The Battle That Ignited America

Pearl Harbor right before the attack
Sunday, December 7, 1941
Pearl Harbor.
The very phrase sent chills up the spine of anyone who heard it at least into 1962, 20 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Dec. 8, 1941 address to Congress asking that "since Dec. 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, a state of war has existed between the United States and the empire of Japan."

Well, the phrase sent chills up the spine of most Americans who heard it. But it meant steadily less to young Japanese who may have heard the date after about 1960. Part of Japan's postwar recovery and prosperity entailed systematically ignoring its military past, which included not just the hour and 50 minutes of the Pearl Harbor attack, but significant Japanese history from 1930 to 1945.

Even in America, where ignorance of the fact and significance of Pearl Harbor is less widespread, the phrase has little more emotional impact than such terms as Bunker Hill, Belleau Wood, Antietam, Little Big Horn and other events that happened long ago.

This article is aimed at those who know basically what Pearl Harbor was but little about what led up to it and down from it. Books by the hundreds have details big and small about Pearl Harbor; perhaps this sketch will point the curious in their direction.

The question of how far back the origins of the attack go has only one safe answer: 1853, when Commodore Perry opened the long-slumbering Japan to foreign relations at gunpoint. Noting how Europe had occupied India, China, Africa, Australia, the Indies and other areas surrounding Japan, its leaders began goading the country from feudalism to industrialism. Japan began to hone its already fierce military tradition, sending its future Army officers to Germany and its future naval leaders to England.

Japan was strong enough to defeat Russia in a short 1904 war, around the time Pearl Harbor began to get the steady refurbishment and expansion that continued to Dec. 7, 1941. When the United States seized The Philippines in 1898, Japanese leaders assumed that America was a potential adversary. Growing U.S. Navy presence in Manila Bay, Guam, Hong Kong, the Yangtze and Pearl Harbor alarmed Japan, which was already wary of the Dutch in the Indies, the British in China and the French in Indo-China.

Japanese, British, Australian and American naval officers and enlisted men mingled with varying degrees of cordiality, but their governments acted as if a DMZ lay between Japan and western powers. Japan felt surrounded and compressed when it needed to expand its empire, and western powers feared that Japan threatened their colonial holdings.

When Japan seized Manchuria in 1931 it was treated as an outlaw nation, a reputation underscored when it invaded China in 1935. Japan was also locked in post-World War I naval treaty negotiations for years, frustrated that building limitations were imposed on them by nations she would fight in case of a war.

Especially rankling was oil. Japan had to buy it from the United States, which got it from the Dutch East Indies. Aside from the humiliation, it cost much more than if Japan could simply buy it directly.

The prospect of war with Japan was so commonplace that in U.S. Navy war game, one side always represented Japan. It was only natural. There were only three real navies in the Pacific, and there was no chance that England and America would fight each other, with or without Japan as an ally. U.S. Navy planning presumed a Japanese invasion of The Philippines, which America would repulse by sending its fleet from Pearl Harbor. Called War Plan Orange, it had existed in various forms from the 1920s.

Once war started in Europe on Sept. 1, 1939 Japanese, British and American leaders assumed that war was likely. When France fell in May 1940, and Nazi domination of Europe loomed, America belatedly awoke. Congress passed the Two-Ocean Naval Expansion Act that ordered an entire navy: 115 destroyers, 27 cruisers, 42 subs, seven battleships and -- most chilling to Japan -- 18 aircraft carriers. Japan knew the U.S. already had 358 combat ships in commission and 130 already under construction.

Japan could never imagine matching such a program -- or fighting it if it were completed. To Japan, the Two-Ocean Navy Act was virtual declaration of war -- a war that had to be fought before any of the nearly 350 ships could be launched. It followed by just one month the reassignment of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from the California to Pearl Harbor.

The war might have waited until 1942 or perhaps as late as 1943. Most of those powerful Essex class carriers, ordered in May 1940, didn't join the fleet until 1944. But Japan began actual planning of a Pearl Harbor attack in November 1940 around the time the British -- in biplanes -- attacked the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor on the Italian heel and neutralized three battleships, altering the balance of power at the cost of just two planes.

But the Dec. 7 date was virtually set in summer 1941. When Japan moved into Indo-China, the U.S. froze Japanese assets and cut off the flow of oil on July 26, 1941. Japan was stuck with the oil it had, a two-year supply based on normal operations. Japan was being forced to surrender without a fight or go to war. No one expected surrender. Each side held the other in contempt, partly just because of race. Japan considered America complacent, cowardly and devoid of moral fiber. America considered Japan a nation of funny looking little trolls that belied its foolish image with atrocities like the Rape of Nanking.

The U.S. expected war to start in the spring of 1942 with the planned-on invasion of The Philippines. Recalled to service, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was arming and building a Filipino army and air corps. Planes were being flown and ferried in; B-17 bombers bound for MacArthur got caught in the Dec. 7 attack.

Even as the smoke billowed over Battleship Row, some theorized some kind of sellout, a deal between President Roosevelt and Japan to lure America into the war he had come close to getting us into in the Atlantic.

Those hundreds of books previously mentioned do not contain the smoking gun. No proof of tip-off or collusion is clear. Any relevant documentation is long destroyed.

But there almost certainly was no such cooperation. Why would Japan agree to an operation that, when the clouds cleared, had done far more damage to them than to America. It was almost as if they were throwing in the towel at the start of Round One.

The expected attack in The Philippines could have lured the Pacific Fleet to deep water where they could be sunk with no hope of being raised from the mud, repaired and sent to fight. Our fleet would be fighting at the end of a long supply line, but Japan would be close to home and land bases. Our precious few carriers might have been damaged or sunk.

The attack in Pearl Harbor modernized the U.S. Navy in two hours, neutralizing our battleships and forcing us to use the weapon we should have been stressing all along, our carriers, none of which was even damaged, since none was there. Political wrangling between carrier admirals and battleship admirals could have slowed our retaliation. The Japanese streamlined the discussions.

The Japanese went to war for the oil of the Indies. No operation was planned with scrutinizing oil supplies and consumption. Yet the Pearl Harbor attackers left some two dozen aboveground tanks untouched. One tank yard lies between Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor, the other adjacent to the Pearl Harbor submarine base. Altogether, they held a two-year supply of oil. Had the Japanese done no more than strafe those tanks, they could have rendered Pearl Harbor useless and forced the U.S. to retreat to California. They could have occupied Hawaii and forced the U.S. to retaliate across a 4 day stretch of water with no chance of surprise.

Speaking of the sub base, our boats started patrolling the day after the attack. Our early torpedoes were duds or erratic, but they still harried Japanese merchant shipping. The base was as pristine as the oil tanks after the attack.

So were Pearl's all-important repair facilities. Damaged ships repaired at Pearl Harbor got back into action a minimum of nine days earlier than they would if they had to go to Bremerton, Hunter's Point or Long Beach for repair. The carrier Yorktown was patched up from the May 1942 Coral Sea battle to play a crucial role in the June Battle of Midway.

The human casualties were shocking, but far less than they would have been if the attack had come on any day but Sunday.

Otherwise U.S. losses were almost negligible. The ships hit hardest were the battleships, which would have hobbled us. The intact carriers, sub base, oil tanks and repair shops enabled the U.S. to come back slugging on Day Two.

The attack's greatest benefit to the U.S. was intangible but crucial. The shock, anger and guilt it hosed into the American psyche stirred a war morale no American leader could have approached.

Japan had no chance of winning the war. It counted only on stunning America into a quick negotiated peace. But the Pearl Harbor attack guaranteed total war and left America with the wherewithal to fight it and the passion to win it in at least a year less than it would otherwise.

Ted Mahar writes for The Oregonian, primarily in the Arts and Entertainment section, and regularly reviews documentary programs in The Oregonian's TV secrtion. He is a history buff and spent three years in the National Guard and 20 years in the Naval Reserve as a public affairs officer.

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