“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt opening his “Day of Infamy” speech before a Joint Session of the 77th United States Congress
Today is December 7th. On this date, exactly 70 years ago, Imperial Japan, under the direction of Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, sent its 1st Air Fleet to attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its headquarters outside of Honolulu. The dastardly attack is universally known as the Attack on Pearl Harbor. In all, 2335 American servicemembers were killed with another 1143 wounded. The American fleet was severely paralyzed as many of its ships and aircraft were either sank, destroyed, or damaged. Up until the September 11th attacks, the event was the deadliest attack on American soil. As both a proud American and a veteran of the American armed forces, I think it’s important to remember this infamous day in history.
THE BEGINNINGS. As with most conflicts between nations of the time—and perhaps even today’s time—the Attack on Pearl Harbor started because of a territorial land dispute. Going back to the William McKinley presidential administration, the American expansion deep into the Pacific made Imperial Japan uncomfortable. In a relatively short time, the United States added Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and the Samoan Islands. Combined with the American purchase of Alaska and British expansion in the theater, there was a lot of thought from Imperial Japan that the English-speaking countries were aiming for a sphere of influence. In response, Japan led a vicious campaign to occupy a lot of real estate in East Asia to include Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the German-occupied land in the Pacific (the Northern Mariana Islands, the Caroline Islands, and the Marshall Islands), and Manchuria. They also expanded into Mainland China as they sought a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. There were some diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Japan in 1940 and 1941 but President Roosevelt took a hardline and imposed sanctions on Japan, including the ceasing of oil exports to the island nation. Japan offered to withdraw from some of their occupied lands and not to attack territories in the theater in exchange for American oil and a guarantee that the United States would not aid China, which was in the heart of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Of course, President Roosevelt rejected the Japanese overtures and, in turn, the Japanese began planning a preemptive strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet to prevent American interference in their planned campaign to take over the entirety of Southeast Asia.
THE ATTACK. By his own admission, Admiral Yamamoto intended to attack Pearl Harbor only after Imperial Japan issued a formal declaration of war against the United States. There is some controversy regarding this matter as Kichisaburō Nomura—then the Japanese Ambassador to the United States—and the Japanese Foreign Office were initially not made aware of the Combined Fleet’s impending attack on Pearl Harbor. He received notice of the suspension of negotiations with the United States on December 8—a Monday in Japan’s time zone—while most of his linguist staff were still enjoying their Sunday off in the United States as December 7, 1941 was a Sunday. He frantically tried to decode and translate the message for delivery to U.S. Secretary of State Hull but was unsuccessful before the attack commenced. The bombing started at approximately 7:48am Hawaiian Time on December 7. A total of 353 Japanese aircraft dispersed in two waves. 2403 Americans, including 68 civilians, were killed and 1178 were wounded…all except 35 of them were servicemembers. All 8 American battleships suffered damage in the attack with 4 of them being lost. Additional 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, and 347 of 390 aircraft were either destroyed or damaged. The Pacific Fleet, which was in non-combatant status, was essentially paralyzed while Imperial Japanese losses were markedly less: 5 ships and 103 aircraft destroyed or damaged, 64 killed, and the capture of Kazuo Sakamaki. There was rumor of a third wave being called off because the Japanese did not know the location of American carriers and that prompted concern over putting the Combined Fleet at risk. Many American scholars contend that a third wave would’ve wiped the Pacific Fleet off the board for two years and changed the entire course of World War II. It should also be noted that while the Japanese were attacking the Americans in Pearl Harbor, they were also attacking American territories in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island as well as British territories in Malaya and Hong Kong. When the attacks on December 7 concluded, Emperor Hirohito declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom.
THE REACTIONS. The immediate American reaction was President Roosevelt’s speech before Congress the next day. He called for Congress to declare war on Japan and they obliged. The House of Representatives voted 388-1 in favor and the Senate came in at 82-0. The United States declared war on Japan as did the United Kingdom. In retaliation, the Axis powers of Germany and Italy sided with Japan and declared war on the United States. Business, as Good Ol’ J.R. says, picked up and World War II became just that: a world war that extended into Asia and the Pacific.
IN RETROSPECT. The Attack on Pearl Harbor essentially changed the world. While the Allied nations were engaged with the Axis powers in Europe, Japan was scooping up a lot of real estate in the Far East. They were quite powerful and the sphere of influence was massive during the war. It’s quite possible that they could’ve probably taken over the world if they maintained their stronghold on the Pacific. Even after Mussolini and Hitler fell in the West and the United States conducted a vicious firebombing campaign on the Japanese mainland, they refused to quit…until President Truman authorized the nuclear option. It’s anybody’s guess really how much of the East would be in Japan’s control right now if President Roosevelt was a little bit more compromising.