What Led Japan To Attack Pearl Harbor – Fort Huachuca, Arizona – In the months leading up to December 1941, as war raged in Europe, the President of the United States and the Emperor of Japan negotiated peace in the Pacific. These efforts had been largely unsuccessful.
On December 6, 1941, the ‘s Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) intercepted a communication from the Japanese government to its delegation in Washington, D.C. SIS decrypted the first 13 parts of the message that spelled out Japanese allegations of American violations in the Far East. At 5 o’clock on the morning of December 7, 1941, the 14th and final part of the message arrived, declaring “The Japanese Government regrets to inform the United States Government that, in view of the position of the United States Government, it cannot but think, that it is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.” War was imminent.
What Led Japan To Attack Pearl Harbor
The “Fourteen Part Message” had been transmitted using the Japanese diplomatic code called the Purple System. Breaking this code had eluded the best efforts of SIS cryptographers until August 1940, when SIS was finally able to read purple message traffic between the Japanese government and its official representatives in the United States.
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The process of decoding and translating Purple messages and conveying the resulting intelligence (known as Magic) was long and tedious due to the volume of traffic, the difficulty of the code, the limited number of cryptographers and Japanese linguists, and the security around Purple. Of major concern was ensuring that the Japanese did not find out that the US had broken the code, so access to the Magic material was only given to a few top officials.
Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, SIS immediately recognized the importance of the fourteen-part message and, after informing the President, the Chief of Staff warned the commanders of both Hawaii and the Philippines that the potential for a Japanese attack was high, although the target was still unknown. Given the sensitivity of the message, it had to be sent by telegraph, a process hampered by Sunday office closures. The message reached Honolulu at 7:33 Hawaii time and was sent by bicycle messenger to Fort Shafter. Halfway to his destination, the messenger took cover in a roadside ditch when the Japanese began their aerial bombardment. He did not reach Fort Shafter until 11:45, and when the message was decoded and delivered to the Adjutant General’s office, it was 2:58 p.m. and the attack was over. Eighteen American ships and 188 aircraft were damaged or lost; human casualties included 2,335 service members and 68 civilians, with an additional 1,178 wounded. Additional losses were suffered during simultaneous attacks on Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Guam, Hong Kong, Wake and the Philippine Islands.
With the benefit of hindsight, much has been written about the intelligence failures that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor. To be clear, none of the magical decrypts accurately stated Japan’s intention to attack Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, US communications security certainly contributed to the failure to inform ground commanders of the potential for attack in time. Yet it was not the only contributing factor. Both the intelligence and naval intelligence organizations had been understaffed since World War I, and the growth in 1941 came too late to reap the benefits that would have been available from a long-established intelligence-gathering effort. When Japan restricted access to foreign military observers in 1941, the US ambassador warned the State Department of its limited “ability to give substantial warning” of possible naval or military operations.
In addition, the Military Intelligence Division (MID) concentrated on the Japanese and left Japanese naval operations to the US Navy. With all evidence suggesting that the Japanese would continue its aggression in the Southwest Pacific, MID intelligence estimates were myopically focused on this region. Furthermore, rejecting his own newly approved doctrine of the period, the MID admittedly overlooked Japanese capabilities to launch a carrier-borne air attack on Hawaii, rather than evaluating enemy intentions. Fixated on a highly probable action in the Southwest Pacific, neither MID nor the Office of Naval Intelligence apparently presented an attack on Pearl Harbor as a real possibility. After the war, General Sherman Miles, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G2, lamented: “We underestimated Japanese military power … judged largely on her past record … We had a yardstick. We had no reason to doubt the approximate accuracy of our yardstick . Yet it was completely false.”
The Attack On Pearl Harbor: Dec. 7, 1941
The attack on Pearl Harbor cannot be blamed solely on intelligence errors. The Pearl Harbor investigations heaped blame on mismanagement, inflexible policies and procedures, and general complacency after more than two decades of peace. However, the same studies drew attention to the long-overlooked concepts that intelligence work not only required expert personnel and continuity in peacetime, but that it also needed to be recognized as an essential command function. Japan had little chance of victory – so why did it attack Pearl Harbour? Long-standing tensions with the United States over expansion in Asia came to a head on December 7, 1941.
U.S.S. Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. More than 2,400 people died and about 20 ships, including the U.S.S. Shaw, was destroyed or damaged.
“Air attack on Pearl Harbour. This is no drill.” When the urgent message from Honolulu reached Washington, D.C. on December 7, 1941, even those who foresaw conflict with Japan were stunned by the attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, nearly 4,000 miles from Tokyo. “My God, it can’t be true!” said Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox.
Japan’s leaders had devised a bold plan to let the United States know who was in control of the Pacific. The surprise attack had been underway for months before the first bombs fell.
What Made The Japanese Attack On Pearl Harbor So Devastating? This Ordnance
A sailor observes explosions and stands amid the wreckage of the Ford Island Naval Air Station during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Japan had begun an imperial expansion in the late 19th century, seeking natural resources for the island nation as well as buffer states to protect it. It defeated China in the 1890s to gain control of Korea and prevailed over Russia in the 1900s to seize the Liaodong Peninsula and parts of Manchuria for itself.
The Japanese lacked aerial reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor like this US Navy photo, but spy Takeo Yoshikawa reported ships moored near Ford Island.
In the early 20th century, Japan’s imperial efforts continued unabated as it took more and more territory from China, but by the mid-1930s, relations between Japan and the United States had become strained. Through diplomacy and sanctions, the United States tried to prevent Japan from becoming a major imperial power—a stance that seemed somewhat hypocritical. Why, Japan’s leaders asked, should their nation abandon expansion at the insistence of Americans who had colonized Hawaii and occupied the Philippines? If the price of peace was brooding and retreat, then they would fight.
The Attack On Pearl Harbor
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet during World War II, had lived in the United States while studying at Harvard University and during later tours of duty in the 1920s. Yamamoto understood that provoking the United States with a direct attack could have deadly consequences, for he had seen the nation’s vast natural resources and industrial capacity. He warned that “fighting the United States is like fighting the whole world.”
The only hope, Yamamoto surmised, was to smash the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor before the US Navy had a chance to fully mobilize. If Japan did not cripple the Pacific Fleet and prevent the Americans from bringing their strength to bear, Japan would be in a world of trouble. Only a quick, powerful, pre-emptive strike could hamper the United States in the Pacific.
On November 26, 1941, Yamamoto launched six large aircraft carriers with more than 400 First Air Fleet warplanes on their decks, escorted by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. To avoid detection, the force followed a slightly traveled, northern route to Hawaii. Before dawn on December 7, the Japanese carriers reached the assigned position a few hundred miles north of Honolulu.
Up before dawn on December 7, Japanese naval aviators boarded the aircraft carriers under the command of Vice Adm. Nagumo to a ceremonial breakfast of rice and red beans and sipped sake before setting out to attack the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour. They did not have to wait until they achieved victory to honor their mission. These men believed that one who went to battle for his country and its exalted emperor was blessed, whether he prevailed or perished. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, chosen to lead the attack, spoke for many when he recalled his feelings that morning. “Who could be luckier than me?” he asked. Risking his life for what he loved, he wrote, “I fulfilled my duty as a warrior.”
The Complicated Lead Up To Pearl Harbor
As dawn glimmered around 06:00, the carriers turned to windward to launch the first wave of 183 fighter, bomber and torpedo planes, even as