Why Pearl Harbor? Unraveling the Motives and Triggers
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On December 7th, 1941, a devastating surprise attack occurred on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 2400 Americans were killed during this attack, and an additional 1000 people were injured. Pearl Harbor was a U.S. naval base situated near Honolulu, Hawaii. On 0750 hours, hundreds of aircraft from the Imperial Japanese Navy descended upon the sleeping base and started to attack. For the next two hours and a half hours, “the planes executed well planned, well rehearsed strikes against ships of the Pacific Fleet and aircraft of the Army Air Corps.
The Japanese only lost 29 aircraft and 5 midget submarines, while over 3400 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were wounded or killed. America also had a loss of 188 Army, Navy, and Marine corps aircraft, which were either damaged or destroyed, as well as 18 ships that were assigned to the Pacific Fleet, consisting of 8 battleships, 3 light cruisers 3 destroyers, and 4 miscellaneous vessels (Piacine, 1997. The day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested to the Congress to declare war on Japan (Staff, 2009). The most significant cause of the attack may be the sanctions that were placed upon the country.
The most significant cause may have been the trade embargoes and economic sanctions that were placed on Japan because of its aggression towards China. Not only that, but Japanese assets in the United States were frozen (Brett, 2015). The Japanese government had an imperial ambition to expand into China to solve its cultural and economic problems by taking over the import market. They believed that the extension of their control was natural and destined, and that the other people needed the guidance of the Japanese as much as Japan needed them.
The Japanese armies sailed across the China dead under a banner which proclaimed peace, justice, and partnership for all. The bayonets were just to keep away anyone that was not able to understand their “true intentions.” By 1937, Korea, Kwangtung peninsula, and Manchuria were compelled to submit to the Japanese rule. Despite that, Japan wanted more. Two movements were under way in China, which not only upset Japanese activity in China, but threatened its rule in Manchukuo and Korea. Japan and Western powers were being nagged to give up privileged positions and dwell therein only by leave. Many believed that this would result in the expulsion of Japanese interests in China, but at the same time as Chinese nationalism grew, Communism was spreading in the north.
This spread was influenced by Japan’s old enemy, Russia. Thus, a view formed among the Japanese that is was essential for Japan to makes its will felt throughout China. Japan felt that it was entitled to take all it could from the Western countries, because they had always begrudged Japan its progress (Feis, 1950). America had thought that without the proper resources, Japan would “rein in its expansion” and go back to normal.
Specifically, it was the oil embargo that America had organized with the British and the Dutch, which imported 90% of their oil, that infuriated the Japanese leaders (AskHON). This method backfired, and the Japanese became more resolute in their standing. During the months of negotiations, neither Washington D.C. nor Tokyo would budge, and war seemed to be the only answer. And Japan decided that it would attack first (Staff, 2009).
However, another reason that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor may be because they felt threatened by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. President Roosevelt moved the fleet from California to Hawaii. Since Japan wanted to expand into the Pacific, they wanted to get rid of their biggest obstacle (Brett, 2015). Government officials saw that war between Japan and the United States was inevitable. They were just waiting for one side to attack first, and Japan happened to be the first.
Even though the U.S. Pacific Fleet being massive, the United States was not expecting an attack so close to home. Despite many signs of aggression, American intelligence officials were confident that the Japanese were more likely to attack the relatively nearby European colonies in the South Pacific (the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Indochina, etc) (Staff, 2009). America had a “magnificent collection at our disposal”, but had failed to accurately provide a picture of Japan’s intentions and capabilities (Wohlstetter, 1962).
In early 1954, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto approached other officers about an attack on Pearl Harbor, and within a month, the American ambassador in Japan, Joseph Grew, had warned America. Two months later, American intelligence had intercepted a message between the Japanese forces, requesting the locations of the battleships in Pearl Harbor. All of these signs were ignored (LoProto, 2017). Since then, many scholars and writers that have investigated why the Japanese were able to attack Pearl Harbor have stated that it was due to the failure of the failure of the American intelligence to provide critical information to the government.
However, that is the wrong conclusion. Officers, both in Washington and Hawaii, were fully aware of the danger of an air attack on Pearl Harbor, but ignored the signs because they believed that it was only a possibility, and they were also informed of the coming of a war (Piacine, 1997). Since the American military was not expecting the Japan to attack Hawaii, they left Pearl Harbor virtually defenseless. To the Japanese, it was the perfect opportunity to strike.
In conclusion, the more plausible reason for Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor seems to be due to the restrictions that was placed upon the country by the United States. The country needed more natural resources in order to continue conquering countries in the Pacific. The United States had those resources, however, due to the restrictions, Japan was lacking in the money and goods to buy the essential supplies needed for its military to conquer countries.
Despite having destroyed most of the fleet, and killed many people, the attack was a failure. Japan was not able to cripple the Pacific Fleet, the assault had left the vital onshore facilities, such as oil storage depots, repair shops, etc., intact. And by the 1940s, the battleship technology had become obsolete and the war depended on aircraft carriers (Staff, 2009).
Luckily, the Pacific Fleet carriers were away from the base on December 7. Soon after, the determined Americans joined World War II marking the beginning of the end. Though it was a tough decision to make, it was the only choice they could have made at that time. It was a remarkable assault by the honorbound Japan, but not perfect. This had soon led up to the fall and the American’s usage of atomic bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had forced the powerful nation of Japan to put up a white flag and cripple the nation.