The Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor
At 7:48 a.m. on December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese fighter planes bombed U.S. air bases across the Hawaiian island of Oahu. At that moment, what in some alternate universe might have been a peaceful Sunday morning, turned into what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.” The attack happened in two waves, which lasted approximately 90 minutes, and in that time the Japanese succeeded in sinking or damaging 18 ships – including all eight U.S. battleships, which were a symbol of U.S. naval excellence – and destroying or damaging over 350 aircraft. And in less than two hours, the Japanese had killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282 more.
The attack on Pearl Harbor stunned the U.S. Navy, which had been completely unprepared for such an event. Men aboard the U.S. ships that were being bombed woke up to the shrill sounds of bells and alarms and the famous message sent from the naval headquarters in Hawaii: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill.”
While Oahu burned and ordinary men became heroes, back on the U.S. mainland, the American government and its people realized that the days of isolationism were over. The U.S. had officially entered World War II and would go on in the coming years to help lead the allies to a victory in World War II.
But first, the nation had to attempt to answer the questions that invariably arose in people’s minds: How on earth could this have happened? What led to this attack and what precisely would be its consequences? The “day of infamy” was a day that was marked not only by confusion, horror, shock and deceit, but also by short-sightedness, willful blindness and ill-timed communication.
The years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor were a period during which Japan was planning and executing an ambitious, wide-scale expansion of its empire, and the U.S. was tenaciously and then half-heartedly attempting to cling to its policy of isolationism during World War II. By the 1930s, Japan had advanced into Manchuria and mainland China and was making headway into conquering all of Southeast Asia and plundering its natural oil reserves.
After the fall of France in 1940 and the Japanese invasion and occupation of French Indochina in 1941, the U.S. began to understand the gravity of the war in the Pacific. In addition to halting the shipment of airplanes, airplane parts and aviation fuel, the U.S. also stopped exporting oil to Japan, which was crippling to the Japanese economy as it was almost entirely dependent on U.S. oil.
Sometime earlier, President Roosevelt had ordered the U.S. Pacific Fleet to shift its base from San Diego to Hawaii and had begun to build up American forces in the Philippines in order to discourage Japanese aggression. Nevertheless, by 1941 the Japanese had made full-scale plans to overtake the Dutch East Indies.
The countries were in a headlock – Japan negotiating to have the oil embargo lifted without giving up its attempts at territorial expansion and the U.S. trying to compel Japan to stop expanding its territory without committing U.S. troops to join WWII. The countries were in a headlock – Japan negotiating to have the oil embargo lifted without giving up its attempts at territorial expansion and the U.S. trying to compel Japan to stop expanding its territory without committing U.S. troops to join WWII. Clearly, war was on the horizon. Still, both countries engaged in a show of diplomacy, and negotiations appeared to be under way even on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack.
But obviously, by December 7, Japan had made up its mind to take action. In accordance with the rules of war, the country had even attempted to send a notice of war. Tokyo had dispatched a message, which is now famously known as the “14-part message,” to its embassy in the U.S. and was hoping to have the message delivered to Washington in enough time to somehow give notice and still launch the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the Japanese ambassador’s office took too long in transcribing the 5,000-word message, and by the time it was actually delivered to Washington, the bombing had already started.
Less than four years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on August 6 and August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Six days later, Japan surrendered to the allied powers, officially ending war in the Pacific theater. According to modest estimates, the immediate death toll at Hiroshima was 70,000, a number that by 1950 rose to 200,000 due to cancer and other long-term effects of radiation from the bombs.