This sample essay discusses how the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a calculated move on behalf of the Japanese military government aimed at delivering a knock-out blow to the United States Navy and allowing the Japanese the time necessary to ensure the establishment of their empire in Asia and the Pacific.
The Consequences of Pearl Harbor
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the entry of the U.S. into the Second World War. While a tactical success (with some major exceptions in that regard), it was a massive strategic blunder. Japan, by adding a neutral U.S. to its list of enemies, ensured its defeat and partial destruction within less than four years.
Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific
The attack was motivated by a perception on the part of the Japanese government and military (which were almost the same entity) that the U.S. would at some point no longer tolerate Japanese imperialist expansion in the Western Pacific and East Asia. This may have been true, but the Japanese made a bad miscalculation. The U.S. public had no appetite for war, and public opinion polls showed time after time a strong isolationist sentiment.
The U.S. had its Philippines outpost near Japan, but that was not a military threat to Japan’s expanding empire. In short, Japan could probably have continued to run amok in the East Asia theater; the only power opposing them, Britain, was fighting Germany and Hitler for its life in Europe and was no real obstacle, as was shown by post-Pearl-Harbor events. But the Japanese were angered by U.S. embargoes of strategic materials such as oil and steel. Japan itself was resource-poor in terms of the materials needed to support a modern army, navy, and air force, and the lands it had conquered were similarly deficient. The islands of present-day Indonesia offered one of the sole available sources of petroleum, for example. Thus, Japan felt that it would need time to exploit its conquered lands. This time, it was felt, could only be bought by destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Much is made of the fact that the Pearl Harbor attack (and the Clark Field attack in the Philippines, which was arguably a worse and more damaging defeat) was such an utter surprise to the American military. The truth, though, it that it wasn’t all that much of a surprise that Japan would attack; radio intercepts and code breaking had strongly suggested that Japan was about to undertake one or more major military offensives. The only question was where, and Pearl Harbor was a surprise simply because it was such a stupid thing for Japan to attempt. Even if successful, it was just about the worst move Japan could try. As Roberta Wohlstetter notes,
“…it is not true that we were caught napping at the time of Pearl Harbor. Rarely has a government been more expectant. We just expected wrong” (Wohlstetter, “Pearl Harbor,” 4).
Strategically, it was a blunder. Diplomatically, it was a horrific blunder. Tactically, it happened to work.
Pear Harbor’s Battleship Row
It should be noted that based on the knowledge of Japanese capabilities available at the time, any attack on “Battleship Row” was considered to be likely to fail. Pearl Harbor was a shallow anchorage. Aircraft-launched torpedoes were thought to need a greater depth than that of Pearl Harbor to be successfully dropped. Thus, no torpedo nets were rigged around the battleships. The Japanese did not have an effective dive bomber that could be launched from an aircraft carrier, so the ships were considered to be impervious to air attack. The Japanese had, in fact, developed a shallow-water torpedo, specifically for use at Pearl Harbor. But it was developed in great secrecy. Navy planners had no reason to believe that the Japanese had such a weapon.
The Pearl Harbor attack was by no means a complete success. Most crucially, the attack failed to catch any of the U.S. carrier fleet, all of which were at sea at the time of the attack. These carriers would prove pivotal in the turning of the tide at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Had those carriers been sunk, it is likely that the U.S. would have been unable to mount offensive operations in the Pacific until 1943, giving Japan the time it needed to consolidate its conquests. Just as damaging was the fact that Pearl Harbor itself remained a functional air and naval base. The attacking aircraft did not bomb the naval repair facilities or the petroleum tanks, nor was there major damage caused to the airbase and hangar facilities. Thus, when the carriers returned and the base was resupplied, Pearl Harbor was ready to enter the fight.
There is an interesting angle to consider from the fact that the Pacific battleship fleet was destroyed but that the carrier fleet survived. Battleships were becoming obsolete; naval air warfare was the wave of the future. Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. into strategic carrier warfare as its new Pacific doctrine. This wasn’t immediately apparent; even well after the war; for example, Wohlstetter, in a comparison of the Cuban missile crisis and Pearl Harbor, wrote that
“At the least, Pearl Harbor was a catastrophe, a great failure of warning and decision. […] It is true…that we had lots of information about the approaching crisis”(Wohlstetter, “Cuba and Pearl Harbor,” 691).
This, however, misses the point. Pearl Harbor could have been a catastrophe; instead, it was a military defeat from which the U.S. easily and swiftly recovered. Likewise, there was actually a lot of warning that something was going to happen, but one cannot guard against every contingency, only the likely ones. Also, it should be noted that the carriers, even when docked, were never put in the same vulnerable position as the capital ships on Battleship Row. This suggests that local commanders realized that the carriers were more vital than the battleships. Certainly, Japanese battleships later in the war fared very badly against American ship-based aircraft.
American rage after Pearl Harbor
The immediate political consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack were swift and profound. Almost literally overnight, the mood in America changed from staying on the sidelines to active, enthusiastic participation in the war. The war effort galvanized the American public; it also had the unforeseen effect of providing a huge jolt to the economy. As Sylvia Whitman related,
“The new defense business brought a welcome end to the poverty of the Great Depression…In 1933, unemployment…stood at 24.9 percent…By 1941, unemployment had dipped to 1.2 percent” (Whitman, 19).
Certainly, the Japanese had underestimated the sheer quantities of war materiel the U.S. could produce; once the U.S. was revved up to full production, Japanese defeat was just a matter of time. Also, the stated U.S. policy throughout the war was “Germany first.” Japan had had no expectation that its erstwhile allies, Germany and Japan, would jump in on its side and declare war on the United States; significantly, the declaration of war by the U.S. on December 8, 1941 was only against Japan.Thus, Japan could reasonably have expected to confront the full force of U.S. military might and industry. The campaign against the Japanese ended on August 6th, 1941 when the United States dropped the first of two atomic bombs ever used in combat. The Japanese were uutterly defeated, and gave their unconditional surrender immediately after.