World War II - Pearl Harbor

I talked to my friend Rich a while back and we compared notes after we had both read the most excellent book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  During our conversation we found ourselves saying, practically in unison, “When I think about World War II, I always think about the European Theater and I forget about the South Pacific.”  When WWII comes up in conversation most people automatically think of the Holocaust. Even when one googles World War II, the top search results are more often than not about the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific is treated almost as an afterthought. This is rather strange if you think about it, since the United States was attacked in the Pacific by Japan. So in theory, one would think the U.S.’s major beef and focus would be around the events that took place in the South Pacific. 

But it wasn’t called a World War for nothing. And, like most things war-related, it’s one giant complicated mess of poo. And like most giant complicated messes of poo, it won’t be resolved in a simple blog post. And to say that this post is an oversimplification of very complex issues is an understatement! Add to that the many issues that won’t be addressed here . . . and to those moments in history that will be lost on this day let me apologize.

At the end of World War I (ironically referred to as “The war to end all wars”), while Germany went home to lick its wounds, countries all over the rest of the world began to experience the pre-depression blues. Economies everywhere were suffering.

Japan, which was considered an Allied nation in WWI, felt it was being discriminated against by the United States, Britain and Australia. Around 1919, Japan’s proposal to the League of Nations for a “racial equality clause” was turned down and then in 1924 the U.S. passed the Exclusion Act. (An extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, and part of the Immigration Act, this legislation was designed to specifically limit Asian immigration.) 

As the 1930s rolled around, the Japanese military took almost complete control over their own government. In 1931, with heavy criticism from the League of Nations, Japanese armed forces occupied Manchuria and in 1937 the second Sino-Japanese War (Japan vs. China) broke out. While the U.S. and other Allied nations were firmly against this war, they had no desire to become a part of it. The only thing they could do was apply diplomatic and economic pressure to get the Japanese to retreat.  

Around this same time, right after WWI, things were also cooking in Germany. They too were experiencing the same economic crises that were facing the rest of the world. Add to that the election of Adolf Hitler to the National Socialist Party (a.k.a. The Nazi Party) in 1921, his becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and then his little plan for “Lebensraum” (a.k.a. world domination) in 1937.

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

Much to the dismay of the United States and its Allies, as the calendar turned to 1940, the scope of Japan’s domination was growing larger, as it occupied Vietnam (at that time known as French Indochina) and then joined the Axis powers (Germany and Italy).  As Japan’s expansion grew further, it became more and more clear that the only thing standing in its way was the powerful U.S. Naval force in the Pacific.

In the United States most people were focused on their economic problems at home. Nobody was interested in getting involved in another war. No more wars! American sentiment would not budge, despite the pleas of the Allies, who were trying to get the attention of the U.S. and its president, Franklin Roosevelt.

And here begins the big conspiracy theory of the middle 20th Century. Many claim that Roosevelt and his administration had prior knowledge of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. Researchers, using the Freedom of Information Act, have been able to obtain documents, including memos and naval communications, to show that the administration knew that the attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. 

While many historians have debunked this conspiracy theory, what is “less debunked” is the thinking that the FDR administration provoked Japan into the attack that led the US into World War II.

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.) was first elected president in 1932. This was three years after the Crash of ‘29 and one year before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. All in all there was a lot on Roosevelt’s plate. While trying to get the economy sorted out, he was also keeping an eye on what was happening overseas. While he believed that Germany was a significant threat, he still publicly claimed neutrality, even up and through Germany’s invasion of Poland. And, if you will recall your high school history classes, you will remember this invasion was what finally unleashed a declaration of war against Germany by Britain, France, Australia & New Zealand. 

And some believe that in the back of his mind, F.D.R., and/or members of his administration, thought that a war might be a solution to two concerns: the sinking U.S. economy, and stopping the Germans from achieving world domination. But how to do that? How does one change public opinion? The solution seemed simple enough. If you poke the bear and he attacks then there is cause to declare war. Right? So the U.S. began poking the German bear, by cooperating with British naval attacks on German U-Boats, hoping that Hitler would strike. But Adolf never took the bait. 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

And if Adolf wasn't going to cooperate, well then, on to Plan B. Enter Japan. Since the Japanese were already in a militant frame of mind, the administration believed they could be provoked. And how to do it? Hit them where it really hurts: their pocketbook.  A cup of sanctions, a pinch of embargoes, add a back turning on negotiations, and there you have it: a recipe for poking the Japanese bear that will attack.

And so, on December 7, 1941 at 7:55 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, 360 Japanese planes launched three waves of coordinated attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack lasted until 10:00 a.m. PST.  

USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

Within that short period of time, the Japanese were able to destroy or severely damage 18 ships and 163 aircraft. Approximately 2,400 U.S. military and civilian souls were lost and over 1,000 were wounded. The Japanese fared better during this round with a loss of 29 planes, 6 submarines, and 64 souls.

The USS Arizona was one of the American ships to be destroyed. Its final resting place, along with many of the 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives that day, is now a permanent memorial.

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

On December 8, 1941, the United States Congress voted  (with one dissension) and declared that war existed between the United States and Japan. On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. It seems that all of the bears were successfully poked and America was now officially engaged in the Second World War. 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (2002)

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.