On December 7, 1941, Japan launched what was considered a sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It led to the death of more than 2,400 Americans, and the damage or destruction of eighteen naval vessels (including eight naval battleships) and more than 100 airplanes of the U.S. military. Many Americans at the time were angered by this unprovoked attack. There was also a massive support for the US to enter into the war to support Britain and France against Germany, France, and Japan. However, while this attack might have caught the American commanders who were stationed in Hawaii by surprise, the countrys intelligence in Washington was aware of the attack and were even hoping that Japan would fire the first shot, in what would seem like a provocation without cause, and lead them to retaliate.
What Led Japan to Attack the Pearl Harbor?
In 1937, four years after Franklin D. Roosevelt had become the president of the United States, the country implemented restrictive trade measures against Japan. It is important to point out that Japan is a small country with few natural resources, and for it to grow, it relied on imported raw materials such as copper, bauxite, coal, rubber, and petroleum for economic and industrial growth (Brune & Burns, 2003). Embargoes were introduced on oil, gasoline and scrap metal that Japan needed both for its economic growth and functionality of its military, which was critical at that time as Japan was extending its colonial empire in Asia. It was believed that at that time, the US harbored colonial interests in the region (Gannon, 2002). Also, Japan foreign assets were frozen. It is also important to note that the embargo that was introduced by the US in Japan was also placed into effect by other Western countries that were allied to the US. The result of this was that Japan lost approximately 90% of the oil that it imported and approximately 75% of its overseas trade (Tansill, 2015). At that time, Japan had limited oil reserves that were estimated to last for only three years, and Japan was desperate to acquire these resources that it needed for its operations.
Japan knew that it was in a tight spot and began negotiations with the US in 1941. To convince the US and its allies to lift the embargoes that they had placed on Japan, it proposed to withdraw from southern Indochina and other parts of Southeast Asia that it had taken up as part of its colony in the region (Stinnett, 2001). However, the US was not satisfied with this offer and countered by stating that Japan should withdraw from China and was also to sign non-aggression pacts about that region.
There have been speculations that none of the two sides were completely honest with each other about the negotiations. On the part of Japan, it is believed that their intention was to increase its reserves if the US and its Western allies lifted the embargo on the critical products that have been mentioned (Gillon, 2012). Once it had increased its reserves, Japan would have invaded the other parts of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the US knew that by placing the demands that it had, they were unacceptable to the Japanese, and it was an indirect indication that the US had declared war on Japan. The justification for this is that; Japan felt that the US was planning to intervene using its military if Japan continued to invade different parts of Southeast Asia (Victor, 2007). The only option that Japan had at that time regarding finding a reliable source of oil after the US-led embargo was invading the East Indies and using their oil reserves. However, they felt that if they took this action, then the US would intervene.
Reason as to Why the US was Provoking Japan
The Roosevelt administration needed to justify their participation in World War II. Americans had felt duped when the country was involved in World War I, and they were against their military participating in a war that they felt did not involve them (Hixson, 2003). It did not threaten their livelihood, and therefore, it was not their concern. However, the Roosevelt administration was aware that if a military attack was launched against the Americans, there was a high likelihood that they would support the war.
World War II began on September 1st, 1939. Coincidentally, the US elections were in 1940, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking re-election. Therefore, he could not participate in the war without proper justification. However, there are indications that the Roosevelt administration wanted to be involved in this war (Perloff, 2016). For instance, in 1938 when Japan invaded China, and it was noted that Germany was increasingly becoming aggressive towards the United Kingdom, the US provided strong diplomatic and financial assistance to both China and the UK while maintaining its neutral status (Mohammaddi, 2010). Also, in 1940, when he was seeking re-election he pledged that the US would not be involved in foreign wars. However, he provided escorts to the English convoys and threatened to sink any German submarines that would be spotted. It was a direct provocation against the Germans in a bid to influence them to attack the US, but they did not, and therefore Japan was seen as the next option to catapult the US to enter into World War II.
Japan was selected after Roosevelt became aware of the Tripartite Treaty that had been formed between Germany, Italy, and Japan. The treaty stipulated that an attack against one of its members, was an attack against all the members, and they were obligated to respond (Olmsted, 2011). Therefore, if Roosevelt was able to provoke Japan to attack the US, then he was going to enter into a war with Germany, which was his intention. Therefore, the oil embargo was introduced, Japanese efforts for negotiations were frustrated by unreasonable demands by the US, and it led to the Pearl Harbor attack.
US Administration Knew About the Attack
There is unprecedented evidence that the US knew of the Pearl Harbor attack months before it was executed. For instance, Henry Stimson, who was the Secretary of War, on 27th November stated the following to the US Pacific commanders; Negotiations with Japan appear to be terminated to all practical purposes Japanese future action was unpredictable, but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot be avoided; the United States desires that Japan commits the first overt act (Pederson, 2011). The US had also been able to intercept and decode, Japans naval code and had information of an impending attack on the Pearl Harbor. However, they did not relay the information to the commanding officers at this base, because they wanted Japan to commit the first attack, ensure that there are casualties, generate protests from the American people, calls for war, and the US government to respond by giving what the people wanted war.
Pearl Harbor was not an unprovoked and unjust attack on the United States by Japan. It was a calculated attack that was planned by the Roosevelt administration as has been shown in this essay. The US government needed a military attack on its home soil to justify its participation in World War II and was able to achieve it after the Pearl Harbor attack. The US government had initially introduced embargoes on essential goods that Japan needed, frustrated the negotiations between US and Japan by introducing demands that it was aware, Japan would not agree. Finally, despite having the intelligence of an impending attack, the government did not inform the military commanders at Pearl Harbor on time, to ensure that they could be prepared for a counter-attack, and it led to casualties that angered Americans who demanded justice for what had been done to their fellow citizens. Justice was achieved by the US participating in World War II.
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Gillon, S. M. (2012). Pearl Harbor: FDR leads the nation into war. Detroit: Thorndike Press/Gale Cengage Learning.
Hixson, W. L. (2003). The American experience in World War II: 7. London [u.a.: Routledge.
Mohammaddi, S. (2010). October 7,1940: The Day That Should Have Lived in Infamy. Truth II.
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Pederson, W. D. (2011). A companion to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Perloff, J. (2016). Pearl Harbor: Hawaii Was Surprised; FDR Was Not. The New American.
Stinnett, R. B. (2001). Day of deceit: The truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. Simon and Schuster.
Tansill, C. C. (2015). Back door to war: The Roosevelt foreign policy, 1933-1941. Middletown, DE: Ostara Publications.
Victor, G. (2007). The Pearl Harbor myth: Rethinking the unthinkable. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.