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Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, curator Laurence Burke took a step back and explored the long and complicated history leading up to the Japanese attack.
Why Did The Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor
Gallery, said the story of Pearl Harbor often focuses on the events of Dec. 7, 1941, but not on what happened before the day, which President Roosevelt called, “a date that will live in infamy.”
The Attack On Pearl Harbor: ‘a Date Which Will Live In Infamy’
To understand Pearl Harbor, Burke takes the audience back to 1853-1854 when US Navy Captain Matthew C. Perry sailed to Japan and negotiated the opening of Japanese ports to trade. After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation, Japan wanted to engage with the rest of the world.
To compete globally, Japan needed resources—a theme that repeatedly drives the narrative of Pearl Harbor to its climax. Iron and coal were the main natural resources in the age of steam in the late 19th century
Japan went to war in 1894-5 with China and in 1904-5 with Russia to secure resources. It was a 1905 victory against the Russian Navy that shocked the world and warned the US that they needed to prepare for a possible war with Japan.
As early as 1911, the US Navy drew up plans for dealing with a possible war with Japan, known as the Orange War Plan. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 was intended to prevent expensive naval construction races between the nations, but limited Japan to a navy much smaller than that of the US, a result that further soured relations between the two countries.
Pearl Harbor Attack
In September 1940, Japan aligned itself with Germany and Italy. Japan hoped the war would result in a new resource gain and saw the alignment as a way to push back against the US. If America wanted to declare war on Japan, they would also have to declare war on Germany which would mean a war across two oceans.
In the summer of 1941, Japan moved to take the rest of Indochina. This aggression started major diplomatic negotiations between Japan and the United States that would continue until the attack on Pearl Harbor. While the US had embargoed Japan in the past, in 1941 it completely froze all trade with Japan. This cut Japan off from key resources such as iron ore and oil.
The US believed that Japan would run out of resources within six months and would have to agree to negotiations or cease military action. Japan made the same calculation and realized it had to act. Japan began planning the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“This is not a universally accepted idea,” Burke noted. Many within the Japanese military were wary of the risks—the Japanese carriers did not have the range to reach Pearl Harbor and would have to refuel at sea, a maneuver that was unfamiliar to their navy. But for Japan, the potential reward outweighed the risks. They believed that an attack on the US would prevent America from entering the war for up to six months. At that time, Japan could change the balance of power and take Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Japan also hoped the attack would demoralize the United States into inaction.
Japan Reconsiders And Reinterprets The Pearl Harbor Attack
Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto knew that secrecy was the key to being successful. Few in the army were aware of what had been plotted. The Japanese carriers would take an extremely northerly route to avoid shipping lanes, and while traveling they were under complete radio silence. Even ship-to-ship communication was done using flags or flashing lights.
The final orders to attack Pearl Harbor were hand-delivered to the ships before they sailed on November 26.
Burke noted that, at the time, the US had only broken Japan’s diplomatic codes, not their naval codes. But even if the US could read Japanese naval codes, there was no radio traffic to intercept.
Japan set an internal deadline: If negotiations with the US did not go as desired, Pearl Harbor would be attacked. They postponed the deadline until November 29. Three days later, the Japanese high command sent the message, “Climb Mount Niitaka,” to tell the listening Japanese carrier force to continue the attack.
The Attack On Pearl Harbor United Americans Like No Other Event In Our History
What unfolded in the following days is the story we are most familiar with – 2,403 Americans were killed, 188 American aircraft were destroyed, and the heart of the Pacific Fleet sat at the bottom of the harbor.
Sailors stand among wrecked aircraft at Ford Island Seaplane Base, watching as the USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes in the center background, December 7, 1941. The USS Nevada (BB-36) is also visible in the middle background, with her bow directed to the left. Several aircraft are in the foreground, a consolidated PBY, Vought OS2U and Curtiss SOC. The destroyed wing in the foreground is from a PBY. Image: US Navy
Given the nearly 100-year history between the two nations, Burke said, “We can see why the Americans should have anticipated war with the Japanese.” But the specifics of the attack were a surprise. The US knew something was up, but expected to attack the Philippines, not Pearl Harbor. The US knew the dangers Japan faced with an attack on Pearl and believed it was impossible. And the US did not believe that Japan was capable of planning and executing such an attack.
To say that Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise, as most history books do, ignores the complex history and relationship between the US and Japan leading up to the attack. The war with Japan was not a surprise, but the location and nature of the first strike was.
Today In History, December 7, 1941: Japan Attacked Naval Base In Pearl Harbor, Bringing U.s. Into World War Ii
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By mid-1941, the United States had severed all economic relations with Japan and was providing material and financial support to China. Japan had been at war with China since 1937, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 ensured that the Soviets were no longer a threat to the Japanese on the Asian continent. The Japanese believed that once the US Pacific Fleet was neutralized, all of Southeast Asia would be open to invasion.
Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor? A Comprehensive Analysis
The first Japanese dive bomber appeared over Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. (local time) on December 7, 1941. Over the next half hour, Pearl Harbor’s airfields and docked ships were subjected to a relentless bombardment, guns and torpedoes. . A second wave hit at 8:50 AM and the Japanese withdrew shortly after 9:00 AM. In just over an hour, the Japanese destroyed more than 180 aircraft and destroyed or damaged more than a dozen ships. More than 2,400 US military and civilians were killed. Learn more in this infographic.
The Pacific War: From Pearl Harbor to Midway Find out where else Japan struck in the days after December 7, 1941.
In the short term, the American naval presence in the Pacific was severely weakened. However, the Japanese had largely ignored the port infrastructure and many of the damaged ships were repaired locally and returned to duty. In addition, the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet were not present at Pearl Harbor (one was scheduled to return the day before the attack, but was delayed by bad weather). American opinion immediately shifted in favor of war with Japan, a course that would end in Japan’s unconditional surrender less than four years later.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of the Pacific war for the US, but this did not necessarily mean that the US had become a combatant in the war in Europe. By December 1941, the German armies were bogged down on the Eastern Front and it seemed unwise for Adolf Hitler to declare war on another great power under such circumstances. The Tripartite Pact obliged Germany to defend Japan only if the latter was attacked, not if it was the aggressor. However, Germany declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Later that month, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with the American president. Franklin Roosevelt at the Arcadia Conference in Washington, D.C., and the two agreed on a “Europe First” policy for the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The Complicated Lead Up To Pearl Harbor
World War II: Allied Strategy and Controversy, 1940–42 Read more
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