On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. The attack, carried out at dawn by Japanese fighter planes launched from aircraft carriers, was a then relatively new form of naval warfare that shocked the American public.

Pearl Harbor, Americans were told by their leaders, was an unprovoked, surprise attack on the part of Japan. Shock quickly gave way to anger and a desire for revenge, while the words “Pearl Harbor” would remain deeply imbedded in the American consciousness long after the war as a symbol of treachery on the part of foreign nations and as an example of fighting for a just cause.

A bird’s-eye view of U.S. vessels in Pearl Harbor during the attack.
A bird’s-eye view of U.S. vessels in Pearl Harbor during the attack. | KYODO

Road to Pearl Harbor

In 1925, convinced the horrors of the “war to end all wars” (World War I) were behind them and peace and prosperity lay ahead, fans of popular fiction United States and Great Britain were greeted in their bookstores by an unheralded novel that was fictional, but would prove to be eerily prescient. Titled “The Great Pacific War,” it was written by Hector Charles Bywater, a man with a slightly shady past. A former reporter for the New York Herald, Bywater had served as a British spy during World War I and would later work as a naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, up until his death in 1940, allegedly under mysterious circumstances.

“The Great Pacific War'” told the tale of a surprise attack in 1931 on American naval ships in Manila Bay by Japanese planes that were launched from aircraft carriers, at a time when aircraft carriers were very much in the experimental stage. In Bywater’s book, the attack comes after Japan seizes Manchuria, Formosa (Taiwan) and the Korean Peninsula, and is carried out while the U.S. and Japan are officially still in negotiations to prevent war.

The book appeared during a difficult time for both nations. Since the end of the 19th century, America and Japan had been suspicious of each other’s ambitions in the Pacific. Japan had annexed the Korean Peninsula, defeated China, and, in 1904 and 1905, had shocked the Western world by defeating Russia in a war that American President Theodore Roosevelt helped end by convincing both nations to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth.

Roosevelt mediated the treaty out of his own concerns. The U.S. was a colonial power in the Pacific, having captured the Philippines and Guam from the Spanish in 1898 and then brutally suppressing Philippine resistance in a war that killed between 12,000 and 20,000 Philippine soldiers and over 4,000 U.S. soldiers. U.S. and Filipino estimates show that more than 200,000 civilians died during the war, often as a result of violence, famine and disease.

The front section of the USS Shaw explodes after an air raid on the Hawaiian port of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The front section of the USS Shaw explodes after an air raid on the Hawaiian port of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. | KYODO

After the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt, worried a rapidly industrializing Japan would turn its eyes from the Asian continent to the Pacific in search of more raw materials, dispatched the American Navy to make a “goodwill” tour of the Pacific Ocean. It was aimed at demonstrating to Japan that the United States could, and would, shift its naval focus to the Pacific if it felt a threat to the Philippines.

The “Great White Fleet,” as the dispatch of 16 battleships and seven destroyers was known, sailed in 1907-09, not long after a series of laws were passed in the U.S. that discriminated against Japanese immigrants and fanned general anti-Japanese sentiment, especially in California, which at the beginning of the 20th century was still the western frontier for many Americans on the heavily populated East Coast.

Just before the Great White Fleet left port, the United States and Japan reached what became known as the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, an informal understanding under which Japan would no longer issue passports to Japanese citizens wishing to work in the continental United States. The United States, in return, agreed to accept the presence of Japanese immigrants already living in America, to permit the immigration of their wives, children and parents, and to avoid legal discrimination against Japanese-American children in California schools.

By the second decade of the 20th century, fears of the “Yellow Peril” had grown, aided by sensationalist American newspapers catering to white Americans who feared the Japanese and, in popular fiction, by British writer Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu mystery series. While Japan would be a nominal U.S. ally during World War I, the defeat of Germany in 1918 gave it Germany’s former Pacific possessions, including Palau, the Northern Marianas, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. This created further concern in the United States about Japan as a Pacific power.

The USS Arizona sinks following the surprise attack.
The USS Arizona sinks following the surprise attack. | KYODO

Japan, in turn, was angered by the failure of the Allied powers to agree to a clause on racial equality in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I (although the intention was to have the world recognize that Japan was equal to the West, not to provide equality to, say, China and Korea). During the 1920s, as anti-Japanese feeling in the U.S. continued to increase, two key global naval treaties would influence the eventual decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

The Washington Naval Treaty, signed in 1922 and ratified the following year, limited the World War I victors, including Japan, to the number of aircraft carriers and battleships they could construct. In 1930, the London Naval Treaty attempted to prevent a growing naval arms race by limiting naval construction. Japan, convinced the treaties were designed to put a check on its own imperial ambitions, eventually renounced them.

Relations between Japan and the United States deteriorated throughout the 1930s. In the United States, there was much sympathy among Americans for Chinese under Japan’s control, thanks to books such as Pearl Buck’s 1938 Nobel Prize-winning “The Good Earth,” which had detailed life in a Chinese village. Japan was now at war with China and, by 1941, was bogged down but still in need of mineral resources.

In July 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army moved into Vietnam and occupied Cam Ranh naval base, only 1,300 kilometers from the Philippines. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Theodore’s cousin), retaliated by seizing all Japanese assets in the United States. The British and Dutch did the same with Japanese assets in their colonies of Malaysia and Indonesia.

The result of these actions was that Japan was denied access to about three-quarters of its overseas trade and 88 percent of its imported oil. With only enough oil on its island to last about three years, Japan’s leaders decided the only option was to conquer more of Southeast Asia. But that would only work if the American naval forces were knocked out.

Oil burns on the surface of the ocean at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following the air raid on Dec. 7, 1941.
Oil burns on the surface of the ocean at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following the air raid on Dec. 7, 1941. | KYODO

Surprise attack?

“The Akagi pitched and rolled in the rough seas as the white surf whipped across the flight deck in the predawn darkness. I stood in the commander-in-chief’s quarters. ‘I am ready for the mission,’ I said. Vice Adm. (Chuichi) Nagumo stood to his feet and grasped my hand hard in his. ‘Fuchida,’ he said, ‘I have confidence in you.'”

So recalled Mitsuo Fuchida in a story told to John Barbour in 1952 and published in a December 1991 article titled “I led the attack on Pearl Harbor.” Fuchida, a young naval pilot aboard the Akagi aircraft carrier on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, survived the war to become a Christian missionary, traveling the world and telling his story before eventually settling in the United States but never becoming a citizen.

In 1941, however, Fuchida was the commander of the air squadron the performed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“By 7:30 a.m. we were over the northern tip of the island (of Oahu). There was still no sign anyone knew we were in the air. At 7:49 a.m., I gave the signal for a surprise attack, but the signal was misinterpreted. At 7:55 a.m., the dive bombers tore in on Hickam Field, Ford Island and Wheeler Field,” Barbour quotes Fuchida as saying. “Two minutes later the torpedo planes zeroed in on a battleship in the harbor. At about 8 a.m., fighter planes strafed the air base and then the level bombers began to drop their cargoes of death on the battleships.”

A Japanese plane descends from the sky at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
A Japanese plane descends from the sky at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. | KYODO

By the time the attack was over, three ships lying in anchor — the USS Arizona, the USS Oklahoma and the USS Utah — had been sunk. Another 17 were heavily damaged but would return to service. More than 2,000 U.S. Navy personnel on the ships had been killed, while more than 200 army personnel and 100 marines were dead. By contrast, the Japanese lost 29 aircraft and four midget submarines for a total of 64 aviators and sailors killed.

The Sunday morning attack shook America and, one day later, Roosevelt made his most famous radio address.

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” the president began.

There was no doubt the attack was sudden. For the past 75 years, however, the question of whether it came as a total surprise has been the subject of much debate. What did the U.S. know about the impending attack and when did it know it?

An immediate postwar congressional investigation into the days and weeks leading up to the attack revealed errors in judgment and miscommunication between naval officials that might have prevented it.

As time went on, however, the questions continued. Why had U.S. aircraft carriers — the top priority of the attacking Japanese forces — been ordered out of Pearl Harbor before the attack, thus escaping damage and allowing the United States to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway six months later? Was U.S. naval intelligence tracking the Japanese fleet across the Pacific? Did, in fact, America’s leaders, starting with Roosevelt, actually want some sort of an attack by the Japanese to turn strong isolationist sentiment in the United States into support for war. Not necessarily against Japan but against Germany?

The Japanese attack damaged airplanes in Hickam Field, Hawaii.
The Japanese attack damaged airplanes in Hickam Field, Hawaii. | KYODO

A library of postwar scholarly and popular works in both the U.S. and Japan either upheld the idea that the attack was a surprise, or attempted to prove that the U.S. knew when and where it was coming because it had broken Japanese naval codes and wanted it to happen, or at least was far more certain an attack would happen than officials were willing to admit — either then, or now.

However, the idea that Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack immediately took hold among those who would do the fighting. “Remember Pearl Harbor” posters, encouraging Americans to enlist or buy war bonds, sprouted like mushrooms. The desire for revenge on Japan would also lead to one of America’s greatest injustices.

In February 1942, against growing hysteria that Japan would soon invade America’s West Coast with the help of Japanese-Americans, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which approved the forced internment of between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Some were eventually released from the camps if they agreed to serve in the military. The U.S. Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was comprised almost entirely of Americans of Japanese ancestry, went on to serve mainly in Italy, southern France and Germany, becoming the most decorated unit in American history for its size.

The internment camps would not be struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until late 1944. It would not be until 1991 when President George H.W. Bush, who had been a naval fighter pilot in the Pacific during the war and was shot down and rescued in 1944, offered an official apology.

“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals,” said Bush in his letter of apology. “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II.”

The Bush letter came after President Ronald Reagan signed an act in 1988 that compensated and offered a formal apology to those of Japanese descent who were incarcerated.

A Japanese fighter prepares to take off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific before the air raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
A Japanese fighter prepares to take off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific before the air raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. | KYODO

The last chapter

During the war, an intense propaganda campaign against Japan grew ever more racist and hateful, as the fighting itself grew ever-more bloody. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, most Americans were supportive not only because they felt it had ended the war but also because the bombs had avenged Pearl Harbor.

In the postwar period, Pearl Harbor would also be invoked by U.S. political and military leaders as the reason why America could not afford to turn inward from the world’s problems as it had following World War I and must always remain on alert for foreign enemies. It would also be used as a touchstone among U.S.-Japan specialists to demonstrate just how far bilateral relations, especially military relations via the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, had come.

When Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to pay a visit to Hiroshima in May, speculation in the Japanese media immediately turned to whether Japan would reciprocate by having Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit Pearl Harbor, which would make him the first Japanese leader to do so. In August, Abe’s wife, Akie, made an unofficial visit to the USS Arizona monument at Pearl Harbor, where she offered flowers and prayer. Tokyo emphasized that it was a personal visit.

Since then, Abe has kept silent as to whether he may visit Pearl Harbor or send a tribute when the 75th anniversary celebrations take place later this week in Hawaii and elsewhere in the United States.

Given that Donald Trump invoked the memory of Pearl Harbor when he criticized Obama’s Hiroshima trip, and given concerns Japan has about maintaining good relations with the new president, a Pearl Harbor trip by Abe could be one way to strengthen his relationship with Trump, even at the cost of angering some conservatives in Japan who would warn him not to offer any sort of apology for the attack.

However, regardless of what the prime minister ultimately does, three-quarters of a century after the attack, the memories of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath continue to reverberate and affect modern America, Japan and the strategy of both countries in Asia.

Although those who directly experienced the attack on that long ago Sunday morning now number a mere handful, Pearl Harbor remains deeply embedded in the American psyche, perhaps more legend than fact now among the younger generations but nevertheless proving William Faulkner’s famous saying: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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