Pearl Harbor and the Road to War
Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise, the United States and Japan had been edging towards war for decades. The United States was especially unhappy with Japan’s increasingly hostile attitude toward China. The Japanese government believed that the sole way to solve its demographic and economic problems was to spread into its neighbor’s territory and take over its import market; to this end, in 1937, Japan had declared war on China. American officials replied to this hostility with a series of trade embargoes and economic sanctions. They concluded that without access to goods and money, and particularly essential supplies like oil, Japan would have to restrain its expansionism. Rather, the sanctions increased the Japanese’s determination to stand their ground. During months of negotiations between Washington D.C and Tokyo, neither side would budge. It appeared that war was inevitable.
However, no one thought that the Japanese would begin that war with an attack on American soil. Firstly, it would be greatly inconvenient: Japan and Hawaii were approximately 4,000 miles apart. Secondly, American intelligence officials were confident that any attack by Japan would occur in one of the relatively close European colonies in the South Pacific, such as the Dutch East Indies, Indochina or Singapore. Due to the fact that American military leaders were unsuspecting of an attack so close to home, Pearl Harbor’s naval facilities were relatively undefended. Almost the whole Pacific fleet was moored around Ford Island in the harbor, and several airplanes were packed into adjacent airfields. Pearl Harbor was an irresistible target for the Japanese.
“A date which will live in infamy”
Japan’s plan was simple: Destroy the Pacific Fleet. That way, America would be unable to fight back as Japanese forces spread across the South Pacific. After months of planning and practice, Japan launched their attack on December 7.
At around 8am, Japan’s planes filled the skies above Pearl Harbor. Bullets and bombs rained onto the vessels moored below. A 1,800 pound bomb crashed through the deck of the USS Arizona at 8:10 and landed in her forward ammunition magazine. The USS Arizona exploded and sank with over 1,000 men trapped inside. Then torpedoes stabbed through the shell of the battleship USS Oklahoma. The Oklahoma lost her balance with 400 men inside, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater. By the end of the attack, every battleship in Pearl Harbor had sustained significant damage. All except the USS Utah and USS Arizona were eventually salvaged and fixed.
In total, the attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed or crippled almost 20 American ships and over 300 airplanes. Most importantly, nearly 2,500 men were killed and 1,000 wounded.
However, the Japanese had failed to cripple the Pacific Fleet. Battleships were no longer the most vital naval vessel by the 1940s: Aircraft carriers were, and it just so happened that the entire Pacific Fleet’s carriers were not at the base on December 7. The US Navy was able to bounce back swiftly from the attack.
The Sleeping Giant Awakens
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and for the first time after years of debate and discussion, President Roosevelt convinced the American people to go to war. Instead of forcing the Americans to lift the economic sanctions against them, Japan pushed their enemy into an international conflict that eventually led to Japan’s first occupation by a foreign power.
Over two years following the beginning of the conflict, the United States entered World War II.