On December 7, 1941, there was a surprise air attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. At 7:55 am Hawaiian time that day, hundreds of Japanese warplanes swarmed the base and destroyed 19 American naval vessels including 8 battleships and over 190 aircraft. According to Britannica, 2,403 people, including 68 civilians, were killed and 1,178 people were wounded in the attack.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour has an eventful story that brought the United States to the forefront of World War II. According to Britannica, though the Pearl Harbor attack was an unexpected event, the reason for the attack was the lack of harmony between Japan and the United States over the years.
According to History.com, the United States was particularly unhappy with Japan’s increasingly bellicose attitude towards China. The Japanese government believed that the only way to solve its economic and demographic problems was to expand into the neighbouring country’s territory and take over its import market. To this end, Japan declared war on China in 1937, culminating in the Nanjing Massacre and other atrocities.
The clash on the Marco Polo Bridge, near Beijing, on July 7, 1937, marked the beginning of an open war between the Imperial Japanese Army and China’s National Revolutionary Army.
American officials responded by using economic sanctions and trade embargoes as a weapon. They argued that if money and goods, especially essential commodities such as oil, were not available, Japan would have to curb its expansion. On the contrary, these sanctions forced Japan to remain firm in its position. Even after months of negotiations between Tokyo and Washington, DC, both sides could not come close to any compromise which eventually led to war.
As early as 1931, according to Britannica Encyclopaedia, the Tokyo government had extended its control over the Chinese province of Manchuria, and the following year the Japanese set up their headquarters in the region by creating the puppet state of Manchukuo. The clash on the Marco Polo Bridge, near Beijing, on July 7, 1937, marked the beginning of an open war between the Imperial Japanese Army and China’s National Revolutionary Army. In response, the United States government made its first loan to China in 1938.
In July 1939, the US terminated the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan. In 1940, the US began restricting the export of war goods to Japan. In July 1941, by which time the Japanese had occupied all of Indochina and were allied with Germany and Italy, the US government severed all commercial and economic ties with Japan. Japanese assets were frozen, and an embargo was declared on the export of petroleum and other vital war materials to Japan.
However, no one believed that the Japanese would start the war by attacking the distant Hawaiian Islands. Moreover, American intelligence officials were certain that any Japanese attack would be on one of the relatively nearby European colonies in the South Pacific like the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, or Indochina.
The Japanese plan was simple – to destroy the Pacific Fleet. Thus, when Japan’s armed forces spread across the South Pacific, the Americans could not fight back. According to Britannica.com, after months of planning and training, the Japanese launched their attack on December 7, 1941. At 7:55 am Japanese planes filled the sky over Pearl Harbor. Bombs and bullets rained down on the ships moored below. At 8:10 am, a bomb weighing 1,800 pounds was dropped on the battleship USS Arizona. The ship exploded and sank, with over a thousand people trapped aboard. Next, torpedoes hit the hull of the battleship USS Oklahoma. With over 429 crew aboard, the USS Oklahoma capsized and sank. Dry docks and airfields were also destroyed.
However, the Japanese were unable to destroy the Pacific Fleet. The attack on Pearl Harbour left intact the naval base’s most important offshore facilities – oil storage depots, repair shops, shipyards, and submarine docks. As a result, the US Navy was able to bounce back relatively quickly from the attack.
On December 8, the US Congress approved President Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan.
According to Britannica.com, on December 8, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of the US Congress in the ‘Day of Infamy’ speech, where he stated: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” Roosevelt further asserted that he would not only defend the United States to the utmost but would also make it very certain that such a form of treachery should never endanger the US again. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, after years of discussion and debate, the American people finally united for the first time in their determination to go to war.
On December 8, the US Congress approved President Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan. Three days later, Japan’s allies Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. US Congress retaliated for a second time, by declaring war on Axis powers, thus foregrounding the USA’s role as one of the biggest powers, which formed the Allied Forces in World War II.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the circumstances that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
Can you think of how the Pearl Harbor attack influenced World War II?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children, and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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