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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.