December 7, 2008

Pearl Harbor Day

December 7, 1941 is the day America came of age on the world stage.

By way of background, what we now call World War II had been raging for at least two years, pretty much everywhere but in the Americas. Some historians date the beginning of the conflict as early as 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria. More conventionally, 1937 is the traditional beginning of the war itself, with the Japanese attack on China, which drew the Soviet Union into the conflict. A temporary cessation in hostilities in May 1939 was quickly broken by events in Europe. There, the Axis powers had expanded until on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded and attempted to annex Poland, plunging most of the world into war.

Late in 1939, the United States modified its neutrality policy to open munitions, food, and credit transactions with Allied powers, and embargoed strategic materials such as iron, oil, coal, and machine parts to Japan. In 1940, the United States swapped a flotilla of destroyers with Great Britain in exchange for title to various naval bases around the world. The Axis powers saw this as aggression; however, the bulk of the voters in the United States were opposed to direct intervention in the war.

In the summer of 1941, the Axis powers declared war on the Soviet Union, which responded by allying itself with the Allied Powers, then led by the United Kingdom. Still the U.S. public did not want to be in the war -- memories from the Great War were still alive for many, and so many people remembered the horrifying loss of life and the political futility of that awful conflict. Diplomacy was the order of the day in Washington, although it is commonly assumed that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt viewed intervention the war as inevitable and wanted to prod public opinion in that direction.

Personally, I think that the idea that Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor and did nothing to realize his pro-war policy objective is going a little bit too far. Our losses on December 7, 1941 were too severe for that sort of thing to have been the case. Certainly, no aircraft carriers were docked on the date of the attack -- but if they had been, chances are good the Battle of Pearl Harbor would not have been so one-sided, because the Japanese aircraft were sighted flying over Oahu from the north and there would have been time to scramble more airplanes for one of the most intense aerial combats in human history.

The Japanese attack was a smashing success in tactical terms. The Japanese suffered minimal casualties -- 29 aircraft, four miniature submarines, and 65 personnel lost. However, they inflicted grievous losses on the Americans. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and four battleships were disabled (two battleships were repaired and returned to service in 1943), 2,402 deaths and about half as many career-ending injuries inflicted, and the harbor was rendered half useless with the destruction of piers, munition depots, fuel storage, and repair facilities.

Forgotten in the mythology that has grown up around the Battle of Pearl Harbor were surprise attacks on British and Dutch military outposts in the Pacific that took place on the same day.

While the Battle of Pearl Harbor was a huge tactical success for the Japanese, strategically it proved their ultimate undoing. There were those in the Imperial Japanese military who knew this. In the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is credited with saying, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." The first clause of this sentence was used in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor. But it is at best uncertain if Admiral Yamamoto ever actually said anything like this. A subordinate who survived the war, however, credited him with saying, "Gentlemen, we have just kicked a rabid dog." (Yamamoto had some training at the United States War College and at Harvard Univeristy; he generally liked Americans, so his quote was probably a metaphor for the danger Japan had invited on herself rather than an insult to America.) Writing a dispatch to an exuberant High Command in the aftermath of the battle, Yamamoto refused to assess his operation as either a success or failure:
"A military man can scarcely pride himself on having 'smitten a sleeping enemy'; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack."
Finally, Yamamoto was described by his subordiantes as having sunk into a funk after the attack and reporting to the Admiralty that "I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success." This last quote has been verified and found in an actual communication to the High Command.

We can't ask him. Admiral Yamamoto, probably Japan's most charismatic war hero, was killed by an American P-38 attack on his position in the Solomon Islands on April 18, 1943. He had been specifically targetted as a key figure.

We might regret the loss of a latter-day samurai, one with a cool enough head to have been a voice symapthetic to the United States in the war but also a skilled and dangerous adversary worthy of a sort of respect. But more important, the attack on Pearl Harbor on this day in 1941 marked the entry of the United States into a six-year war that left over sixty-two million people dead and forever transformed every part of the world.


zzi said...

I'm glad you don't think FDR knew about the attack. Where did you get the 62 million number? I heard the numbers 50 or 55 million used most often. When I say the 55 number, people look at me like I'm out of my mind. This post should be required reading for (LA) High School students.

Burt Likko said...

62 million was the high estimate found on Wikipedia for total casualties on all sides. Obviously, no one can know for sure and 55 million is certainly staggering enough.

I don't think FDR knew about the attack because to accomplish his aim, proof of attack plans would all that was necessary. He certainly didn't want a defeat and Pearl Harbor was a major setback at the outset of the war. He'd have arranged for us to have fought back harder, or counter-attacked the Japanese fleet north of Oahu, if he'd have known it was coming.