How Did The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor – History » World War II » Pearl Harbor » Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? A comprehensive analysis
After more than 75 years, the question remains for students of World War II history: Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?
How Did The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor ranks as the most successful military surprise attack in the early years of combined sea/air combat. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service struck the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 directly caused the United States to enter World War II, which led to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an outcome that spelled disaster for the Japanese. The Japanese managed to damage nearly 20 American naval vessels, including 8 large battleships, 200 aircraft and kill over 2,000 Americans, but why did the Japanese attack America in the first place? And what were they trying to achieve by attacking Pearl Harbor, specifically?
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The US and Japan had been butting heads for decades, and it was inevitable that things would eventually culminate in a war. Japan had imperial ambitions to expand into China to solve some demographic and economic problems and to take over the Chinese import market. When in 1937 Japan decided to declare war on China, America strongly opposed this aggression and responded with trade embargoes and economic sanctions. Specifically, the oil embargo that America organized with the British and the Dutch was a thorn in the side of Japan, which imported 90% of its oil. Without oil, Japan’s military could not function and all war efforts would come to an end. Negotiations had been going on for months between Washington and Tokyo, without any resolution, so Japan decided to attack first.
As war was inevitable, Japan’s only chance was the element of surprise and destroying the US Navy as quickly as possible. Japan wanted to move into the Dutch East Indies and Malaya to conquer territories that could provide important natural resources such as oil and rubber. By destroying a large part of the American fleet, they hoped to capture the Philippines and Malaya while America was still recovering from its own injuries—simultaneous attacks were launched on these places while Pearl Harbor was taking place.
Let’s go back to our main question: why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? Ultimately, Japan hoped that America would accept defeat and that Japan could create a fortress that would span the entire Pacific Rim.
Roosevelt expected an attack from the Japanese, but conspiracy theories claiming he knew they were going to hit Pearl Harbor have been dismissed by most scholars. The government expected Japan to attack American targets in Thailand or the Dutch East Indies rather than a target so close to home. The Chicago Tribune published a top secret war plan, the “Rainbow Five” on December 4, 1941, in which the War Department made preparations for war with Japan.
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The day before the death of Sara Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s mother, the State Department’s rejection of Japanese Prime Minister Konoye’s urgent request for a private conversation with Roosevelt convinced the Japanese to begin serious plans for an attack.
At a cabinet meeting on 6 September 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was told to attack unless Konoye somehow achieved peace terms with the United States that would not trigger a revolution at home, an uprising in Korea, or the restoration of Chinese morale. Hirohito had been shot twice, once by a Japanese communist, once by a Korean nationalist. The better men in two cabinets had been assassinated or wounded because they were seen as too accommodating to the foreigners who wanted to colonize Japan or reduce the nation that had never lost a war in modern times to a vulnerable third-rate power. Konoye himself had been threatened with assassination if he made too many concessions, and there had been serious attempts to overthrow the emperor in favor of his brother or his son. Hirohito knew that his very dynasty could be wiped out like the Romanovs or marginalized, as the Japanese themselves had done to the Korean royals, if he bowed to demands that the Japanese saw as not only insulting but insane.
Yamamoto, who spoke fluent English, had studied at Harvard, and in happier times had hitchhiked across the United States, knew that Japan could not conquer, or even defeat, the United States. The Japanese grand strategy, if war could not be avoided, was to inflict enough damage and seize enough territory that the Americans would guarantee Japanese sovereignty in return for an armistice and the recovery of all or most of what Japan had taken outside of Korea and perhaps Manchuria.
Theoretical plans for a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had existed for decades. General Billy Mitchell had warned as early as 1924 that the next war would be fought with aircraft carriers. US Navy Admiral Harry Yarnell conducted a simulated attack by carrier-based aircraft in 1932 as part of a war game. Navy judges ruled that it would have sustained significant damage if the attack had been real, and the attackers won the war game.
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Yamamoto had submitted his updated contingency plan for an attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 January 1941, less than a month after the British aerial torpedo attack on Taranto. Minoru Genda, Japan’s planning genius, called Yamamoto’s original plan “difficult but not impossible.” More information was needed. In the summer of 1941, Korean patriots keeping their ear to the wall at the Japanese consulate in Honolulu found through Korean servants and loyal Japanese-Americans rumors of intense Japanese interest in the water depth of the harbor and the strengths and weaknesses of the Army and Navy installations in Hawaii.
Roosevelt’s restriction on Japan’s oil supply shifted Japanese planning into high gear. War was now the only alternative to economic strangulation and political revolution.
In the final months before the attack, the US government issued a memorandum stating: “The Japanese government does not wish or intend or expect to have an armed conflict with the United States immediately. . . . If it were a matter of betting, the undersigned would give odds of five to one that Japan and the United States will not be at ‘war’ on or before March 1st (a date more than 90 days from now, and after the period during which it has been estimated by our strategists that it would be to our advantage to have ‘time’ for further preparation and disposal).”
On 1 December 1941, the Emperor met with his Privy Council. “It is now clear that Japan’s demands cannot be achieved through diplomatic means,” Tojo said. The emperor—perhaps more gun-shy than the elder statesmen—asked for a vote. The cabinet voted unanimously for war. Hirohito agreed. The Japanese fleet was instructed to attack Pearl Harbor on December 7 unless it received a last-minute cancellation due to a sudden change in US attitude. Kurusu and Nomura—who had been sincere in seeking peace until they received the Hull note—were told to stop for time. Tojo summed up the situation: Japan, the one Asian, African, or South American nation that had modernized rather than been colonized, could not accept the American demands without riots at home, rebellions in Korea, and reversals in Manchuria. “At this moment,” he declared, “our empire stands on the threshold of glory or oblivion.”
Pearl Harbor: Attack That Brought Us Into Wwii
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Pearl Harbor attack. To find out more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941 marked the United States’ official entry into World War II.
During the 1930s, Japan, which had already annexed Korea in 1910, sought to further expand its empire, especially to gain natural resources. In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, a small, resource-rich province in northern China, and established a puppet state called Manchukuo. In 1937, Japan invaded the rest of China and by some estimates killed as many as 300,000 people during the infamous Nanking Massacre. China would lose as many as 14 million people by the end of World War II.
Western powers were troubled by Japanese expansion, particularly because it violated the “Open Door” policy supported by the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations), which had been put in place to ensure equal trade opportunities with China. The League of Nations reprimanded Japan, but this did nothing to stop the expansion.
Since Japan had limited natural resources, 55.4% of imports at the time came from the United States (Rhodes 39). From 1937 the US began embargoing supplies of oil, steel and scrap iron. In December of the same year, Japanese planes sank
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, an American gunboat, in the Yangtse River, killing three Americans. Although Japan said it was a mistake and paid reparations, it stirred further sympathy for China and anger against Japan in the United States.
In 1940, Japan became part of the Axis Alliance with Germany and Italy and