Pearl Harbor Attack, December 7, 1941

The National WWII Museum commemorates the Day That Will Live in Infamy through articles, oral histories, artifacts, and more. 

Remembering Pearl Harbor

No moment in the history of the United States casts a longer shadow than Pearl Harbor. “Remembering” it has become a national imperative, a patriotic duty for the American people, and reminding us of that duty has become a ritual of media and political discourse—repeated so often and in so many ways that it’s become part of the routine of our communal life. 

- Rob Citino, PhD


By Rob Citino, PhD
Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian

The Long Fuse:
Japan, the United States, and the Hawaiian Islands

The tangled relationship between the United States and Japan began with the forced opening of Japan in the nineteenth century, courtesy of Commodore Matthew Perry and this “black ships” of his squadron. Japan’s sudden exposure to the outside world, after centuries of isolation, generated a helt-er-skelter period of transformation, a revolutionary era in which Japan threw overboard many of its oldest traditions and built itself into a technologically advanced industrial state, with modern systems of administration and government—and a powerful military.

Japan’s rise to Great Power status was rapid, with victorious wars over China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-5), as well as successful, if subsidiary role on the side of the Allies in World War I (1914-1918). Again and again, Japan struck quickly to win wars over larger and theoretically more powerful opponents. The very success Japan enjoyed, however, placed the island empire squarely in the sights of the other Great Powers, and generated an increasingly tense strategic rivalry with the United States for domination of the Pacific. That was the “long fuse” of the Great Pacific War (1941-45), the long-term background to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Sitting in the Japanese crosshairs that fateful Sunday morning was not only the US Pacific Fleet, but the Hawaiian Islands. An independent kingdom with a long and proud history of its own, then “discovered” by the West and dubbed the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii had only become a US possession in the 1890s, when a rebellion by the Anglo population of the islands rose up in revolt against the rule of Queen Liliuokalani. Declaring a Republic of Hawaii, the rebels then requested annexation by the United States, which took place in 1898. Since then, a new society had grown up of native islanders, Americans, and Japanese immigrants. The economy was robust, based on the islands’ numerous sugar cane plantations. Hawaii also saw an increasingly strong US naval presence. A crucial moment came in 1940. As tensions built between the United States and Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the US Pacific Fleet to transfer from its homeport in San Diego, CA to Pearl Harbor, HI.

It was a fateful decision for all parties concerned: the United States, Japan, and Hawaii itself.

The Short Fuse 1940-1941:
The Fate of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor

From mid-1940, when FDR moved the US Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, long-simmering tensions between the United States and Japan reached a new state of intensity. Japan had been embroiled in a brutal war of conquest in China since 1937. It had overrun much of north China, as well as most of the port cities along China’s long coastline. The Japanese army was badly overstretched, however. It could neither protect its supply lines to the rear, nor effectively control the territories it occupied. Its response was terror against Chinese civilians, hoping to cow them into submission. The policy of the “three alls” was the order of the day: “kill all, burn all, loot all.” Cities who resisted, like Nanjing in 1937, suffered the consequences, with Japanese troops slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Still, China fought on under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Army, along with their allies, the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung. Determined to help China and to halt Japanese aggression on the Asian mainland, FDR waged economic warfare against Japan. He hoped that embargoes on arms (1937), scrap iron (1938), and eventually oil (1941) would wound the Japanese economy sufficiently to halt Japan’s war in China. His own advisors were unsure how to proceed. Should the United States follow a policy of strength, warning the Japanese against the consequences of continued aggression? Or should there be a more conciliatory approach of negotiations leading to a long-term understanding?

Japan, for its part, was growing impatient. Stalemated by Chinese resistance, with over 1 million Japanese troops trapped in the quicksand of a war they could not win, Japan needed to find a solution to its strategic crisis. As Adolf Hitler’s armies rampaged across Europe, overrunning Germany’s neighbors in 1939-40 and threatening to invade the British Isles, the European colonial empires in Asia lay nearly undefended, ripe for the picking: the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, Indochina. Rich sources of raw materials lay in all of them, rubber, tin, and especially oil, the precious lifeblood of any modern economy. Perhaps the time had come to reach out, pluck these “balls of rice” off the shelf, and final secure the resources necessary to end the war in China. At the same time, Japan’s leaders knew that such a policy would lead to war with the United States. As Japanese negotiators came to Washington for talks with US Secretary of State Cordell Hull in late 1941, military planners back in Tokyo had already decided to roll the iron dice. They needed to launch a great strike, one that would both seize the western colonies and ensure that the US could not and would not intervene.

As they surveyed a map of the Pacific, their gaze came to rest on one tiny spot in the great ocean.

Pearl Harbor.

The Great Pacific War:
Then and Now

Pearl Harbor was a great gamble for Japan, and especially for the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was also a piece of skilled military planning, the work of Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto. Japan dispatched all six of his precious “fleet carriers” across 3,000 miles of open ocean in total secrecy, with the fleet arriving a few hundred miles north of the Hawaiian islands. The carriers launched their aircraft early on a Sunday morning. US forces were completely unprepared, and in less than ninety minutes, Japanese planes destroyed or damaged 19 US warships and 300 aircraft, and killed over 2,400 US servicemen. Almost half of the dead were crewmen from the battleship USS Arizona, which sank within minutes after a bomb struck its forward magazine, igniting more than a million pounds of ammunition. The ship’s remains still lie in the waters of Pearl Harbor, a constant memorial to that terrible morning.

With the US Navy temporarily out of the way, a massive Japanese offensive overran the European and colonial empires in Asia: Hong Kong, Malaya, the Dutch East EI; New Guinea. US possessions, too, came under attack: the Philippines, the major US base in Asia; Guam; and Wake Island. The Japanese assault seemed irresistible, and at two places there were mass surrenders. At Singapore on the tip of Malaya, 80,000 British, Indian, and Australian troops went into captivity in February 1942. On the Philippines, attacking Japanese forces outmaneuvered a combined US/Filipino army under General Douglas Macarthur. The defenders retreated into the Bataan Peninsula and finally onto tiny Corregidor Island. Macarthur evacuated the islands (vowing, however, “I shall return”), but his entire force of 75,000 men surrendered in April 1942, the worst military defeat in US history. Their Japanese captors now subjected them to a brutal 65-mile forced march to POW camps in the Philippines. Hence, the infamous Bataan Death March. In the course of just five days, at least 5,000 died, and perhaps many more, a grisly sign of what was to come in what the Japanese called the Great Pacific War.

Victory, defeat, shame, “infamy”: even today, the memory of these events is contradictory and contested. Different societies tend to “remember” events in their history differently, and that is especially true of traumatic moments. Japan and the United States have been friends and allies for decades, a welcome change from the 1930s and 40s. Nevertheless, the lessons, legacies, and memory of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will continue to influence contemporary politics, diplomacy, and strategy into the future.


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