Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part I
How and Why
This four-part essay will discuss four salient points regarding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii:
How and why the mission was authorized;
How the final “go” was given;
The intent and failure of the mission;
The controversy afterwards.
This will not be a mere rehash of what thousands of other scriveners have already said and what the sources tell us, but an analysis of these points from a Japanese point of view.
How and Why Pearl Harbor
To recap how there came to be an apparent requirement for the Pearl Harbor attack:
Japan had been fighting in China off and on since 1932 because, like Germany in WWI, she needed independent access to resources.
The US expressed its displeasure diplomatically and economically with minor sanctions and “limited availability” of critical resources from 1933 to the summer of 1941 when they cut off petroleum and scrap metals and froze Japanese assets in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina. Great Britain and the Netherlands soon followed.
The samurai culture that dominated Japan regarded the sanctions as merely a hiccup, but the samurai themselves badly needed the imports to supply their China fighting.
Fighting for resources while being cut off from supplies became a vicious spiral from which there was no apparent escape. War with America, the British Empire, and the Netherlands was, by Japan’s lights, necessary to secure resources to grab the resources of China. So was born the Southern Operation, to seize the petroleum and other materials of the East Indies. But these islands were in the hands of the Netherlands and Great Britain. These two were on friendly terms with the US, which had considerable military forces in the Philippines, and were well-placed to cut off Japan from any successes in the East Indies.
The Pearl Harbor attack, known to the Japanese as part of the Eastern Operation, was not undertaken lightly or easily.
Attacking the United States, with which Japan had enjoyed cordial if not friendly relations, was more than a calculated risk: it was a fleet-wide gamble of enormous proportions. The entire Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had to be retrained and restructured to pull it off. Because the Eastern Operation was one of several missions taking place in three different directions at once in December 1941, the IJN’s original strategic concept of a mid-ocean ambush that had been in place since 1922 had to be scrapped.
Every ship in the IJN was built and trained for one titanic battle at sea, not a sneak attack on a base.
That said, there was another issue: the IJN wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the need for the Eastern Operation. While the IJN got their carrier air combat experience in China, their enthusiasm for the China project was a great deal less than was the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA). However, they were interested in the oil of the East Indies, and for that and that alone, they appreciated the need to attack the United States preemptively.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a bold trans-oceanic expedition.
No one had ever undertaken such a mission before. It was also the most ambitious naval operation ever undertaken by Japan, requiring the largest fleet deployment in its history. Even while planning was ongoing, there were questions raised whether it was necessary at all.
Militarily, the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 was a dinosaur.
The only modern parts of it were aircraft carriers: Enterprise, Yorktown, and Saratoga. If they could sink the American carriers in a single blow, that would create an advantage… especially since the US had seven more carriers scheduled to join the fleet in the next year. Japan was fighting not to win a war but to get the West to end their sanctions and give them a free hand in Asia.
Japan was trying to frighten, not defeat, the US.
Members of the IJN senior staff asked if the other bold moves in the Philippines, Dutch East Indies and elsewhere were enough to cow the soft, decadent Americans? The planners relegated those who spoke against the Pearl Harbor strike to other duties as official enthusiasm for the project grew.
Next week we'll talk about how the IJN organized the Pearl Harbor strike, and how it (probably) got its orders.
Our book covers the Pearl Harbor planning in broad terms, but more important, it explains Japan’s reasoning behind the preemptive attack, and Japan’s expectations.
We limit our coverage of Pearl Harbor to a couple of lines, but we talk about the build-up, and of course the prolonged aftermath. At your favorite booksellers, or autographed from us.
Pearl Harbor Reconsidered, Part II
And The Beat Goes On…
On 3 December:
1910: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) dies at Chestnut Hill, in Newton, Massachusetts. While her movement eschews the use of much of modern medicine, Eddy was a morphine addict for part of her life, and was attended regularly by physicians.
1967: Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The donor heart was from a 25-year-old woman killed in an auto accident. The recipient was Lewis Washkansky, a 53-year-old grocer dying of heart disease. Washkansky survived 1ighteen days before he succumbed to pneumonia and lung infection.
And today is NATIONAL ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD DAY. when you’re supposed to be giving thanks for having just that.