For more than fifty years, historians and social scientists have been questioning whether or not the United States was already at war prior to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Because of the conflict that already existed regarding Japans expansionist practices, the United States may or may have not needed to have its hand forced in the official designation of war in the Pacific. As the Japanese Empire had grown, so had its control over its territories. For example, in the early 1930s, Japan invaded Manchuria, a clear sign that the Japanese did not intend to lessen their efforts to gain control throughout Asia.
The Japanese, who had blocked a number of Russian incursions into Manchuria, were moving in to gain control of the region’s plentiful coal and iron, which Japan sorely lacked. In 1937, Japanese and Chinese forces fought near Beijing resulting in Japans occupation of northern China. The United States ostensibly disapproved of such actions but refused to take any direct action in stopping it. Whether or not these conflicts began inadvertently or whether they were planned is unknown. Nevertheless, they led to a full-scale war known as the second Sino-Japanese War.
Questions as to why Japan wanted the U. S. volved in war bring to bear the numerous issues involved in any discussion of pre-World War II Japanese-American relations, as well as those revolving around the war itself. It seems obvious that if there had been some level of agreement between the nations regarding the larger expansionist practices of Japan, the need for such a dramatically destructive move as the bombing of Pearl Harbor might have been avoided. Japans sense of achievement, as well as its sense of resentment, its attempt to learn from the West and its resistance to Western influence, warred with each other throughout the 1920s and early 1930s (Fallows 33).
Under the rule of Emperor Hirohito, who had become the nations regent in 1921, anti-Western resentments and authoritarian government flourished. Increasing military involvement in the government began to add to the problems already being experienced by the Japanese system of leadership. The emperor was supposed to be the sacred symbol of Japan’s history and spirit. However, there were also right-wing zealots, primarily officers in the army, who felt they had to intervene to “save” him from Western corrupt practices and beliefs. “Pan-Asian” rhetoric resounded.
Japan declared itself tribune and savior for nations downtrodden by the white West (Fallows 33). And yet, the Pan-Asian ideal led to strange distortions, since official Japanese propaganda and official acts simultaneously emphasized the superiority of Japanese people to all other Asians. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to keep the United States out of the conflicts taking place between Japan and China but the United States diplomatic and trade offensives against Japan actually began with the London Naval Treaty of 1930 (denying Japan naval hegemony in its own waters) and culminated in the total U. S. embargo of all shipments of oil to Japan (Cockburn 802).
On October 5, 1937, President Roosevelt made a speech declaring that America must quarantine or isolate expansionist countries such as Japan. Students of the causes of World War II should be well-aware that what was promoted as Roosevelts “moral embargo” of Japan for its war against China scarcely did justice to the less romantic though more pragmatic epic of national self-interest in the struggle for economic advantage throughout Asia. And yet, American ships went on supplying Tokyo with American oil and steel.
Times were hard, it was the middle of the Great Depression and business was business. In an apparent response to the statement or possibly as part of a larger intention to provoke war, Japan began to attack American naval vessels in Chinese territory. At the time, the majority of Americans wanted to see the U. S. withdraw from China and not engage the Japanese in battle (Snyder 33). Roosevelt was convinced the attacks would not abate and ordered that the American vessels in Chinese waters be armed, including merchant vessels.
However, such a move did nothing to stop the Japanese from sinking the ships and is likely to have actually served to provoke an increase in the attacks. In September 1940, the Japanese entered Indochina after concluding a long period of negotiation with the Vichy government. The Japanese aim was to prevent aid reaching the Chinese through Indochina. Approximately 6,000 troops were stationed in the country and given full rights of transit. Roosevelts next move was to cease all trade with Japan and to begin a program of lend-lease aid with China.
Roosevelt’s embargo was a devastating blow, for Japan bought more than half its imports from the U. S. Ironically, Japan both wanted and relied upon its trade with the United States and sent a peace mission to Washington to negotiate for resumption of trade and an end to American assistance in China. Hardly had the talks begun when the Japanese, having already seized a number of bases in northern Vietnam, suddenly occupied the south in July 1941. This incident threatened not only the back route to China, but British control of Malaya and Burma (now Myanmar).
Roosevelt retaliated by freezing all Japanese assets and placing an embargo on all trade in oil, steel, chemicals, machinery and other strategic goods. There were discussions between the Japanese and the authorities in the Dutch East Indies concerning the supply of oil. It is agreed to supply the Japanese with forty percent of the production for the subsequent six months. There were British attempts to block this agreement. The British and Dutch, soon announced similar embargoes.
The requests of the Japanese trade ministers were denied even though the Roosevelt Administration and the trade negotiators for the United States were well aware that such an act would be likely to encourage Japan in attacking the United States directly. It should be noted that Roosevelt did have other options. The most notable example being that he could have made the Lend-Lease Act applicable and available to both Axis and non-Axis nations. He could have also chosen to not make aid available to any nations. Japan did not exactly decided to go to war; it failed to avoid drifting there.
Japanese society has great concentrations of power–in its industries, in its government–but at crucial moments in its history, it has seemed to lack a central authority capable of making ultimate decisions Fallows (38). Such was apparently the case prior to Pearl Harbor, just as it was during the final year of the war when no one had the authority to say stop or enough. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the military and the imperial theorists were divided into “Strike North” and “Strike South” factions.
Strike North, centered in the Army, thought Japan was destined for all-out war against Soviet communism and that it should move through China to get ready. Strike South, dominant in the Navy, believed Japan was destined for a showdown with the Europeans and Americans for control of Southeast Asia and should strike first–before America rearmed and before the Japanese Navy ran out of either determination or fuel. The conflict was never clearly resolved. Roosevelt had been re-elected to a third term in 1940 after pledging that “your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars.
He staked his hopes for peace on a last-minute message to the Emperor. “Both of us,” Roosevelt said, “have a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world” (Friedrich 32). The message was delayed for ten hours by Japanese military censors making it almost midnight on December 7 in Tokyo when U. S. Ambassador Joseph Grew sped with it to the Foreign Ministry. By that time, Japans bombers were within sight of Pearl Harbor. Even after more than half a century, the question is asked as to what were the Japanese thinking?
It was not as if the militaries had not been warned. On November 1, 1941, five weeks before Zeros flew off the Akagi and its sister aircraft carriers toward Hawaii, the government’s senior ministers met in Tokyo for a final review of war plans. Several argued forcefully that to bomb Pearl Harbor would be an act of national suicide (Fallows 32). The most powerful and most crucial part of American defense in the Pacific Ocean was that of the American Pacific Fleet. Usually, this fleet was stationed somewhere along the west coast of the United States, and made a training cruise to Hawaii each year.
With war looming, the U. S. Pacific Fleet was moved to the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. This was the perfect location for the American forces in the Pacific because of its location, halfway between the United States west coast and the Japanese military bases in the Marshall Islands. The Pacific Fleet first arrived at Pearl Harbor naval base on April 2, 1940, and were scheduled to return to the United States mainland around May 9, 1940. This plan was drastically changed because of the increasing activity of Italy in Europe and Japan’s attempt at expansion in Southeast Asia.
President Roosevelt felt that the presence of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii would retard any Japanese attempt at a strike on the United States. At 7:55 a. m. on December 7, 1941, the Japanese began a devastating three-hour attack on the American naval base on Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Six American battleships were sunk, over 2,400 people were killed and 1,100 more were wounded (Paige 2). “Air raid, Pearl Harbor, this is no drill,” said the radio message that went out at 7:58 a. m. from the U. S. Navy’s Ford Island command center, relayed throughout Hawaii, to Manila, to Washington, D. C.
But there was an even sharper sense of imminent disaster in the words someone shouted over the public address system on another docked battleship, the Oklahoma: Man your battle stations! This is no censored! (Friedrich 30). Within minutes, Pearl Harbor was pandemonium: explosions, screams, tearing steel, the rattle of machine guns, smoke, fire, bugles sounding, the whine of diving airplanes, more explosions, more screams. With Battleship Row afire, Fuchida’s bombers circled over the maze of Pearl Harbor’s docks and piers, striking again and again at the cruisers and destroyers and supply ships harbored there (Friedrich 42).
The Japanese Navy and the military officials believed that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would render the Americans ineffective, and persuaded the Japanese foreign ministry against sending timely pre-war warning (Ikuhito 229). In general, Pearl Harbor still represents to most Americans, even after a half-century, a quintessential moment of treachery and betrayal. Word of the attack reached President Roosevelt as he lunched in his oval study on Sunday afternoon. Later, Winston Churchill called to tell him that the Japanese had also attacked British colonies in southeast Asia and that Britain would declare war the next day.
Roosevelt responded that he would go before Congress the following day to ask for a declaration of war against Japan. Churchill wrote: “To have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. Now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! . . . Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder (Friedrich 44). The bombing rallied the United States behind the President in declaring war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the U. S. , bringing about a global conflict.
Aside from the destruction of the American military installation and troops stationed at Pearl Harbor, the bombing also served Japans interests by establishing the nation as a military threat to the strategic positioning of U. S. military interests in the pacific. It also served notice that Japan intended to reign supreme in the Pacific. There are also those theories that suggest that the Japanese government found it expedient to provoke the United States into a situation in which it would be fighting a war in very separate and distant locations, thus lessening the overall strength and ability for effective retaliation.
On January 23, 1942, Japanese forces seized Rabaul in the Solomons and fortified it extensively. The site provided excellent harbor and numerous positions for airfields. The devastating enemy carrier and plane losses of the Battle of Midway (June, 1942) had caused the cancellation for the invasion of Midway, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, but plans to construct a major seaplane base at Tulagi went forward. The location offered on of the best anchorages in the South Pacific and it was strategically located: 560 miles from the New Hebrides, 800 miles from New Caledonia, and 1,000 miles from Fiji.
The outposts at Tulagi and Guadalcanal were the forward evidences of a sizeable Japanese force in the region, beginning with Lieutenant General Haruyoshi Hyakutake’s Seventeenth Army, headquartered at Rabaul (Clancey USMC/USMC-C-Guadalcanal. html). In August, 1942, the invasion by American Marines of Guadalcanal, a relatively unknown island in the Solomons, began turning the tide of World War II in the Pacific and is remembered as the first major American offensive of the Pacific war. Until then, the Japanese had been invincible, inflicting setback after setback on the Allies.
In the ensuing sea battle following the Marine landing, fifty ships sank to the floor of Iron Bottom Sound. For six months, the campaign saw more sustained violence–by sea, land and air–than any other in World War II (Frank PG). A soldier from New Zealand and survivor of the battle describes it: A vicious struggle followed. No quarter was asked or given as Marines and Japanese fought face-to-face in the swirling gunsmoke, lunging, stabbling, and smashing with bayonets and rifle butts. Horrible cries rose above the general tumult as cold steel tore through flesh and entrails and men died in agony (Stevenson 50).
That same veteran also described Guadalcanal as a high stakes poker game. Japan had made an initial wager by appropriating the island and constructing an airstrip. The Americans called and raised the bet when they seized it. The pot grew steadily as the two sides battled on land, on sea, and in the air to put more troops ashore to inflict heavy casualties on each other (Stevenson 52). While the Japanese regrouped, we waited. Tension from the endless vigil and dysentery from the meager diet were becoming endemic. Each dusk brought clouds of malarial mosquitoes . . .
Morale was at its lowest (Stevenson 52). Ultimately, the men on Guadalcanal were not fighting for God, country, or Moms apple pie. They were determined to survive. Heroics born of desperation marked the battle that history books describe as having been won by privates, non-commissioned officers and junior officers, not by generals sitting around a polished table. Each time these men were nearly driven off the Canal, they found an even-greater depth of courage and fortitude. Guadalcanal was a battle that the Americans should have lost, but no one told the fighting men (Owens PG).