist Establishment and Government were fiercely proud and sensitive and far from logical, and ignored FDR.

After imposing sanctions, the United States adopted a classic carrot-and-stick approach towards Japan: the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, spent more than a hundred hours negotiating with Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura at the State Department, while Roosevelt himself warned publicly in August that further Japanese attempts at Asian hegemony would lead America to take active measures to safeguard her interests in the region.

The Roosevelt Administration – and Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs Dean Acheson in particular – dangerously underestimated the pride of Showa Dynasty Japan, which mistook these attempted acts of deterrence as unacceptable provocations. Despite the example of over ten years’ campaigning in China, Japan was not taken seriously enough by American policy-makers. Nor was this overconfidence confined to Americans: in April 1941 the Chief of the British Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, told the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that he rated the Japanese Air Force as ‘below the Italian one’.

All through 1940 and 1941 the Roosevelt administration tried to find ways to hold off Japan while the United States rearmed itself, aided Britain and, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, aided the latter.

Hopes for peace faded perceptibly in October when General Hideki Tojo came to power in Tokyo, heading a militarist government supported by the Chiefs of the Army and Naval Staffs. Within three weeks the Imperial General Headquarters had finalized plans to attack Pearl Harbor and to invade the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, Burma and the Western Pacific, setting up a perimeter around what it privately called its Southern Resources Area and which was to be publicly dubbed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The second phase of operations would be to protect this area from Allied counterattack, by making such assaults too costly. The third phase would involve attacking the Allies’ long lines of communication until they were forced to accept the concept of a Japanese-dominated Far East in perpetuity. There were also advocates of a strategy that involved invading and subjugating Australia, and another to assault India and link up with Germany in the Middle East.

The creation of the Southern Resources Area was part of a plan to seize raw materials that was no less ambitious than Adolf Hitler’s plan for Lebensraum – Germany’s vital space – and it similarly depended upon a quick, Blitzkrieg-style victory, starting with a surprise attack that would neutralize the US Pacific Fleet. It was risky, of course, and was nearly ditched by the Naval Staff in August 1941, but in heated arguments Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet – who was against going to war – threatened to resign unless Pearl Harbor were attacked, insisting that the plan was Japan’s best chance for victory.

The plan had severe flaws. The shallow harbor on Oahu meant that the American ships would be grounded rather than sunk, as they would have been in open water, and therefore might eventually be refloated. Nor would a surprise attack allow for an eventual American acceptance of Japanese conquests elsewhere; as one of the planners, Rear-Admiral Onishi Takijiro, pointed out, American pride was such that there could never be a compromise settlement if Japan attacked without a declaration of war. The precedents of the sinking of the Maine in 1898 and Lusitania in 1915 should have been enough to underline that.

Radio messages were sent to the ‘phantom’ fleet as if it was stationed in Japanese home waters in the Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku islands, knowing that Allied transmitters would be monitoring the frequency of signal. The luxury liner Tatsuta Maru set out on a twelve-day journey to San Francisco, albeit with orders to turn around and return to Yokohama at midnight on the night before the attack.

The plan provided for a first wave of aircraft to attack the ships and planes at Pearl Harbor from the west at 07.55 hours, a second wave from the east at 08.45 with the same targets, and then, as the Americans were reeling from the destruction of their fleet and air force, a third wave would destroy the massive oil installations and ship-repairing facilities on the island, effectively wiping Pearl Harbor off the map as a functioning naval base and forcing the fleet back to California for the foreseeable future.

Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo sailed east from the Kurile island of Etorofu on board his flagship Akagi. His First Air Fleet consisted of six aircraft carriers, two cruisers, two battleships and a destroyer screen and eight support vessels. It sailed inside a moving weather front, which served to disguise it, and maintained strict radio silence throughout the voyage. Refuelling was achieved despite heavy seas, and sailing north of the normal trade routes ensured that the large flotilla was not spotted.

When Nagumo’s fleet reached a point 275 miles north of Oahu, the detailed operation masterminded by Commander Minoru Genda, the planner on board Akagi, was put into action. Torpedoes with specially adapted fins were developed which could be dropped by bombers into shallow water, as well as newly invented armor-piercing shells dropped as bombs. Because Pearl Harbor was not deep, no torpedo nets had been placed in front of the ships for protection.

In the basic sense, the plan ran counter to Japan's overall strategy for the war. If surprise were attained, it was more likely to arouse the United States to fight a long war than break morale and enable Japan to secure American agreement to a new situation in East Asia. At one of the key planning meetings, Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro pointed out that while a war which began with an attack in the south might be ended in a compromise, an attack on Pearl Harbor would destroy any hope for a compromise settlement.

The project assumed that there was a threat to the flank of the Japanese advance south which needed to be dealt with by either the old or the new strategy, when in reality there was no such threat. The Japanese had simple ways of knowing it: the fleet in Pearl Harbor did not have the tankers and other supply ships it would need for an attack across the Pacific; something the excellent Japanese spy network operating out of the consulate in Honolulu knew perfectly well. The knowledge of this by the Americans in Pearl Harbor contributed to their discounting the risk of a Japanese attack.

Since Yamamoto's idea involved an attack in a shallow port on a Sunday, it had two implications that were easily predictable and closely related to the rebuilding of the American navy in any longer war. In the shallow harbor the ships would be grounded, not sunk, and could therefore most likely be raised and eventually repaired and returned to service. The Japanese knew of the shallow water and especially altered their aerial torpedoes to run at minimal depth. In addition, most of the American crew members were likely to survive, either being on shore leave at the time of the raid or rescued as the ships were grounded in port.

In both of these respects, any action in open seas, as anticipated by the earlier plan, would have had very different results. Neither strategic nor practical considerations, however, held back Yamamoto, who thought only of tactical success. In the Pearl Harbor planning, some thought was given to a landing to seize the islands but it was ruled out; landing forces were needed for the southern push.

The opposing naval forces in the Pacific theater in December 1941 were so closely balanced except in one area – aircraft carriers – that if the Japanese had succeeded totally at Pearl Harbor they might indeed have bought enough time to consolidate the Southern Resources Area and make it vastly more difficult for America to bring her much larger resources to bear. American naval planners had balanced everything perfectly in the Pacific, with the vital exception that Japan had eleven aircraft carriers against the Americans’ three. If the Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga had been in port at Pearl Harbor, the history of the Second World War might have been very different indeed.

The Japanese had eleven battleships and battlecruisers against the Allies’ eleven; eighteen heavy (that is, 8-inch-gun) cruisers against the Allies’ thirteen; twenty-three light (6-inch-gun) cruisers against twenty-one; 129 destroyers against 100; and sixty-seven submarines against sixty-nine.

Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, had sent the American carriers westwards, with additional fighters on board, to support Midway and Wake Islands in the event of hostilities breaking out. It was one of the only correct decisions he had made in the whole sorry affair, but it was the crucial one. Kimmel had every reason to suppose that war was indeed about to break out, though few reasons to suppose that Pearl Harbor would be the first target.

Although the American Army Signal Corps had broken the Japanese Government cipher – codenamed Purple – in the 1930s, by a process codenamed Magic (the equivalent of the British Ultra), it was of no help. Nagumo’s fleet sent out no messages, so there was no indication of where it was. Even before Ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu requested a special audience with Hull timed for the exact moment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans knew from intercepts that they were going to break off negotiations, but since the message from Tokyo mentioned neither war nor Pearl Harbor, Washington was none the wiser.

The US Administration’s expectation was that the blow would initially fall on British and Dutch possessions in South-East Asia, and possibly the American-controlled Philippines. Nothing from the cryptologists could have prepared them for what was about to happen.

It was a conspicuous feature of the war that again and again, dramatic changes of circumstance unmanned the victims of assault. The British and French in May 1940, the Russians in June 1941, even the Germans in Normandy in June 1944, had every reason to anticipate enemy action, yet responded inadequately when this came. Senior commanders found it hard to adjust their mindset and behavior to the din of battle until this was thrust upon them, until bombardment became a reality rather than a mere prospect.

The day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chief of Staff of the Combined fleet, Rear Admiral Ugaki Matome, wrote in his diary: ‘When we concluded the Tripartite Alliance and moved into Indochina, we had already burned the bridges behind us in our march toward the anticipated war with the United States and Great Britain.’ Having established the need for a big navy by pointing to the United States as the enemy to fight, the Japanese navy could hardly say it was unable to fight. It had pushed for war, and itself set the framework for starting it.

The attack on Pearl Harbor happened early in the morning. As such, the Americans were taken by surprise, as it took a while for them to realize what was happening and to mount a coherent defence. The first American ship to fire was the USS Ward, who then reported the incident, but the base was not put on alert. With virtually no American aircraft to oppose them, the first wave of Japanese planes achieved a devastating effect on the enemy fleet. The Japanese sent back the prearranged victory signal almost as soon as they had attacked: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!)

At 06.45 hours on Sunday, 7 December 1941, the eagle-eyed Lieutenant William Outerbridge of the destroyer USS Ward spotted what he thought was the tiny conning tower of a midget submarine making its way at about 8 knots towards the mouth of Pearl Harbor. Ward immediately fired her 4-inch guns at the submarine, laid a pattern of depth charges and then reported the incident to shore headquarters. The news ought to have put the base on to full alert, but nothing happened.

Soon after the USS Ward started firing, Privates Joseph Lockard and George Elliott, the operators of a mobile radar unit stationed at Kahuku Point on the northern tip of Oahu, reported to their officer at headquarters, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, that a large number of aircraft had appeared on their screens, headed straight for Pearl Harbor. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ replied Tyler, assuming them to be a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers due in from California later that morning.

Privates Lockard and Elliott had seen a force of forty-nine Japanese bombers, forty torpedo bombers, fifty-one dive-bombers and forty-three fighters, led by Lieutenant-Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, a pilot who could already boast more than 3,000 hours’ combat flying time. Fuchida had been personally chosen by Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the commander of Japan’s First Air Fleet, to lead this attack. As his squadron of 183 warplanes reached the northern coast of Oahu, the clouds parted, which both men were to take as an unmistakable sign of divine approval for what was about to happen.

The first wave reached Oahu undetected because Kimmel had chosen to concentrate aerial reconnaissance on the 2,000 miles of the south-western sector, facing the Japanese Marshall Islands, rather than on the northern approaches. There were only three American patrol aircraft aloft that morning, and none covering the north. By 10.00 it was all over. Of the eight American battleships in port, three were sunk (that is, grounded), one – Oklahoma – capsized, and the others were more or less seriously damaged. The American death toll amounted to 2,403 servicemen and civilians killed and 1,178 wounded. The Japanese lost only twenty-nine planes and a hundred lives, but all five midget submarines, only one of which made it inside the harbor, were sunk.

The Japanese Kate bombers and their Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen fighters (Zeros) found seven American battleships moored in a row alongside Ford Island in the harbor and an eighth – the Pennsylvania – in dry dock. For fear of sabotage, the USAAF planes had been packed close together, which made them easier to guard. It also made it hard for the well-trained, veteran Japanese bomber pilots to miss. The anti-aircraft batteries had no ready ammunition, and the keys to the boxes were held by the duty officer. Only one-quarter of the Navy’s machine guns were manned, and none of the main 5-inch batteries was. It was a Sunday morning, after all.

Attacking in two waves, the Japanese planes, which arrived undetected, dropped bombs and torpedoes which blew up the battleship Arizona and grounded seven others, sank or damaged ten other ships, and destroyed or damaged most of the army's planes on the ground. The Japanese lost several small submarines and a few planes.

Except to the hardened professionals around Admiral Nagumo who knew the raid’s shortcomings, Pearl Harbor ranked with the greatest of Japanese military victories, made all the sweeter since it came at the expense of the feared and despised US Navy. At a cost of 29 aircraft (19 lost in the second wave), the Sea Eagles had eliminated the Pacific Fleet as an immediate threat to all forces deploying to seize Malaya, the Philippines, and several lesser objectives.

When Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, who led the first strike, urged a third strike, Nagumo rejected the plan. The Americans had two carrier task forces – Enterprise and Lexington – somewhere to the south, and the surviving cruisers and destroyers at Pearl might sortie to join them. Nagumo had no cause to worry on this score since the senior American admirals at Oahu had decided that they now faced an invasion, a threat largely imagined by traumatized senior army officers, who had lost most of their aircraft. Nagumo also had no confidence that the Japanese submarine force would assist him; indeed, his assessment proved accurate, since the Americans had already sunk one large submarine and five mini subs that were supposed to penetrate Pearl Harbor.

Nagumo’s critics within his own ranks thought he should have sent a third attack against the fuel farms and installations that supported the Pacific Fleet, but these targets, with the exception of the large dry docks, could easily be replaced and refilled. The immediate goal – to shock the US Navy into temporary inaction – had been accomplished.

Within minutes of the first bombs falling on its battleships, the Pacific Fleet headquarters and its aviation headquarters sent radio messages to its units, other stations in the Pacific, and (via San Francisco) to the Navy Department in Washington: ‘Air Raid, Pearl Harbor – This Is No Drill.’ Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox recoiled in amazement, thinking the message must mean the Philippines. Lunching with trusted aid Harry Hopkins in the Oval Office, Roosevelt heard the news from Knox and had the same reaction. He told Hopkins he could no longer control events, since Congress would no doubt declare war on Japan immediately.

President Roosevelt hoped he could keep his agreement with Prime Minister Churchill to fight Germany first, but he had already bowed to political pressure to reinforce the Philippines, against the counsel of his military advisers. He called the Chinese ambassador with the news but warned him not to encourage too much rejoicing in his fellow compatriots.

By mid-afternoon Roosevelt had an early report from Pearl Harbor about the extent of the damage, which was serious but not irreparable; he did not release the losses to the press. He then authorized unrestricted air and submarine warfare against the Japanese Empire. He was already at work crafting his message to Congress.

What was an undoubted disaster for America could easily have been a catastrophe. Fearing a counterattack because the American aircraft carriers were not in harbor, Nagumo did not send in the third wave of bombers to destroy the very installations that the Pacific Fleet would need to reconstitute itself. It was one thing for Pearl Harbor to be effectively neutralized for six months, but complete destruction would have been quite another. Even as their men celebrated, Nagumo, Genda and Fuchida knew they had not achieved what they needed to. As it was, all the ships except two destroyers would be repaired and rejoin the Pacific Fleet.

Once Yamamoto realized that the attack on Pearl Harbor had fallen far short of his original plans he dolefully wrote in a letter: ‘A military man can scarcely pride himself on having “smitten a sleeping enemy”; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack…’

In reality, the Pearl Harbor attack proved a strategic and tactical disaster for Japan, though the Japanese did not recognize this. The ships were for the most part raised; by the end of December, two of the battleships Yamamoto had imagined sunk were on their way to the West Coast for repairs. All but the Arizona returned to service. Most of the crew members survived to man the rebuilding American navy. These tactical factors were outgrowths of the basic strategic miscalculation. The attainment of surprise guaranteed defeat, not victory, for Japan.

Pearl Harbor certainly was the perfect casus belli. Recruitment offices had to stay open throughout the night as Americans volunteered for service; trade union leaders cancelled strikes, and Congress voted 470 to 1 – the pacifist Jeannette Rankin of Montana was against – for war.

This was the opportunity for Roosevelt to rally the nation with the words: ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date that will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’ As well as the fact that ‘very many American lives have been lost,’ he reported attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines and Wake and Midway Islands. ‘No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.’ The speech to Congress was only twenty-five sentences long, but so often was he interrupted by applause that it took him ten minutes to deliver.

Immediately after the attack, all sorts of speculations sprang up about the causes for the surprise, and some found it – and still find it – expedient to invent various explanations suggesting that the government knew of or even invited the attack beforehand. Whatever the results of confusion in the administration, the key point was the unwillingness of the navy and army commanders in Hawaii to credit the Japanese with the skill and daring to pull off precisely what they had been told for years - in staff courses and field exercises - was the most likely Japanese way of starting hostilities.

In the course of 1941, the Ladies’ Home Journal had published a fascinating series of domestic profiles of Americans of all social classes, under the heading ‘How America Lives’. Until December, the threat of war scarcely impinged on the existences of those depicted. Some struggled financially, and a few acknowledged poverty, but most asserted a real satisfaction with their lot which explains their dismay, following Pearl Harbor, at beholding familiar patterns broken, dreams confounded, and families split apart.

For all the exuberant declarations of patriotism that followed the ‘Day of Infamy’, many Americans remained resentful about the need to accept even a modest share of the privations thrust upon most of the people in the rest of the world. Early in 1942, historian Arthur Schlesinger visited the mid-West on a tour of army bases for the Office of War Information: ‘We arrived in the midst of the whining about gas rationing, and it was pretty depressing. The anti-administration feeling is strong and open.’

Many suffered a lasting sense of unfairness, that the wickedness of others had invaded and ravaged their decent lives. Like hundreds of millions of Europeans before them, they began to discover the sorrow of seeing their nearest and dearest leave home to face mortal risk. Mrs Elizabeth Schlesinger wrote about the departure of her son Tom for the army: ‘I knew after Pearl Harbor that his going was inevitable. I won’t let myself think personally about it. I am only one of millions of mothers who love their sons and see them go off to war and my feelings are universal and not mine alone. I have accepted what I must face and live with for many future months and perhaps years. Tom said, “Why, I thought you would be much more upset by my going.” Little does he know the depths of what it means to me and the countless anxieties that clamor for my thoughts.’

LHJ editor Mary Carson Cookman wrote a postscript, reflecting on the profiles published earlier in the year, and the new circumstances of Americans: ‘War is changing the condition of life everywhere. But … the people of the United States are good people; they are almost surprisingly modest in their demands upon life. What they have is precious to them … What they hope to achieve, they are willing to work for – they don’t want or expect it to be given them … What we have now will do. But it ought to be better, it must be better, and it will be better.’ If this was a trite assertion of the American Dream as the nation joined hostilities, it seems nonetheless to reflect its dominant mood.

Three days later, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler declared war on the United States, even though Germany was not obliged to come to Japan’s aid under the terms of the Tripartite Pact if Japan were the aggressor. It seems an unimaginably stupid thing to have done in retrospect, a suicidally hubristic act less than six months after attacking the Soviet Union. By 1943 the number of aircraft lost at Pearl Harbor represented only two days of American production, and in the calendar year 1944, while the Germans were building 40,000 warplanes, the United States turned out 98,000, underlining Hitler’s catastrophic blunder.

America was an uninvadable land mass of gigantic productive capacity, and her intervention in 1917-18 had sealed Germany’s fate in the Great War. ‘The Navy and I had no idea that an attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor was planned,’ Admiral Erich Raeder stated at the Nuremberg trials after the war; ‘we learned of this only after the attack had been carried out.’ This was true, and hardly the way allies should treat each other, giving Hitler the perfect let-out if he had wanted one, but he did not. Instead he exulted in Japan’s ruthlessness, taking it almost as a compliment to himself on the basis of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

In his 8 December 1941 speech to Congress, Roosevelt had not mentioned Germany or Italy because he did not have the political support necessary for including Japan’s allies in the request for a declaration of war, especially when faced with the powerful America First movement and other isolationist organizations in the United States. Now, the Führer had solved Roosevelt’s problem at a stroke.

Hitler believed he was simply normalizing a state of affairs that had already been in de facto existence for many months, and in such a way that gave German U-boats the right to torpedo American warships that had been attacking them for over a year. Direct American support for Britain and the USSR could now be countered actively, even while the United States had her hands full in the Pacific.

Hitler had long considered war with America to be inevitable: he thought it better to have the prestige of instigating it and to help the Japanese by forcing on America a war on two fronts. Coming within a week of the checking of his offensive against Moscow, when Russians started taking German prisoners for the first time, it is now easy to see precisely when the seeds of Germany’s defeat were sown.

‘The entry of the United States into the war is of no consequence at all for Germany,’ Hitler had told Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov in Berlin in 1940, ‘the United States will not be a threat to us in decades – not in 1945 but at the earliest in 1970 or 1980.’ It was one of the greatest miscalculations of history.

Hitler won nothing substantial from the Japanese for his declaration of war on America. The Axis consistently failed to act as close allies during the Second World War, with dire consequences for them all. Had Japan attacked the USSR in the east simultaneously with Barbarossa, it could have forced Stalin into a potentially disastrous two-front war, and taken the rich mineral and oil reserves of Siberia. Similarly, if Japan’s attacks on eastern India and Ceylon had been coordinated with a German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq – prior to Operation Barbarossa – the British Empire could have been severely threatened in northern India.

Hitler’s great error – perhaps the second worst of his many blunders of the war next to invading Russia prematurely – was not to appreciate the potential capacity of American industrial production. Certainly Hitler’s senior advisers were well aware of the economic dangers posed by the military productive capacity of the United States even before the Führer declared war. The claims of many at Nuremberg to have tried to dissuade Hitler from declaring war on the United States are highly suspect, not least because he seems to have taken few soundings before making the announcement.

The speed with which Roosevelt put the United States economy on a war footing rivalled that with which he had installed his New Deal program after his inauguration. Authoritarian planning of the mighty American economy was policed by a sea of regulatory authorities known by their acronyms, which managed almost every area of what effectively became a state-capitalist system. If Germans and Japanese doubted the American commitment to defeat them come what may, they needed only to look at the measures adopted by the previously free-market United States. Roosevelt sent the American economy into battle, with results that the German and Japanese production figures could not hope to match.

Taxation was used to hold maximum after-tax salaries to $25,000; a freeze was introduced on commercial, farm and commodity prices, which under the Emergency Price Control Act would be fixed by the Office of Price Administration; wages and rents were similarly controlled; widespread rationing was imposed; consumer credit was mercilessly squeezed; war profiteering was aggressively combated; synthetic-rubber production was so increased that by 1945 the United States was making more of it than the entire global pre-1939 production of natural rubber.

In January 1942, Roosevelt presented a $59 billion budget to Congress, $52 billion of which was devoted to military expenditure, in the same month that the sale of new cars and passenger trucks was banned by the Office of Production Management – which is why there is no such thing as a 1942-model American motor car.

The Office of Economic Stabilization, chaired by James F. Byrnes, had immense powers which it had no hesitation in using. A flat 5 percent ‘Victory’ tax was imposed on all incomes over $12 per week, exemptions were slashed and the number of Americans required to fill in tax returns rose six-fold in one year, something that would have been politically impossible to impose under any other circumstances.

High production quotas was not a guarantee that American armaments were necessarily superior to German and Japanese. The American military historian Victor Davis Hanson has argued eloquently that this was not the case: ‘Our Wildcat front-line fighters were inferior to the Japanese Zero; obsolete Brewster F2A Buffalos were rightly known as “flying coffins”. The Douglas TBD Devastator bomber was a death-trap, its pilots essentially wiped out at the Battle of Midway trying to drop often unreliable torpedoes. American-designed Lee, Grant, and Stuart tanks – and even the much-heralded Shermans (‘Ronson Lighters’) – were intrinsically inferior to most contemporary German models, which had a far better armor and armament. With the exception of the superb M-1 rifle, it is hard to rank any American weapons system as comparable to those used by the Wehrmacht, at least until 1944-45. We never developed guns quite comparable to the fast firing, lethal German .88 artillery platform. Our anti-tank weapons of all calibers remained substandard. Most of our machine guns and mortars were reliable – but of World War I vintage.’ Yet the sheer quantity of weapons being produced by America outstripped anything the Axis could match.

The US chiefs of staff recognised that Germany represented by far the more dangerous menace. The Japanese, for all their impressive front-line military and naval capability, could not threaten the American or British homelands. Of the white Anglo-Saxon nations, only Australia lay within plausible reach of Tokyo’s forces, which prompted intense bitterness among Australian politicians about Britain’s unwillingness to dispatch substantial forces to its defense.

Although it was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that brought an Anglo-American military alliance into being, with Winston Churchill making good his promise to declare war on Japan ‘within the hour’ of a Japanese attack, Hitler’s declaration of war meant that the Western alliance would have teeth. A great deal had already been agreed in secret Staff conversations in Washington about the eventuality of war. The scene was now set for closer and more direct conversations between Roosevelt and Churchill in that city before the year was out.

There was nothing inevitable about the wartime alliance between America and Britain; the Axis brought it into being. There had been much rivalry between Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the Anglo-American alliance after 1941 was to be by far the closest of any of the collaborations between the major powers in the war.

In his memoirs published in 1950, Churchill was forthright about his emotions when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor: ‘No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!… Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.’

The Roosevelt Administration began to intern virtually the entire Japanese-American community of the United States, a panic measure for which subsequent Administrations have apologized and paid compensation. This act needs to be seen in its proper historical context. Although 69 percent of the 100,500 Japanese who were interned were US citizens, that still leaves 31 percent who were not. With the level of danger posed by Imperial Japan in the spring of 1942, when their forces were spreading over vast areas of the Pacific and Far East, no country at that time would have allowed so many non-citizens of the same ethnic background as the prospective invader to reside in the precise areas – Hawaii and California – where the next blows were (rightly or wrongly) expected to fall.

The British Government had taken similar measures against the German and Italian minorities, with similar speed and disregard of rights. The simple fact that Japanese-born citizens of Oahu had provided Tokyo, via the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu, with detailed information about the US Pacific Fleet, something that was known to American and British intelligence, was enough to put the loyalty of many thousands of innocent people under a cloud. When released from their barbed-wire desert camps, they were sent off with $25 each, the sum given to prisoners at the end of their sentences. It was not the Roosevelt Administration’s finest hour.

Although in the long term Japan had committed a terrible blunder in provoking America, in the short term her forces were able to sweep through Asia, capturing one-sixth of the surface of the planet in only six months and dealing the two-centuries-old British Empire what was effectively a lingering death blow.

An analogy with Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the USSR, is apt, because a massive surprise attack yielded huge ground initially, before other factors, such as the weather, size of population and spirit of the ordinary Red Army soldier in Russia, or the superior Allied technology and military production in the Far East, could operate to reverse the early successes. Whereas Stalin had been remiss in not reading his fellow dictator’s mind properly before Barbarossa, the Roosevelt Administration dangerously miscalculated Japanese psychology, intentions and capabilities.

Japan launched its strike against Pearl Harbor and its assault on South-East Asia just twenty-four hours after the Russians began the counter-offensive that saved Moscow. But if Japan’s emissaries had better understood the mood in Berlin, been less blinded by their admiration for the Nazis and thus capable of grasping the gravity of Germany’s predicament in the east, Tojo’s government might yet have hesitated before unleashing its whirlwind. With hindsight, Japan’s timing was lamentable: its best chance of exploiting its victims’ weakness was already past.

Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter Short, respectively navy and army commanders at Pearl Harbor, were unquestionably negligent. But their conduct reflected an institutional failure of imagination which extended up the entire US command chain to the White House, and inflicted a trauma on the American people. The assault on Pearl Harbor prompted rejoicing throughout the Axis nations. Yet American vulnerability on Hawaii was matched by a Japanese timidity: again and again, Japanese fleets fought their way to the brink of important successes, then lacked either will or means to follow through.

‘We were flabbergasted by the devastation,’ wrote a sailor aboard the carrier Enterprise, which entered Pearl Harbor late on the afternoon of 8 December, having been mercifully absent when the Japanese struck. ‘One battleship, the Nevada, was lying athwart the narrow entrance channel, beached bow first, allowing barely enough room for the carrier to squeeze by … The water was covered with oil, fires were burning still, ships were resting on the bottom mud, superstructures had broken and fallen. Great gaps loomed where magazines had exploded, and smoke was roiling up everywhere. For sailors who had considered these massive ships invincible, it was a sight to be seen but not comprehended … We seemed to be mourners at a spectacular funeral.’

Japanese Lt. Izumiya Tatsuro wrote exultantly of ‘the glorious news of the air attack on Hawaii’. Mussolini, with his accustomed paucity of judgement, was delighted: he thought Americans stupid, and the United States ‘a country of Negroes and Jews’, as did Hitler.

Admiral Nagumo was stunned by the success of his own aircraft in wrecking five US battleships in their Sunday-morning attacks. For many years, it was argued that he wilfully missed the opportunity to follow through with a second strike against Pearl Harbor’s oil storage tanks and repair facilities, which might have forced the Pacific Fleet to withdraw to the US west coast. Recent research shows, however, that this was not feasible. The winter day was too short to launch and recover a second strike, and in any event Japanese bomb loads were too small to plausibly wreck Pearl’s repair bases.