On this day 69 years ago, 353 aircraft launched from 6 aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Unites States Naval Base in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The attack came in two waves and was intended to prevent the US Pacific Fleet from influencing the war that Japan was planning in Southeast Asia against Britain, the Netherlands and against the US in the Philippines. It was Japan’s intention to have access to the area’s natural resources such as oil and rubber. The US lost 2,402 lives in the attack on Pearl Harbour, with 1,282 wounded. Japan suffered 65 killed or wounded.
As a result of the surprise attack, the policy of isolationism favoured by a large proportion of US citizens and politicians gave way to outrage and hostility. Naval Commander Isoroku Yamamoto had intended the attack to take place thirty minutes after a declaration of war arrived in Washington, D.C. However, due to delays in delivery of the declaration, the attack occurred several hours before the declaration was received.
Speaking as the voice of America’s people and focusing on the perceived treachery of the attack, President Franklin D Roosevelt declared
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. … No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory. I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”
One hour after the conclusion of the six and a half minute speech, Congress declared war on Japan.
Ever since the attack there has been debate as to how the US could be so unprepared as to sustain such major losses at the base of the Pacific Naval Fleet. Various writers and at least one admiral have argued that the US had prior knowledge and warning of the intended attack and not only let it happen but indeed encouraged it as the means of precipitating the US’s entry into the war. It is suggested by those writers that the US politically pushed Japan into a corner where it knew that Japan would retaliate by force and that the knowledge of the intended attack went all the way up to Roosevelt and Churchill.
On 25 November 1941, 12 days before the Pearl Harbour attack, Henry L Stimson, the US Secretary of War, wrote in his diary:
"Then at 12 o'clock we went to the White House, where we were until nearly half past one. At the meeting were Hull, Knox, Marshall, Stark and myself. There the President ... brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese. He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what should we do.
The question was how much we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."
After the attack, Stimson wrote:
“When the news first came that Japan had attacked us my first feeling was of relief that … a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people. This continued to be my dominant feeling in spite of the news of catastrophes which quickly developed.”
Roosevelt’s administrative assistant at the time of Pearl Harbor, Jonathan Daniels, has recorded Roosevelt’s reaction to the attack:
"The blow was heavier than he had hoped it would necessarily be. ... But the risks paid off; even the loss was worth the price. ..."
Whether or not the politicians and military higher ups knew of the intended attack or not, it is undisputed that the American public saw America as the innocent victim of treachery by forces of evil, much as would again happen on September 11, 2001. In speeches subsequent to 9/11, President Bush drew on Roosevelt’s famous infamy speech, not only in rhetoric and language but also in themes and allusions.
After the Pearl Harbour attack, the US exploited that anti Japanese feeling in numerous propaganda posters, some of which are shown below. The same feeling existed in Australia. Click on the images to enlarge.
The Japanese architect of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, did not share the post attack elation of his officers. There is some doubt as to whether he actually said the quotation that is often atrtibuted to him. If he did not say it, it is nonetheless consistent with feelings he did express, the quotation being:
"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."