What the Attack on Pearl Harbor Really Did to America

December 7, 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.  Most people see that as America’s entry into World War 2.  That is actually not true, as I will show later.  But just as importantly, the attack changed the complexion of America forever.  It was America’s coming of age in the world, if you will.

Prior to December 7, 1941 America was an isolationist country that had not ever fully participated in a war in Europe or Asia.  You may say, but we were in World War 1, and you would be correct.  But our participation in that war was fairly brief.  Even though we declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917, it was not until the spring of 1918 that the first US troops arrived in Europe.  A little over six months later the war ended, and while the US did sustain substantial casualties, its involvement more hastened a battle weary Germany to the armistice.

The post World War 1 scenario had the US taking a decidedly isolationist role in the world.  US troops strength was greatly reduced, its air service was almost discontinued, and its navy gutted.  Although the US and England had assumed leadership of the oceans, the US largely left such duties to the English.  Although the US doubled its troops strength between 1920 and 1940, those troops were not prepared to fight a war.  While the navy had built some new ships to replace its old ships, as Pearl Harbor illustrated, the majority of the Navy was a fleet of obsolete ships.  All the battleships at Pearl Harbor on that day were of World War 1 heritage or older.  The aircraft carriers that the Japanese had as their highest priority were, to say the least, underwhelming.  On December 7, 1941 the Navy had a total of eight aircraft carriers on its roster which included the first carrier it ever owned.  That carrier, the USS Langley, was sitting in the Philipines and never saw action.  Two of the three remaining carriers were the ones stationed at Peal Harbor.  These ships, the Lexington and the Enterprise, were at sea at the time of the attack.  The USS Saratoga was en route to San Diego.  The rest of the fleet was assigned to Norfolk Virginia.  The Japanese feared the carriers in particular and the reason was for exactly what they did to Pearl Harbor they realized could be visited upon Japan.

To say the least, the US never saw the attack coming, although there had been plenty of warnings.  Not the least of which was by one General William Mitchell who at his own court-martial in 1926 had predicted that the Japanese would attack the US at Pearl Harbor.  US leadership scoffed at the idea citing the close relations the US enjoyed with Japan at the time.   But between that time and 1941 Japanese militarists had taken virtual control of their government and had begun a campaign of imperialism in China and southeast Asia.  It needed the raw materials necessary to maintain a sizable army and navy.  These included oil, iron, and rubber, none of which Japan had within its borders.  After Japan invaded Japan the US cut off oil and scrap metal exports to Japan.  While the US viewed the action as diplomatic, Japan’s leadership viewed it as a virtual act of war.  By 1939 Japan knew it would have to deal with the US in military actions and prepared for that.  Its attack upon Pearl Harbor was an action it had practiced in great detail for well over a year prior, to include finding a port area on its own shores that doubled as a Pearl Harbor look-alike where it performed many bombing runs.

In 1939 when Germany attacked Poland President Roosevelt already knew he would have to fight a war in Europe eventually.  But FDR and his advisors knew very well that the people of the United States were in no mood for a foreign war.  To that end, when he ran for president in 1940 he did so saying he would keep the US out of the war in Europe.  Even though he had already accepted that we would have to fight a war in Europe, neither he, nor anyone else, suspected that the impetus to fight that war would come from Asia.

While FDR knew that any substantial increases in Naval strength would be noticed by the world community, he felt that updating the air service could be done fairly easily.  The truth to this is the fact that only two new aircraft were developed between 1941 and 1945, the P-51 and the B-29.  The entirety of the remaining inventory was in production at the outset of the war.  The Army Air Corps actually had more aircraft than pilots at the outset of the war.

After England and France sustained huge loses at Dunkirk, England requested immediate assistance from the US in the form of troops and material.  Then, as now, the president could not commit troops.  FDR recognized he also could not send ships and other material without getting the wrath of the Axis and the American people.  To circumvent this, FDR entered into a “treaty” with England that became known as the “Lend/Lease Act.”  The act allowed FDR to lend or lease mothballed ships to England.  Once that commenced merchant marines and other cargo carriers supplied England with the aircraft and other materials it needed to sustain the war with Germany.  By mid-1941 the US was in a virtual fighting war with Germany already as German submarines had attacked many of the convoys.  The US Navy had been escorting these convoys and had returned fire.  For all intents and practical purposes we were at war with Germany but since there had been no signficant loses of American lives, FDR could not declare war.

It is not unreasonable to infer that where America was, and is, an immigrant nation, and that a significant portion of the US population were first or second generation immigrants from the warring nations, a substantial portion of Americans might view such a war against their relatives as being undesirable.  The biggest reason, however, was that the average American could not imagine a scenario where Germany would bring the war in Europe to America’s shores.  The US population did not have a stomach for a foreign war as it still had a good memory of how ugly World War 1 had been.

Americans in November 1941 were apparently blissfully unaware of the presence of German submarines patrolling the US Atlantic coast.  The war in Europe was at our doorstep even though it had taken no aggressive action.  Americans may have also been lulled into a false sense of security by the British having sunk Germany two most dangerous warships, its battleships Bismark and Tirpitz.  Germany had no active aircraft carriers and had only one unfinished in a port.  At the time trans-Atlantic flight was confined to small aircraft and all larger aircraft made the trip via Gander Newfoundland or Ireland.  The US did have such capability but this was not something the average American knew.  This fact is shown by the fact that on December 7, 1941, while the attack on Pearl Harbor was underway, a number of B-17s were flying into Pearl Harbor from the US west coast.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was enough to completely change the American attitude of going to war.  The fact that American ships had been sunk and American lives lost was more than enough.  But the Roosevelt administration felt the average American could not understand the extent of the death and damage done at Pearl Harbor so the details of the attack and pictures of the attack were kept from the American public for well over six months, and even then it was judiciously released.  The few pictures that were released were done in the Saturday Evening Post, and other such picture magazines.  FDR got the press to agree to an embargo on information and to censorship.  For the duration of the war all press releases had to be authorized through the War Department.  Few objected.

Now, exactly 70 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it can be difficult for us to imagine the American landscape on that day.  America was truly a sleepy country but it leapt into action, and, as Japanese Admiral Yamaguchi, who headed the attack on Pearl Harbor, clairvoyantly said, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.”  American sprang into action and almost overnight industry was converted from making cars and refrigerators to making tanks and aircraft.  America woke up and vowed never to be asleep at the switch ever again.  America built war ships at a mind numbing rate.  At one time Henry Kaiser, who built the “Liberty Ships,” completed a ship in slightly less than five days.  The US took the lead militarily and has never looked back.  Americans have since overcome any urge to revert to isolationism as well.  Pearl Harbor did a lot more than bring the US into the war.


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