Few events in World War II were as defining as the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The “date which shall live in infamy” — as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously put it — prompted the American entry into the war, subdued an entrenched isolationist faction in the country’s politics and, in the long run, prefigured Washington’s assumption of the role of global superpower.
On a Sunday morning 76 years ago today, 2,403 Americans died in Peal Harbor and 19 vessels were either sunk or badly damaged in the attack, which involved more than 350 warplanes launched from Japanese carriers that had secretly made their way to a remote expanse of the North Pacific. It caught the U.S. brass in Hawaii by surprise and stunned the nation.
“With astounding success,” Time magazine wrote, “the little man has clipped the big fellow.”
But the big fellow would hit back. Japan’s bold strike is now largely seen as an act of “strategic imbecility,” a move born out of militarist, ideological fervor that provoked a ruinous war Japan could never win and ended in mushroom clouds and hideous death and destruction at home.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander, hoped his plan to attack on Pearl Harbor would deliver a fatal blow to American capabilities in the Pacific and persuade Washington to push for a political settlement. Otherwise, he knew that his country stood no chance against the United States in a protracted war, according to Steve Twomey, author of a new book on the tense build-up to Pearl Harbor.
Twomey documents Yamamoto’s initial opposition to engaging the United States: “In a drawn-out conflict, ‘Japan’s resources will be depleted, battleships and weaponry will be damaged, replenishing materials will be impossible,’ Yamamoto wrote on Sept. 29, 1941 to the chief of the Naval General Staff. ‘Japan will wind up “impoverished,” and any war ‘with so little chance of success should not be fought.’ ’’
But with war a fait accompli, Yamamoto conceived of a raid that would be so stunning that American morale would go “down to such an extent that it cannot be recovered,” as he put it. Unfortunately for him, the United States was galvanized by the assault — and had its fleet of aircraft carriers largely unscathed. A plane carrying the Japanese admiral would be shot down over the Solomon Islands by American forces in 1943 with the U.S. counter-offensive already well underway.
Could it have gone differently? No modern conflict has spawned more alternative histories than World War II. In the decades since, writers, Hollywood execs and amateur historians have indulged in all sorts of speculation: One is: What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor? It’s quite likely that the two sides would have still clashed.
For imperial Japan, the United States posed a fundamental obstacle to its expanding position in the Pacific. Here was a resource-hungry island nation eager to assert itself on the world stage in the same way European powers had done in centuries prior. By the summer of 1941, it had seized a considerable swath of East Asia, from Manchuria and Korea to the north to the formerly French territories of Indochina further south, and was embroiled in a bitter war in China.
American sanctions attempted to rein in Tokyo: Washington slapped on embargoes on oil and other goods essential to Japan’s war machine. The price to have them lifted — a Japanese withdrawal from China, as well as the abandonment of its “tripartite” alliance with Germany and Italy — proved too steep and humiliating. So Japan calculated further expansion in order to access the resources it needed.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President Roosevelt faced widespread public opposition to entering the war. The memory of World War I — a struggle many Americans believed wasn't worth fighting — still loomed large in the political imagination. Roosevelt faced off a 1940 election challenge by pandering to anti-war voters. “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again,” he declared on the campaign trail in Boston in October 1940. “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
But Roosevelt was steadily trying to engage in the conflicts abroad, no matter his rhetoric. He was an avowed anti-fascist and was preoccupied more by Nazi aggression in Europe than Japanese inroads in Asia.
His political opponents fretted that he would push toward a greater confrontation. This included figures from the America First movement, a big tent coalition of isolationists, nationalists, pacifists and, indeed, some anti-Semites, who wanted the United States to cling to a policy of neutrality and weren’t that bothered by an ascendant fascism in Europe. Charles Lindbergh, the legendary aviator, was one of the more prominent champions of the America First cause.
In March 1941, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act, which “loaned” arms and ships to the beleaguered Allies in Europe. U.S. warships engaged Nazi submarines in the Atlantic off Florida and protected convoys bearing relief supplies to the British. Months of secret diplomacy with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill already bound Roosevelt’s administration to the Allied cause, but the United States was not yet formally in war.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December gave Roosevelt all the ammunition he needed. Germany, in alliance with Japan, declared war on the United States four days later, saving Roosevelt the trouble of having to do it himself.
For decades since, though, conspiracy theories have surrounded Roosevelt's role in the build-up to Pearl Harbor, with a coterie of revisionist historians alleging he deliberately bungled military coordination and obscured intelligence in order to provoke the crisis that led to war. Most mainstream historians dismiss these claims.
“He was totally caught off guard by it,” Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith told NPR this week. “The record is clear. There was no evidence of the Japanese moving toward Pearl Harbor that was picked up in Washington.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.