On the seventh day of December 1941, the United States of America was delivered an unprecedented blow at the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. The attack would pull the United States out of its isolation and into a heated war in the Pacific, but the question of what events led Japan to draw the world's largest superpower into World War II remains a mystery. Like any event in history, this horrific attack was not sparked by any one specific event. Many complicated factors built up over time to lead toward action. There were numerous underlying causes including a difference of intentions of the Japanese military and their government, the alliance of Japan with the Axis Powers, and past conflicts involving imperialism. An unforeseen weakness in the US army also contributed to the penetration of foreign attack.
As the war in Europe intensified, the United States wished to remain isolated from the brewing conflict, remembering the horrors of the Great War. To create peace between the United States and the Axis power Japan, a document called the Draft Understanding was proposed (Anderson, 2005). The United States was skeptical of the proposition at first, but on April 16, Secretary of State Cordell Hull conceded in the hopes that the Draft Understanding would open up negotiations after Japanese Ambassador Noruma Kichisaburo made numerous revisions at the request of Japanese Navy personnel (Beach, 1995). Besides, Hull demanded that Japan respect all nations' sovereignty and adhere to the status quo peacefully (Beach, 1995). According to Beach (1995), the Prime Minister of Japan, Konoe Fumimaro, was then given the document, but he was led to believe that it was an American proposal. In a meeting between Japan's Army and Navy regarding the document before the Prime Minister, the Army raised conditions including the reassurance that any negotiations with the United States would not harm Japan's alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Also that, any peace between the Japan and US must contribute to the ending of Japan's undeclared yet rapidly escalating war with China (Beach, 1995).
The US opposed Japan's movements against China, but they were reluctant to take action as China was unstable divided between Chinese Nationalists and communists (Burtness and Ober 2013). This aspect along with the fear of provoking Japan kept the United States out of the conflict. At the same time, The United States itself was internally split between the Isolationists, those who saw the war in Europe as a conflict that should remain in Europe, and Intervention lists, which saw a life or death struggle with the retention of Western values in Europe. On December 4, 1941, the split became so great that a group of isolationist newspapers from an unknown source leaked top-secret war plans (Weintraub, 1991). This leak ought to have been another provoking factor of the Japanese retaliation.
General Walter C. Short took control of the Pearl Harbor defenses in February 1941 (Anderson, 2005). The General George Marshall who was the Army Chief of Staff warned him of the risk of e the risk of a surprise raid and sabotage by submarine or through the air (Wohlstetter, 1962). However, the fear of sabotage soon overpowered the entire Hawaiian Department of the Army due to the 120,000 Japanese Americans, 40,000 being aliens, settled on the Hawaiian Islands (Anderson, 2005).
Short instructed for the operation of the search-radar north of Oahu early in the morning on 7th December 1941 (Anderson, 2005). The operation took place with only one officer, inexperienced as well, operating the Combat Information Center (Anderson, 2005). This single inexperienced officer placed in control could have been the fatal flaw. According to Burtness and Ober (2013), during this exercise, planes were spotted 135 miles north of Oahu, fast approaching. The radar operators reported to this inexperienced officer only to be told to forget about it because they were probably allied aircraft (Burtness and Ober 2103). This detection occurred with enough time for defenses to be raised and for the attackers to be met halfway, possibly significantly decreasing the toll of the attack if not thwarting it (Burtness and Ober 2013). Furthermore, failure of the Combat Information Center to track the retreat of the Japanese planes back to their naval detachment resulted in another missed opportunity.
No attack, other than possibly 9/11, matches the devastation of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 (Weintraub, 1991). As with most events in history, no single event can be put to blame, but many complex events each added their fuel to the fire. Past conflict between Japan and Western countries, and within Japan itself, an alliance with Germany and Italy, and a failure to prepare and retaliate on America's part led to the devastation that occurred. However, from a horrific event, the United States was able to heal its internal wounds. A divided country came together once more, and with a near-unanimous decision by Congress with massive support from the people, and the US entered the World War II.
Anderson, C. W. (2005). Day of Lightning, Years of Scorn: Walter C. Short and Pearl Harbor. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Beach, E. L. (1995). Scapegoats: A Defense of Kimmel and Short at Pearl Harbor. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
Burtness, P. S. & Ober, W. U. (2013). "Communication Lapses Leading to the Pearl Harbor Disaster." Historian 75 (4), 740-759. Academic Search Complete, EBSCO host (accessed July 24, 2017).
Weintraub, S. (1991). Long Day's Journey into War: December 7, 1941. New York: Dutton.
Wohlstetter, R. (1962). Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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