This is the eighty-second anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Quoting a Wikipedia article I copied 18 years ago, “the Imperial Japanese Navy made its attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, was aimed at the Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy and its defending Army Air Corps and Marine air forces. The attack damaged or destroyed twelve U.S. warships, destroyed 188 aircraft, and killed 2,403 American servicemen and 68 civilians. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the raid as the start of the Pacific Campaign of World War II, and it was commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who lost 64 servicemen. However, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were not in port and so were undamaged, as were oil tank farms and machine shops. Using these resources the United States was able to rebound within six months to a year. The U.S. public saw the attack as a treacherous act and rallied strongly against the Japanese Empire, resulting in its later defeat.
Back in 2016, I wrote:
We were fighting against Imperial Japan, a place where militaristic nationalists had taken control of the government and stoked notions of Japanese exceptionalism. The America fought for by the Americans 75 years ago stood for a country (in principal if not always in fact) governed by the consent of the governed where all men are created equal. The home of the brave.
We should always be mindful that, as Edward R. Murrow pointed out, “we are not descended from fearful men.” When our own militaristic nationalists come peddling fear and exceptionalism, we should strike them down just as we struck down Imperial Japan so that the dead of Pearl Harbor shall not have died in vain.
As I mentioned a few days ago, I recently finished the book “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” by Herbert Bix. It contains quite a lot about the events on the Japanese side that led to the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. From what I read, it doesn’t sound like anyone on the Japanese side particularly thought that they could win a war against the U.S. even if the Pearl Harbor attack was wildly successful which, from their perspective, it was. Rather the internal logic and rewards of domestic politics led the decision makers down a path they couldn’t seem to escape. Particularly after invading China some years earlier, they had the tiger by the tail. Resistance to the militaristic nationalists was punished politically and sometimes with physical violence. And it doesn’t seem like Hirohito himself had any particular appetite for curbing their impulses. He seemed to share their goals in many cases.
After capturing Manchuria in 1931, Japan was bogged down with a full scale war in China by 1937. It increasingly needed resources to keep up the war and invaded French Indochina in 1941 (with permission of Nazi-occupied France). The U.S. froze Japanese assets in the U.S. which effectively ended Japan’s ability to purchase oil from the U.S. This caused Japan to seek to wrest control of Singapore from Great Britain and the Philippines from the U.S. in order to establish control of the oil in the Dutch East Indies. To facilitate those moves and mitigate U.S. ability to retaliate, it attacked Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese seemed to have known that they had no clear exit plan once they attacked the U.S. The hope seems to have been that they would strike a devastating blow, expand rapidly, and then when the U.S. geared up for war, they could back off from some of their acquisitions into a more defensible position and then negotiate a more favorable peace than would have been possible had they not attacked in the first place. But, among other things, Japan had trouble retreating to more defensible areas in a timely fashion. Ultimately, the U.S. regrouped, engaged its overwhelming industrial capacity for military purposes, and won a critical battle at Midway. One military historian called it “one of the most consequential naval engagements in world history, ranking alongside Salamis, Trafalgar, and Tsushima Strait, as both tactically decisive and strategically influential.” After that, it was a matter of time before Japan would unconditionally surrender. The combination of the continuing military losses, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Russian declaration of war against Japan finally broke the Empire’s back and overwhelmed the forces of militaristic nationalism that had precipitated the attack against the U.S. in the first place; compelling Hirohito to surrender on September 2, 1945, in hopes of at least maintaining his status as Emperor even if he was not able to retain so much of his power.