What Provoked Japan To Attack Pearl Harbor – On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, decimating the US Pacific Fleet. When Germany and Italy declared war on the United States days later, America found itself in a global war.
Top image: Propaganda poster developed by the Office of War Information after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Image: Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-1663.)
What Provoked Japan To Attack Pearl Harbor
While Japan’s deadly attack on Pearl Harbor stunned Americans, its roots stretch back more than four decades. As Japan industrialized in the late 1800s, it sought to emulate Western countries such as the United States, which had established colonies in Asia and the Pacific to secure natural resources and markets for its goods. However, Japan’s process of imperial expansion put it on a collision course with the United States, especially in relation to China.
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To some extent, the conflict between the United States and Japan stemmed from their competing interests in Chinese markets and Asian natural resources. While the United States and Japan peacefully jockeyed for influence in East Asia for many years, the situation changed in 1931. That year, Japan took its first step toward building a Japanese empire in East Asia by invading Manchuria, a fertile, resource-rich province in northern China. Japan installed a puppet government in Manchuria and renamed it Manchukuo. But the United States refused to recognize the new regime or any others imposed on China under the Stimson Doctrine, named after Secretary of State and future Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.
The ineffective Stimson Doctrine guided US policy in Asia for the next decade. On the one hand, the doctrine took a principled stand in support of Chinese sovereignty and against an increasingly militaristic Japanese regime. On the other hand, however, it failed to strengthen this position with either material consequences for Japan or meaningful support for China. In fact, American companies continued to supply Japan with the steel and petroleum it needed for its fight against China long after the conflict between the countries escalated into full-scale war in 1937. But a powerful isolationist movement in the United States countered that the nation had no business whatsoever in the international conflicts that developed around the world. Even the Japanese military’s murder of between 100,000 and 200,000 helpless Chinese POWs and civilians and the rape of tens of thousands of Chinese women during the 1937 Rape of Nanking failed to immediately change US policy.
The strong isolationist movement also influenced America’s initial approach to the war in Europe, where by late 1940 Nazi Germany controlled most of France, Central Europe, Scandinavia, and North Africa and seriously threatened Britain. Prioritizing the war in Europe over Japan’s invasion of China, the United States allowed the sale of military supplies to Britain beginning in 1939. But neutrality laws and isolationist sentiment severely limited the extent of that aid before 1941.
“Each [nation] went through a series of escalating moves that provoked but failed to contain the other, while raising the level of confrontation to increasingly risky heights.”
The Attack On Pearl Harbor: ‘a Date Which Will Live In Infamy’
The War in Europe had another significant impact on the War in the Pacific as Germany’s military successes worried the Asian colonies of the other European nations. As Japan seized the opportunity to become the dominant imperial power in Asia, relations between the United States and Japan deteriorated. As historian David M. Kennedy, PhD, explained: “Each [nation] went through a series of escalating moves that provoked but failed to contain the other, while raising the level of confrontation to increasingly risky heights.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made one of these escalating moves in July 1940 when he cut off shipments of scrap iron, steel, and jet fuel to Japan even as he allowed American oil to continue to flow to the empire. Japan responded by entering resource-rich French Indochina, with the permission of the government of Nazi-occupied France, and by cementing its alliance with Germany and Italy as a member of the Axis. In July 1941, Japan then moved into southern Indochina in preparation for an attack on both British Malaya, a source of rice, rubber and tin, and the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. This prompted Roosevelt to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States on July 26, 1941, effectively cutting off Japan’s access to American oil.
This move forced Japan to secretly prepare its “Southern Operation”, a massive military attack that would target Britain’s major naval facility in Singapore and American installations in the Philippines and at Pearl Harbor, thus paving the way for the conquest of the Dutch East Indies. While diplomatic talks continued between the US and Japan, neither side budged. Japan refused to cede any of its newly acquired territory, and the United States insisted that Japan immediately withdraw its troops from China and Indochina.
On November 26, 1941, when American officials presented the Japanese with a 10-point statement reiterating their long-standing position, the Imperial Japanese Navy ordered an armada that included 414 planes aboard six aircraft carriers to go to sea. Following a plan drawn up by Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who had previously studied at Harvard and served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington, DC, the flotilla aimed to destroy the US Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor.
Pdf) Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?
To the surprise of the Americans, the ships maintained strict radio silence during their 3,500-mile trek from Hitokappu Bay to a predetermined launch sector 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At 06:00 on Sunday 7 December, a first wave of Japanese planes took off from the carriers, followed by a second wave an hour later. Led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilots sighted land and assumed their attack positions around 07:30. Twenty-three minutes later, with his bomber positioned above the unsuspecting American ships moored in pairs along Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row,” Fuchida broke radio silence to shout, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) – the coded message informing the Japanese fleet that they had surprised the Americans.
USS Arizona in flames after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Image: Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-104778.
For nearly two hours, Japanese firepower rained down on American ships and servicemen. While the attack caused significant destruction, the fact that Japan failed to destroy American repair shops and fuel tanks mitigated the damage. More importantly, no US aircraft carriers were in Pearl Harbor that day. However, the Japanese immediately followed their Pearl Harbor attack with attacks on American and British bases in the Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, Wake Island, Malaya, and Hong Kong. Within days the Japanese were masters of the Pacific.
In Washington, a decrypted message had warned officials that an attack was imminent moments before Fuchida’s plane took to the skies. But a communication delay prevented a warning from reaching Pearl Harbor in time. The Americans missed another opportunity when an officer discounted a report from an Oahu-based radar operator that a large number of planes were on their way.
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At the White House, Roosevelt learned of the attack as he was finishing lunch and preparing to take care of his stamp collection. He spent the rest of the afternoon receiving updates and writing the address he intended to deliver to Congress the following day, asking for a declaration of war against Japan. In writing and redrafting the speech, Roosevelt focused on rallying the nation behind a war many had hoped to avoid.
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Robert Dallek Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles. Author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945, Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking…
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Was there a “back door” to World War II, as some revisionist historians have claimed? According to this view, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, hampered by American public opposition to direct American involvement in the fighting and determined to save Britain from a Nazi victory in Europe, manipulated events in the Pacific to provoke a Japanese attack on American naval bases at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, forcing the United States to enter the war on Britain’s side.
How did Roosevelt accelerate the conflict with Japan and prepare the country for war in Europe? The revisionists argue that key events leading up to the US declaration of war in 1941 show that Roosevelt sometimes used deceptive tactics to gradually increase US involvement and to arouse pro-war sentiment in
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