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  • James Houser

December 7, 1941 - The Attack on Pearl Harbor

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 7, 1941. You probably already hear Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice in your head reading that. Today is a day which will live in infamy: the day the Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor and drew the United States into World War II. Since we all know why this is important and sorta know what happened, my focus will be a bit different. Let’s take a big step back from the details, and look at the Pacific War from a bird’s-eye view.

My post today will be driven by three questions. First, why did Japan and the United States, two countries basically on the opposite side of the world, come to blows? Second, why did Japan think they could win against the enormous power of the United States? Third, why did Japan lose? These aren’t all questions with obvious answers, even the last one, and we are going to take our time with each. The Pacific War wasn’t inevitable and its outcome wasn’t predetermined. I take the view that nothing is “inevitable” in history, since there are a thousand occasions where peoples or nations or individuals have beaten the odds. So we’re going to talk about Pearl Harbor a bit today, but mainly use it as a jumping-off point to explain the causes and outcome of World War II in the Pacific.

The Empire of Japan was one of the surprise powers of the 20th Century. A space alien visiting Earth in, say, 1850 might take a look from his spaceship and ask which of the world’s nations would be a great power in 50 years. America, with its huge territory, vast resources, and booming population, seemed obvious. Russia, too, for much the same reasons. Britain was small, but it had the mightiest navy on the globe and controlled much of the world. France was battle-tested and had always been a powerful military force. Germany wasn’t unified, but it was clear that that was a possibility in the near future, and as a unified country it would clearly be very strong. China, if it ever broke out of its technological and political stagnancy, had the power to overwhelm almost anyone.

But Japan? No omniscient alien would have bet on Japan. Japan was four isolated, mountainous islands off the Asian coast, with few resources and a small population. It was far behind in science, technology, and governance, still ruled by a near-feudal system of rule. Its government officials were more concerned with the alignment of their rock gardens than with steam power or factories. That all changed in 1853, when American Commodore Matthew C. Perry forced Japan open to foreign trade and influence. This was a form of shock therapy that sent the Japanese government into a series of revolutions and reforms that, within 50 years, would turn Japan into a leading power – the only Asian power the racist Europeans and Americans ever really respected and feared.

Japan rose to this prominence through sheer force of will and determination. They saw the entire rest of the non-Western world being conquered and imperialized by the Europeans and Americans, and were committed to preventing this from happening to them. Japan modernized so quickly and so efficiently that Western observers were shocked. They were even more shocked when Japan defeated not only China in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, but even defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Russia, mighty and massive Russia, one of Europe’s most feared and powerful states, had somehow been beaten by the Japanese. On land in northeastern China, and on the seas at the Battle of Tsushima, the Russians had been utterly humiliated and forced to give up much of their influence in East Asia.

The Japanese were rising fast, almost like a rocket, but already they were stepping on American toes. The American conquest of the Philippines from Spain in 1898 had made the United States a major power in the Pacific for the first time, and soon American interests stretched into China and Southeast Asia. It was President Theodore Roosevelt that had negotiated the peace treaty in the Russo-Japanese War, an act that would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize – and the lasting enmity of the Japanese, who believed that Teddy had sided against them in the negotiations. This would not be the first or last time that the Japanese believed America stood in the way of their expansion.

And Japan wanted to expand. Japan is often labeled as one of the “fascist” powers of World War II, but even though their governmental system had a lot in common with fascism, it wasn’t. There’s really not a good word for it, at least not in English. The Japanese government on the surface was much like the British: a monarch at the center, a Parliament, various ministries and offices. But appearances are deceiving. The Japanese system of government in the early 20th Century was a very intricate and largely unwritten labyrinth of power. The Emperor, ostensibly the supreme warlord of Japan, was deified and nearly worshipped – but it is almost impossible to tell how much power he really had. The real power in Japan by the 1920s and 1930s were the officers of the Army, and even they had a constantly rotating roster of power. There was no “great leader” in Japan to rival Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin; the only person who could have been that figure was the Emperor, but he either didn’t have the power or concealed it so well that history has not recorded it. Japanese politics was, and is, an enigma.

Where Japan did resemble fascism was in its ideology, which also has no name; the best we can do is a vague “militarism.” Members of this ideology believed that the Japanese were a divine race whose mission was to conquer Asia and cleanse it of the barbarians (i.e. whites). This belief in divinity and racial superiority was different from Naziism in its religious and spiritual element, which the Nazis never really possessed. Much like Naziism or Italian fascism, the Japanese militarist ideology was not conservative or even reactionary, but revolutionary. Throughout the 1930s, the Army and Navy launched a series of assassinations and miniature coups that terrified the allegedly democratic Japanese government into catering to their whims. It was the Japanese Army that led the government by the nose into war with China in 1937: a war the politicians in Japan did not want, but a war they were powerless to prevent.

The war with China happened for another reason that revealed the fascist-like ideology of the Japanese state. Japanese militarists viewed the war for resources as a mission of supreme importance. Resource-poor Japan, to be secure and safe from the western barbarians, would have to conquer lands that held the things they needed: oil, food, iron ore, and rubber. Resource insecurity was one of the secret driving forces of fascism in the 1930s, and when one realizes that they see it everywhere, especially in Hitler’s desire for lebensraum and Mussolini’s plans for reviving the Roman Empire. For Japan, their continual insecurity and inferiority complex against the Western Powers drove this insatiable need for resources, and this would eventually propel them into war against the United States.

When countries go to war for resources, it always has the potential to be self-defeating; war consumes resources, after all. As Japan invaded China, they slowly came to a halt in 1938 and 1939, mainly due to this very lack of resources. For all their military might and tactical ability, the Japanese simply did not have enough steel, oil or rubber to fully mechanize and industrialize their army. China was resisting more fiercely than expected, with both Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists refusing to submit, and the Japanese Army was proving insufficient to the task. Worse yet, in 1939 the Japanese and Soviets clashed along the far northern border of China, and the Japanese clearly came off worse.

Finally, the United States had taken a decidedly dim view of the Japanese intervention in China. For various reasons that ranged from the religious to the political, the American public had a long-term love affair with the Chinese culture and people in the early 20th Century. Many American missionaries, statesmen and advisors had flocked to China and saw it almost as a “little brother” – kind of funny since China was literally older than human settlement in the Americas. Either way, American public opinion was enraged by the Japanese invasion, and the Rape of Nanking only made matters worse. The American press luridly recounted Japanese war crimes, deepening public hatred and suspicion of Japan.

Despite American pressure, Japan refused to withdraw from China. They finally crossed the line, though, in 1940. After France had fallen to Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Japan seized the opportunity to occupy French Indochina (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), which was a prime source of rubber and other rare materials. This greatly alarmed the United States, especially the armed forces, since now Japan had naval and air bases within easy striking distance of the Philippines. After Japan refused to withdraw from Indochina, President Roosevelt, along with the British and Dutch, organized an embargo of oil and metals to Japan in July 1941. This move was meant to place pressure on the Japanese to withdraw from China and French Indochina.

The actual effect of the embargo, though, was to drive Japan toward war. The Japanese militarists viewed the embargo as an act of aggression. Japan imported 80% of its oil consumption, and depended on imports for many other resources; the embargo was not just effective, but within a few months it would cripple the country. But the Japanese generals and admirals could not back down, both out of fear of popular uprisings at home and from a belief that backing down would mean a total collapse of Japanese power. The choice was clear: accede to the embargo, and accept second-rank status to the West, or go to war and take the resources for themselves. In May 1941, the Japanese began to prepare for war with the Western Powers.

Most of the resources Japan sought were in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), especially its large oil reserves. The rubber of British-held Malaya and Burma were also of critical importance. The United States, contrary to popular belief, was not Japan’s primary TARGET in World War II, but was still clearly its most dangerous enemy. The Japanese could not attack the British and Dutch possessions in the Pacific without America intervening, so they were forced to include the United States in their war plans. The challenge was plain: seize almost all of the South Pacific islands and Southeast Asia, and somehow cripple the two greatest naval powers in the world.

So now we have learned WHY Japan went to war. A combination of religious and fascist ideology, along with anti-Western sentiment and imperial ambitions, led Japan on a path of conquest and subjugation across Asia. Resource insecurity and the demands of their war forced them into conflict with the Western Powers, especially after the embargo, since only by capturing these resource-rich areas could Japan continue their campaigns of conquest. But why did they think they could win?

Ideology explains part of this assurance in victory. The Japanese believed they were under the protection of quasi-religious forces. Ever since the Mongol invasions of the 1200s had been destroyed by freakishly coincidental storms, the Japanese had believed their islands to be divinely protected, even calling these storms the “divine wind” – aka “kamikaze.” On a more practical level, the Japanese military promoted the notions of will and morale to an almost absurd degree, with a noticeable result: Japanese soldiers almost never surrendered or retreated. The Japanese believed they had won their previous victories over their rivals not through industrial strength or technology, but through the superior willpower and courage of their fighting men. The Japanese soldier, pilot and seaman was just BETTER than his barbarian enemies, and that was why they would win.

To a degree, this sentiment seemed to be backed up by history. In the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese had started their attack on Russian forces by launching a surprise naval strike on the enemy fleet at Port Arthur. In almost all the land battles, inferior numbers of Japanese troops had been victorious over the larger Russian armies, even though they suffered shocking casualties. The Japanese had continued to punch above their weight throughout the 1930s against China, routinely defeating much larger Chinese forces with minimal losses. The Japanese military explicitly equated the United States with Russia, essentially saying that just like the Russians, America only looked strong. Their industrial strength and economy could not overcome the vast superiority of the Japanese fighting spirit.

One man who disagreed was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of Japan’s Combined Fleet. Yamamoto, who had spent much time in America, opposed the plans for war. He may or may not have said his line about “awakening a sleeping giant,” but he probably did tell Japan’s war chiefs that if they fought the United States, "I can run wild for six months ... after that, I have no expectation of success". Yamamoto believed that the Japanese high command underestimated not just American industry and resources, but also its fighting ability; instead of really hurting America, they would just piss it off.

If, Yamamoto said – if – Japan really had to fight the United States, then it needed to deliver as strong a knockout blow as possible, as early as possible. If the United States had time to prepare for war, Japan was screwed, plain and simple. But if the Japanese could get in the first blow when the Americans didn’t expect it – if, say, they hit their main naval base in the Pacific with a dramatic surprise attack – then the result might not only be the destruction of the American Pacific Fleet, but such a massive morale shock that America would be on the back foot for the rest of the war.

Japan had just the weapon for such a strike: the Kido Butai, or “mobile force,” Japan’s aircraft carrier fleet. The aircraft carrier was naval warfare’s newest weapon, a mobile airfield that extended the limits of air power across the open sea. The Japanese, man-for-man, had the best carrier pilots in the world in 1941; they were the elite men of the Japanese Navy.

Yamamoto planned to use the Kido Butai to cripple the main American naval base at Pearl Harbor, basically knocking America’s legs out from under it while the Japanese conquered the rest of the Pacific. It would take months for the United States to recover from a successful strike, and that would give Yamamoto the “six months” he had promised, and maybe more. It might just be enough to shock the Americans into accepting a compromise peace. Britain had its hands full with Germany, and the Dutch were barely a factor. It was America the Japanese had to defeat, and if they were going to go to war with America, Yamamoto said, this was their best chance.

Though the Japanese high command considered the plan too risky, Yamamoto was immovable, and they finally agreed to the strike. We all know what happened on December 7, 1941. The Kido Butai moved, undetected, to within striking distance of Hawaii and caught the United States Navy completely unprepared for the trauma of a sudden strike. They hit Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time. The elite Japanese pilots destroyed 188 aircraft on the ground, sunk four battleships and damaged four more, and killed over 2,300 American servicemen. Critically, though, they failed to destroy much of the base’s infrastructure, including the dry docks, power stations and fuel reserves – which could have set the American war effort back two years. Worse still, three American aircraft carriers that were supposed to be at Pearl Harbor were absent and out on maneuvers. Had they been caught in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, there’s no telling what the knock-on results would have been down the road.

But Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only Japanese target on December 7. Far to the west, where it was already December 8, the Japanese military had struck all across Southeast Asia. Japanese planes had hit British-occupied Malaya and the major port of Singapore. They had plastered MacArthur’s air force in the Philippines. Japanese troops had begun the storming of Hong Kong, and had crossed the border into British Malaya. Pearl Harbor was only a blocking move to keep the Americans from launching a counterattack; Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, with their critical resources, were the real targets of the Japanese attack.

Though Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared war on Japan while excoriating the surprise attack, calling it “a date which shall live in infamy,” the Japanese were on the march. They seemed almost unstoppable. Yamamoto got his six months, as the Japanese overran Malaya, the East Indies, and the Philippines. Allied forces experienced defeat after defeat at the hands of the elite Japanese naval and ground forces, in some cases humiliating and crippling defeats, like the surrender of Singapore in February 1942 or of the Philippines in May 1942. Within six months, the Japanese had conquered a vast ring of Pacific territories, stretching from the borders of India to the west and the central Pacific to the east. The war plan had worked, and worked beyond Japan’s wildest dreams. It seemed like all their hopes and fantasies were justified. The British and Dutch had been humiliated, and the Americans had proved not to be so tough after all. On June 1, 1942, Japan was winning World War II by every metric. Now if they could just keep this momentum going…

But they couldn’t. And that gets to our third question. Why DID Japan lose?

The main reason was that they simply underestimated the will and ability of the United States to fight. Japan had gotten extremely lucky in 1904, when they faced off against Russia. Russia, for all its huge land area and vaunted reputation, was actually much weaker than it appeared, with incompetent generals and unmotivated soldiers and outdated weapons. By defeating Russia, Japan had gained an overinflated opinion of the fighting ability of its servicemen. The racism Japan had towards Westerners, along with past experiences, caused them to underrate the threat and assume the Americans would fold like the cowards that Japan believed them to be. Much like racial dogma had persuaded Hitler the Russians would be a pushover, so too did racial dogma persuade the Japanese that they could defeat the Americans.

To be fair, if the United States HAD decided to give up and make peace in June 1942, Japan would have won the war. But they didn’t, and they wouldn’t, because Americans were not intimidated or demoralized by Japanese victories; they were just pissed off. Besides badly miscalculating the American mood, though, the Japanese had underestimated the impact of American industrial and economic power as well as the importance of their “superior” fighting men. Japanese contempt of firepower and military realities would cause them to suffer exorbitant casualties in every land battle of the Pacific War, and the elite carrier pilots couldn’t be elite if they were dead.

American pilots, planes and ships were inferior to the Japanese at the beginning of the war, but the United States had a manpower advantage and an industrial advantage on their side that Japan did not. The Japanese Kido Butai that had struck Pearl Harbor was a sharp sword, but a brittle one; once it was broken, there was no replacement. When it was broken at Midway on June 6, the Japanese lost their ability to attack – but they would have lost that ability anyway due to attrition. The Japanese Navy continued to be whittled down throughout the naval battles around Guadalcanal. Even though they often inflicted higher casualties on the Americans, the United States could make these losses good, and the Japanese could not. And the Americans were learning.

The magnitude of the mismatch between America versus Japan was frightening. Not only did the United States have twice the population of Japan, but it had seventeen times the national income, five times more steel and seven times more coal production, and eighty times more automobile production, and this was before the war. When America went into overdrive after Pearl Harbor, further hidden advantages revealed themselves. American industrial automation and managerial practices were the best in the world, and American women were committed to the war effort, an advantage that the Axis never really countered. The United States churned out not only endless quantities of equipment and vehicles, but BETTER ones. The Japanese Zero had been the best carrier fighter in the world in 1941; by 1944, the United States F6F Hellcat had taken that role, while Japan was still using the same old Zero. Japan did not have the industrial power to replace its losses OR innovate new products. America did.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States would build 141 aircraft carriers, 10 battleships, 48 cruisers, and 348 destroyers; the Japanese would build only 17, 2, 9, and 63 of each. The United States Navy in 1945 was larger than every other navy on earth combined. And these ship models were increasingly better than the Japanese fleet. The United States built more transport ships in the first third of 1943 than Japan built in all seven years of World War II. Even if the Japanese had somehow won the Battle of Midway, this would have delayed American dominance, not halted it.

In short, there was no way Japan could defeat the industrial power of America no matter what they did. The only hope the Japanese had was to knock America out in the early months of the war and force a peace. For all that, the Japanese did the best they could; Pearl Harbor was almost perfect, and the Japanese military performed brilliantly in the first six months of the war. But when those six months wore out, as Yamamoto had warned, reality began to set in. Japan had underestimated American will and commitment. Their ideology had blinded them to the realities of modern warfare, had allowed them to believe that a motivated man could triumph over an equally motivated man, but with the power of industry behind him. It was never a foregone conclusion that Japan would lose World War II, but as long as America maintained the will to win, it was as close to inevitable as anything could be.

So hopefully now we all know what led to Pearl Harbor, and why – even though it was a great tragedy – it didn’t change much, and in fact really couldn’t change much. The Japanese could have killed every person in Hawaii, sunk the islands to the bottom of the ocean, and as long as America decided it wanted to win the war it still would. Goes to show that ideology, racism and underestimating your enemy can be fatal mistakes. (A lesson Americans would do well to remember.)

But we can all agree, I think, that Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” film is almost a worse crime against humanity than the actual Pearl Harbor attack. Ben Affleck would agree.

Book Recommendation: The best work on Pearl Harbor is Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981).

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