The Attack in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 can be considered one of the major turning points of the Second World War of 1939-1945 as the Japanese Navy sent out a surprise attack against the United States by attacking its base in Pearl Harbor. The events following the attack pulled the US into the foray of the war against the Axis Powers, making the war deadlier as it expanded to various parts of the globe. However, it is often unnoticed or undiscussed as to what led the Japanese, who were in the Eastern Continent, to attack America without fearing its retaliation. Did they have a certain grudge against the de facto head of the Allied Powers or was the attack mostly done due to agitate the country yet to enter the conflict? Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor done as a means to alleviate itself from further US pressures and to disable the United States from further interfering the Japanese from achieving its expansionist policies in the Asian region.
Prior to the events in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were weary of the growing Western influence in the region and knew it may pose problems to their growing power and influence, especially in expanding to Manchuria, located between China and Russia. At first, the United States tried to get Japan into their bandwagon by aiding them in the Russo-Japan War of 1904. However, this did not last long as the US lawmakers saw that Japan had hidden intentions in winning the war against Russia. While the Japanese tried to stave of the US from further influencing their affairs, the West had tried to disarm the region through the Washington Conference of 1922. With this threat to Japan’s national interest, a discussion of a Pan-Asianism policy grew within Tokyo lawmakers in 1933 as leaders such as Amo Eiji and Hirota Koki of the Foreign Ministry argued that Japan has a responsibility in the Far East as its protector and remove Western influence from the region. With their strained relations with Britain and the US, the Japanese knew they had to make another ally and signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in 1936 in order to use Germany’s technologies to improve its own for possible attacks against the country.
On July 1937 or the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaru and Foreign Minister Hirota Koki did little to prevent the Japanese from battling with the Chinese causing a full-blown war between the two parties. The Americans under President Roosevelt took note of the Japanese action, especially after the sinking of the American gunboat Panay on the Yangtze in December 1937, stating that the Japanese policy was now violating its own Open Door principle. Prime Minister Konoe dismissed the speech and announced that Japan was now working on a “ new order in East Asia”. Almost immediately, the Americans sent a counter response to the “ new order” Japan was trying to build and stated that Japan has no right to do so as it would only claim other’s sovereignty . However, with Europe slowly falling into Adolf Hitler’s control in 1940, the Japanese slowly made plans to claim European possessions in the region and knew that the US would not easily interfere. At that same period, on May 23, 1940, American officials were mostly discussing about Germany’s growing victories in France and stated that they should concentrate in their own territories. Roosevelt did not take any chances and threaten Japan with two diplomatic tools to influence Japan’s expansion plans: an oil embargo and military intervention.
At that point, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy was slowly meeting up with his fellow leaders in creating an attack against the US. Rear Admiral Takijiro Onishi studied the proposal on January 7. 1941 and stated that the attack against the US would be difficult but not impossible. Yamamoto saw the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy as a possible setback to the country, but conceded for the sake of his country. Knowing the possible reaction of the US with their position with the Tripartite Pact, he wrote to Prime Minister Konoye and stated that “ Now that the situation has come to this pass, I hope you will endeavor to avoid a Japanese-American War”. In a separate letter to Vice Admiral Koshiro Oikawa, Yamamoto stressed that the time has come for the Navy to prepare for all eventualities of the war. In April 1941, Matsuoka met with the Soviets to sign a neutrality pact in order to ensure that the Soviet Union would not interfere with their Southeast Asian plan. However, before they could make a move, Germany invaded the Soviets and caused them to revise their idea of such plan. The Japanese military slowly prepared for both Southern and Northern advances in order to attack without triggering a possible embargo. Japan moved to southern Indochina in caution, however, they did not expect the US to get a hold of their planned invasion of Indochina. The US Navy advised Roosevelt that a full embargo would only cause Japan to find another oil supplier and cause them to attack the Dutch East Indies. On July 24, the cabinet met in Washington and decided to freeze all Japanese assets in the region and require licenses for oil exporters before it is allowed by the US Treasury. However, while Roosevelt only agreed to oil licenses to limit oil exports in Japan, the head of the Foreign Funds Committee Dean Acheson favored the full embargo against Japan and had the capacity to release FFC funding for the licenses.
Japan’s reaction to the embargo had put pressures on Japan to prepare its military with limited fuel supply, presenting the possibility that they may not be able to win against the Soviet Union if they attempted to invade it. By September, many officers had argued that without oil, they cannot win any war and Navy Chief of Staff Nagano Osami stated that going to war was a risky move. Two options had been possible for Japan, at that point, to move on: speak to the US about removing the oil embargo or accept the “ gradual exhaustion” they were experiencing. Tokyo could indeed demand the US to withdraw from China in exchange for their promise to withdraw from the Southeast after peace is established in the region. However, if they were to hold on to the second issue, they may declare war if Japanese demands are not met through negotiation. America, in its end, were not even moving towards a negotiation process as Japan may try to overturn the discussions to satisfy America and their own. They were also supportive over Chiang Kai-shek’s reign in China.
The Japanese, noticing the lack of diplomatic talks, met with Oikawa Koshiro of the Imperial Navy to discuss the crisis and looked at the prospect of accepting the demands. However, the Imperial Army did not agree to the possibility as it is a humiliating end to the Chinese issue and against their code of honor. With Yamamoto already discussing a surprise attack against the US, there were arguments that they should target Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Yamamoto argued that Hawaii was much easier to attack as the Americans may use the chance to launch an attack directly in Japan. Threatening to resign from the navy, the navy agreed to his plan and slowly prepared to attack on the first week of December. Yamamoto immediately spoke with the commanders of the air and sea fleets docked in the aircraft carrier Akagi in October 2, 1941 for briefing. Slowly, the Imperial leaders devised Kido Butai, a strike force of over 57 warships and submarines to serve as an attack force for Operation Hawaii, supported by the 6 aircraft carriers of the country – the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Zuikaku and Shokaku. The troops were trained within Kagoshima Bay in Kyushu to serve as a mockup version of Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese negotiators in Washington, on their end, only had a month to reach a settlement as the Imperial Navy discussed all possible outcomes of the Pearl Harbor attack. Roosevelt slowly attempt to stop a possible Pacific conflict and tried to deploy troops in the Philippines as they received word that there was a Japanese squad moving in the South China Sea. Admiral Husband Kimmel of the US Pacific Fleet stated that if the talks between the two nations would break down, a possible attack on Pearl Harbor is imminent. In order to prepare for this eventuality, he had ordered his men to conduct 15 air-raid drills between April to November 1951. The Japanese forces knew that only a breakthrough from Washington negotiations would change the Japanese course for Pearl Harbor . With the US already pushing an ultimatum towards what Japan can do, Japan knew it was time to act as the US was now slowly belittling their dignity and very existence, and in the words of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, it was the final straw and “ The Pacific War had begun” .
The Japanese assault had three phases: surprise Pearl Harbor and neutralize the Americans, strengthen their military presence and protect the perimeter as they cover the Philippines and Malaya. They already knew that the US already moved some of their ships in the region, but many still remained in the area. On December 7. 1941, the US fleet in Pearl Harbor found itself under siege by task force Kido Butai, overwhelmed by the surprise force. The entire base been caught off-guard by the attack and almost easily, after four waves of airstrikes and torpedo bombings with minimum losses to the Japanese, the US forces moved to the West Coast and found itself paralyzed with the destruction of its Pacific fleet . From the start, Japan knew a possible confrontation with the US would be difficult to pull off and dangerous for their expansion plans. However, the very fact that the US had agitated them through the embargo and their constant intervention in a region far from their area had pushed the Japanese to the limit. If the US had indeed agreed to remove its forces from China, the attack could have been prevented or terminated, saving countless lives in the process.
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