Did Pearl Harbor Have to Happen?


Seventy-one years ago today the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the rest, as they say, is history.  But did the attack on Pearl Harbor have to happen?  Hind sight is a great thing but history is rather predictable.  That is not to say that anyone at any particular time in history can accurately predict the future because of history, but history does teach us enough to make reasonable assessments of what the future holds.

Historians sometimes say that World War 2 was just an extension of World War 1.  That is because World War 1 really settled nothing at all.  All Europeans were simply tired of fighting and had ceased to care who won as long as the war stopped.  In 1917 the Russians, who had one of the largest armies participating in the war withdrew its armies as it engaged in a civil war.  That meant the Prussians could shift their focus from the eastern front to the western front.  But they were met by the newly arrived American troops and the stalemate continued.  Many in the German military leadership desired a negotiated peace with the allies but were told, mainly by the French on whose soil most of the war was fought, that only unconditional surrender would be considered.  This prolonged the war from the summer of 1918 until November 11 of that year.

About a year after Germany’s surrender the allies presented the Germans with the final conditions of surrender.  Of all the terms of surrender the worst was that Germany was required to pay reparations to the allied nations for the damages incurred.  This unnecessary and impossible condition doomed the German economy.  Hitler used that and a long-standing German mistrust of Jews to gain power over the German people.

In 1904 Japan tested its military when it engaged it was is known as the Japanese-Russo War.  Russia had pressured China into relinquishing parts of Manchuria and Korea.   Since 1894 Japan had been warring with China and took this as a warlike action by the Russians.  The losses by both armies at the end of the conflict in 1905 amounted to about 200,000 men but it brought to the forefront the Japanese military.  Until that time Japan had been a largely isolated nation run by the Emperor.  By World War 1, and even though Japan did not participate in the war, the Japanese were developing into the regional economic, political, and military power.  Japan, however, is a nation that has few natural resources necessary to create a world power.  The Japanese used the time from 1905 to the mid-1930s to fully develop an army, navy, and air force, as-well-as a formidable industrial base.  Its largest trading partner during these years was the United States from whom Japan received a continuous supply of both iron ore and scrap iron.  The U.S. also assisted in the Japanese quest for oil and rubber, both of which it secured from Southeast Asia.

The Japanese had never abandoned their desire to build an Empire in the east.  In 1937 they once again declared war on China.  The Chinese, however, had a very strong relationship with the United States and received military support from the U.S. in the form of arms and aircraft.  By 1939, however, with the world aware of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army on the Chinese, the United States gave Japan an ultimatum to stop the war or face severe economic sanctions.

The Chinese had requested more help from the U.S. in the form of troops and naval support.  The U.S. Army, only 140,000 in strength, was hardly in a position to help in any form.  And FDR had told the American public, a very isolationist public, that he would not take the U.S. into any foreign war.  By 1940 with the Japanese showing no signs of reigning in their army the United States declared economic sanctions on Japan by ending all trade, most importantly were the raw materials Japan desperately needed to sustain its industry.  Because of this the Japanese had to quickly expand their influence in the far east to maintain those materials.  The response was the Japanese “East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.”  The intent was clear to all who were watching.  The Japanese had announced that they, the industrial/military power of the east, needed the rest of the far-east for its economic needs.  This gave Japan the impetus to extend its Asian war to what was then known as Indochina, today’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia where there were huge rubber farms and other raw materials.

When 1941 arrived there was a full-fledged fighting war in both Europe and Asia.  FDR had been visited by Winston Churchill asking the U.S. to enter the war.  American eyes were almost entirely focused on the war in Europe but most remembered the first world war and because of that wanted no part of European problems, as they perceived this.  Their eyes should have been equally committed to looking toward Asia but no one, including many highly placed government officials, saw any threat.

But in 1925 the United States had been warned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The informant was U.S. Army General William Mitchell who, at his court-martial, had not only told military officials that there would be an attack on Pearl Harbor, but who would do, when they would do it (on a Sunday), and how they would do it, an aerial attacked launched from air craft carriers of the Japanese Navy.  Sixteen years later, almost exactly from the day Mitchell made his prediction, the Japanese launched their attack.

Americans are famous for underestimating their own vulnerabilities and their enemy’s craftiness.   Even without Mitchell’s prediction, America had ignored its defense responsibilities.  Had the Japanese decided to invade the United States at San Diego, America would have been hard pressed to defend itself.  That same Japanese armada that attacked Pearl Harbor had plans to continue to the U.S. west coast.  Those plans were scuttled when the Japanese failed to account for the U.S. aircraft carriers.  What they did not know is that one of the three carriers they were looking for was sitting in San Diego while the other two were in the waters not far from Hawaii.

But for over four years prior to Pearl Harbor, first Japan and then Germany warred on their neighbors and showed no signs of letting up.  Even in its isolationist mode, America would have done well to enlarge and better arm its military.  It took America almost nine months to engage in any meaningful conflict with either Japan or Germany, longer than it had taken America to engage the Germans in World War 1.

Pearl Harbor was avoidable in the sense that America could have made a greater commitment to its defense which in turn may have given the Japanese more of a pause before they attacked.  And possibly would have warded it off entirely.  The Japanese military, and Admiral Yamamoto who commanded the fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor, were eminently aware of America’s possibilities.  When the attack did not go as planned Yamamoto is known for having stated that he feared Japan had only “awakened a sleeping giant.”

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