On discourage foreign interference and cripple America’s

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack against Allied possessions in the Pacific, including the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After decades of conflict between the two nations, the U.

S. declared war.

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Japan Rivals the U.


‘Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.’But, to say it came as a complete shock would not be the whole story – the United States and Japan had been at odds for decades. First of all, just after the turn of the century, both nations were competing for political and economic influence throughout the Pacific. Then, after World War I, Japan laid claim to former German colonies in the East, expanding the Japanese Empire and emerging as a serious rival to America’s position in Asia.

In 1922, the world’s nine largest naval powers (including Japan and the United States) signed a series of treaties limiting warship capacity, agreeing to consult each other in any disputes over China and respecting the territorial integrity of that nation. But certain classes of ships weren’t restricted by the Nine Power Treaty, leading to an arms race until the loopholes were closed.Then, in 1931, Japan blatantly violated these agreements by invading Manchuria and other parts of China. With the Nine Power Treaty now broken, America increased its naval power in the Pacific and several nations began funneling aid to China through their colonies in Asia.

Undeclared War

Continued Japanese aggression for the next decade, including the invasion of China in 1937, their alliance with the Axis powers of World War II and the invasion of French Indochina resulted in escalating American involvement without a declaration of war. Concerned American pilots formed an independent air force called the Flying Tigers and worked with the Chinese government to prepare defenses over that nation’s airspace.

The U.S. government also joined its allies in seizing Japanese assets and placed embargoes on steel, oil and other raw materials needed for war production.Running short on supplies, Japan had two choices: submit to foreign demands by abandoning the invasion of China or seize the resources it needed by attacking even more territory.

Japan chose the latter. With the European powers already embroiled in World War II, it looked like the only thing standing in Japan’s way of controlling the entire Pacific Rim was the United States.The Empire of Japan devised an elaborate plan to simultaneously attack Allied territories throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong and Midway. In one sweep, they could secure desperately needed resources, discourage foreign interference and cripple America’s increasing military strength in the Pacific.

To Pearl Harbor alone, Japan sent 30 ships, including 6 aircraft carriers. There was a separate force of submarines tasked with sinking any American ships that might escape the harbor. The top-secret Japanese fleet set sail on November 26, 1941, and by avoiding shipping lanes, moved into position without being spotted.

Warning Signs

Although the Allies had not yet broken the Japanese naval encryption code, there were suggestions of an impending attack.

Beginning as early as January 1941 and periodically throughout the year, Washington sent warnings to fleet and field commanders in Hawaii, the Philippines, Alaska and the Panama Canal Zone. But many American decision-makers believed that Japan did not have the military capacity to pull off a major strike.The day after the Japanese fleet embarked, a message went out to all Pacific stations reading, ‘Consider this dispatch a war warning.’ Many expected an attack on the Philippines to be most likely. However, minimal steps were taken in Hawaii. Most importantly, the aircraft carriers were all sent out, and in a fatal miscalculation, the Army commander lined up his planes as a protection against sabotage.

In order to achieve complete surprise, Japan violated international law and diplomatic protocol by attacking without first sending an ultimatum. Still, in the wee hours of December 7, 1941, there were at least three clues of imminent danger.First, an American patrol spotted a submarine periscope as it followed a cargo ship through the anti-submarine nets into Pearl Harbor. A nearby destroyer, the USS Ward, fired at the mini-sub and sank it. Second, a radar operator noticed the incoming Japanese air force, but officers were expecting planes from California that morning and dismissed the sighting.

Third, Washington forwarded credible intelligence of an attack, but it didn’t reach the commander at Pearl Harbor until hours later.

December 7, 1941

Shortly before 8:00 in the morning on December 7, 1941, 181 Japanese planes arrived over the island of Oahu, targeting the military airfields first, before the U.S. planes could get off the ground to defend the harbor. Hundreds of aircraft, lined up in a row like sitting ducks, were damaged or destroyed. Next, the Japanese unleashed their fury against Battleship Row, hitting all seven ships at anchor there.

As the first wave of planes departed, the leader of the Japanese strike force sent back the pre-arranged message, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ to the carriers, meaning the element of surprise had been achieved. After a brief lull in the attack, 170 more Japanese planes arrived in a second wave, targeting another battleship and 3 destroyers in dry dock and inflicting further damage on the battered fleet in the harbor.Before 10:00 in the morning, three out of eight battleships were lost.

The bomb that pierced the USS Arizona ignited the ship’s ammunition, causing an explosion that killed nearly 1,200 men. A total of 12 ships were sunk or beached, and 9 more were damaged, including 3 cruisers and 4 destroyers. Three hundred forty-seven aircraft were hit. A total of 2,403 Americans were killed, including 68 civilians in Honolulu and another 1,178 wounded. It took several months for the U.S. to bounce back from the losses at Pearl Harbor and other locations, opening a window of opportunity for the Japanese military to advance throughout the Pacific in early 1942.

Believe it or not, things could have been much worse. The shore-side facilities were still operational, the aircraft carriers were all away from the harbor, most of the destroyers and submarines were not targeted and all but three of the ships that were struck that day were raised or repaired and back in service by 1943.The Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was the last straw.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, broadcast live to the entire nation via radio, asking them to declare war on December 8, 1941. There was only one dissenter (Montana pacifist Jeanette Rankin), and at 4:00 that afternoon, the United States of America was at war.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii after decades of rising tension. At first, Japan was merely a rival to the U.

S. for influence, but in the 1930s they violated international treaties by invading Manchuria. International response, including an oil embargo, forced Japan to either abandon its quest for empire or seize the resources it needed by expanding into other territories. They planned a simultaneous strike at several Allied possessions, especially targeting Pearl Harbor.

Despite several warning signs, America was caught off guard and suffered severe losses, including three of eight battleships, hundreds of planes and thousands of lives. And though the United States declared war the next day, Japan had nearly free reign over the Pacific for several months.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson should prepare you to:

  • Analyze the tensions between Japan and the United States leading up to World War II
  • Reference the warning signs of the attack on December 7, 1941
  • Discuss the effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor

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