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Seventy years later and the attack on Pearl Harbor is still remembered and considered to be a fundamental part of America’s culture and identity. The Japanese attack that thrust the US into the Second World War will always be regarded as dastardly, wicked and barbaric. It caused the deaths of some thousands of men and the sinking of America’s symbolic battleships and her pride. For this, it will be one of many events that will never be forgotten for all of eternity. In American history, the Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution,the Civil War, the sinking of the Titanic, Pearl Harbor and WWII, the Apollo missions, and 9/11 are only some prime examples of such events. Of all the memorable events in US history, though, none have had such long-lasting effects as Pearl Harbor. Out of the ashes of Pearl Harbor rose a new nation, one that was dominated by patriotism, industrial might, and a motivation to become the most powerful nation on the globe. This nation won the Second World War, and emerged from it successfully as the sole superpower of the world, economically, politically, and militarily, all as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The many factors that determined the situation immediately following the attack also determined the future course of the war and the situation post-war, as only the combination of so many factors coming together were able to put America on the right track towards global domination following Japan’s surrender, August 1945. Some of these factors influenced the military situation of the US, for example, the US carriers were not at port during the attack, whereas other factorsinfluenced the political and social situation; the Japanese attacked without declaring war, substantially angering the American public. The combination of these factorsput America in the ripe position to dominate not only the war, but also the post-war situation. However, many of the reasons why America became a superpower were due to the situation in Europe following the surrender of Germany, May 1945, and therefore cannot be directly attributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Indirectly though, the attack was essential. Again, going back to the factors that influenced the situation following the attack, Pearl Harbor set the stage for America to take the lead in the war, and without that exact situation in December, 1941, the situation in post-war Europe and the Pacific might have been fundamentally different; it is even possible that the Allies could have lost the war entirely. Because the attack on Pearl Harbor determined the way America entered the war, it can therefore be said that Pearl Harbor was the main contributing factor to America’s situation following the end of the war. It is for this reason that Pearl Harbor takes its place in America’s culture among events such as The Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Gettysburg; it was extremely influential in how America won WWII, if not the reason why America won WWII. However, this is not the reason why Pearl Harbor is remembered and takes its place in the hearts of the American people; it is remembered as the devastating attack that caught us by surprise, our entry point into the war, and the only place since the War of 1812 where America has been attacked by foreigners on American soil. Although it is all of the above, Pearl Harbor should not be remembered as“‘The greatest military and naval disaster in our Nation’s history’” as it commonly is, but rather, an unfortunate and tragic loss of life that launched the US into WWII in the best possible position and secured global dominance following the end of the war andcontinues today.
In order to prove that Pearl Harbor was not a complete military disaster, it is necessary to look at the military situation before and after the attack in depth. It is important to clarifythe motive behind the attack and the history that led to it. James Bradley, an expert historian on the Pacific War and Japanese culture, explains in his book,The Imperial Cruise, the steps taken by Japan and the events that lead them to attack Pearl Harbor. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Japanese threw away their feudal heritage and changed their entire government and culture in order to Westernize and become an Empire.They dreamed of dominating the Pacific as Europe had done to Africa and Southeast Asia; they imagined creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, similar to the Nazi ideal ofGroßdeutschland (Greater Germany). As they industrialized and began to test their authority as a world power, Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, seizing its vast resources and farming land, and then“in the summer of 1937, launched a full-scale attack of the rest of China.” The Western world was aghast that Japan would and coulddo such a thing. No 20th century Western nation wanted a non-white Eastern nation to gain a position of strength that could eventually challenge their supremacy in the Far East. The US, the other dominant power in the Pacific,enforced an embargo on Japan of its crucial oil supply line, among other important resources such as rubber. The Japanese determined that without US supplies, they would not be able to continue the war in China, and arrogantly decidedthat the best course of action was not to make peace, but to attack all the American and Western colonial territories throughout the Pacific, and seize the vital resources for their own. Daniel Marston, author of The Pacific War, describes the reasoning to attack Pearl Harbor:Admiral Yamamoto, a Japanese Naval commander who had studied in the US and came to understandAmerican culture, knew that once a war was started with the US, Japan would eventually lose. Knowing this, he decided to try and win the war before it began, and planned to launch a crippling blow to the US Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in orderto demoralizethe American people and scare the US out of a war. After months of preparing, training, and secretly steaming across the Pacific, a Japanese fleetwaited 230 miles northwest ofthe Hawaiian island of Oahu on the morning of December 7th, 1941 and attacked Pearl Harbor.
Now that the motive for the attack is known, a discussion of the attack itself in order to prove its status as American victory can begin. It is important though, to clarify some terms and questions that will let us do this. What exactly is a victory? According to former Navigator Jim Clonts, a Desert Storm veteran and author, the definition of a victory is simply:“Every military conflict requires defined objectives, both military and political. The accomplishment of these objectives defines victory.”It is impossible to determine who the victor is without this clear definition. Another question, what is the difference between a tactical victory and a strategic victory? A tactical victory is an accomplishment of short-term objectives, while a strategic victory is an accomplishment of long-term objectives. This will be important in defining what exactly happened at Pearl Harbor and who exactly came out in the better position.
Walter Lord, author and historian during the mid 1900’s, details the events of the attack in his book, Day of Infamy: When the Japanese attacked at 7:55 AM on Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, with a strike force of 353 planes and five midget subs, they bombed and torpedoed as many ships as they could, thebattleships their main target, and finally ended the raid shortly before 10:00 AM, sinking or badly damaging a total of 18 ships, destroying 188 aircraft, and killing and injuring roughly 4,000 men.Undoubtedly, this was a major blow to the US Navy; all eightbattleships of the US Pacific Fleet were sunk, destroyed, or seriously damaged. Why did the Japanese target the US battleships? During the Great War, battleships, known as dreadnoughts, were the rulers of the seas; they were the largest, had the most guns, the most powerful guns, and the most armor. They were the main proponents of power for all world navies. No ship could withstand their onslaught alone expect other battleships. They served as flagships (the command ship of a fleet) and commanded the pride of nations and the fear of enemies. The loss a battleship was disheartening to its nation, the destroying of one was uplifting. The Japanese targeted the battleships for this reason alone; the US navy’s power would be greatly diminished, and the American public would be greatly discouraged to make war, or so they thought.
The Japanese succeeded in only one of these goals, however. The loss of all eight battleships meant the Pacific Fleet was essentially out of action, and thus it was forced back to San Diegotoreorganize. As previously stated though, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto wanted to knock the US out of the war before it began. The US was dealt a major blow, but did not make peace. On December 8th, 1941, the day after the attack, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (known as FDR), president of the United States from 1932-1945, asked Congress to declare war on Japan in his famous Day of Infamy speech:
“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the Unites States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace…Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us…the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
The US did not back down as intended by the Japanese. Why though, would the US be so stubborn, if their Naval Fleet and only way of asserting authority in the Pacific was just destroyed? The reason is simple: many ships, including three aircraft carriers and the entire US Pacific submarine fleet, were not at port during the attack.They were spared from the destruction and therefore, the US was not crippled, as Japan hoped. The aircraft carriers were much more than survivors though; they became the main proponent of the US Navy in the Pacific for the rest of the war. During WWI, battleships filled this role, but after the first carrier was constructed by Great Britain (HMS Argus), and as air power was discovered to be superior to the might of the battleship, as seen in the sinking of the German battleshipBismarck in 1941, aircraft carriers became the new flagships of nations. With this fact, the US had even more reason not to give into the Japanese. With such power and ability to wage war, the US was not even close to being crippled. This is seen in the fact that some of the most decisive battles of the Pacific war occurred during 1942, less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first battle between carriers in history, occurred on May 3rd, 1942, less than five months after Pearl Harbor. The Battle of Midway, the largest carrier battle in history and which some consider to be the turning point of the war, occurred June 4th 1942, less than six months after the attack.The US was not only still in the fight after Pearl Harbor, they were also bringing the fight to the Japanese at the Battle of Guadalcanal (August 7th, 1942-February 9th, 1943) less than seven months after. All of the above battles were either an American victory or an inconclusive stalemate that hurt the Japanese more than the US. This proves the fact that the sparring of thecarriers was probably the most important military factor for America in winning the war. If the carriers had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, the US might have been inclined to do exactly what the Japanese wanted, and make peace. The Japanese knew this too, as seen by the fact that they “assigned twice as many torpedo bombers per carrier than per battleship,” but none were there to sink. The power of the carrier is also shown in its capabilities to affect morale. Simply, as with battleshipsduring the Great War, the sinking of a carrier is disheartening to a nation and its military whereas using them to deal blows to the enemy is uplifting. As shown by the Doolittle Raid in April1942, the use of carriers both raised American morale and lowered Japanese morale. In that raid, named after the Operation Commander, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, a force of bombers specially modified to take off from the decks of an aircraft carrier flew from the USS Hornet and bombed the Japanese capital of Tokyo.This raid was immortalized by the film Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944) and again by Pearl Harbor (2001).The damage to the city from the raid was minimal, but the psychological effects were enormous. It showed America that they were not crippled from Pearl Harbor, and it showed the Japanese that they were not safe from harm and that the US was willing to bring the war home to them. Yamamoto was extremely concerned by this raid, and made it a point of hunting down the US carriers missed at Pearl Harbor at the Battle of Midway, ironically, losing four of his own precious carriers during the battle.Overall, carriers proved to be extremely important during the war, as they allowed the US to remain at war and to defend itself against Japan, as well as the fact that their military and psychological applications were extensive.
Now, using the definition of a victory and the difference between a tactical and strategic victory, it can be determined that Pearl Harbor for the Japanese was a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat. Initially, it looked like the Japanese had struck a great blow to the US Navy, and for the beginning of the war, they did not lose a single battle until Midway. “For the Japanese, Pearl Harbor became a tactical success, but a strategic disaster.”The failure to destroy the carriers was extremely essential in the Japanese strategic defeat and proved that they could not win the war. In the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!, Yamamoto is depicted to have said a famous line directly following the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”While this quote itself is not reputable, it reflects the attitude and beliefs of the Japanese admiral at the time. Pearl Harbor was more of a loss for Japan than it was for the US, and therefore, the best way America could have entered the war.
The “sleeping giant” Yamamoto refers to in hisline is the American public and its industry. The actual military force of America could be beaten, as shown by Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines, Guam, and other American islands.However,onceignited, the American war machine could not be stopped. As shown by Table 1 (see Appendix), US defense spendingincreased from $6.13b to $22.05b, over 259%, in 1942 from 1941 as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Federal spending also increased over 132% that year. In 1943, war production pulled a whopping 32.23% of the GDP. In 1945, federal spending was up to $72.11b, 89.49% of which was spent on the war. In comparison, as shown by Table 2, the US Nominal GDP was larger than the combined GDP’s of all the Axis powers (Germany, Austria, Japan, etc). By 1944, it was larger than all of the Axis powers and Allied powers combined, counting for an average of 65% of total Allied GDP for the entirewar. This is the industrial might that the Axis faced when America entered the war.
One reason why the US was so ready to convert to a war economy immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor was due to the Lend-Lease Act. During the 1930’s, Congress authorized monetary loans, as well as shipments of arms, merchant ships, and obsolete warships to nations like Britain and China, already fighting off the forces of tyranny, in return for access to ports and bases around the globe. For example, in exchange for WWI-era destroyers to help combat the Nazi U-boat (submarine) threat in the North Atlantic, Britain grantedthe US access to naval and air bases in places such as Bermuda and Newfoundland. The Lend-Lease Act not only kept up the nations already in the fight, it maintained US neutrality while actively participating, and sustained a readiness for theinevitable total-war economy. When the US entered the war, Lend-Lease continued and expanded as the difference between industrial output of the Axis and Allies continued to increase exponentially. This industrial might is what defeated the forces of Germany and Japan. In a 1:1 fight, Axis forces were military superior due to their zeal and training, but with the numerical and technological advantages the Allies enjoyed, the war was essential won in both theaters by 1943-44. The only question that remained by that time: how long would it take to finish? The industry put forth by the US during WWII was the main factor in winning the war, and without it, nations like Britain, China and the USSR might have fallen to the fascist threat. Industrial output was so extensive that the losses sustained during the attack on Pearl Harbor were considered easily replaceable, and after one or two years, the US was right back in the same situation pre-Pearl Harbor.In fact, some of the battleships thought to have been permanently sunk at Pearl Harbor were raised, repaired, and refit enough to see action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. This kind of industrial output is unbeatable, even by today’s standards. US defense spending in 2010 was $700b, which, after adjusting for inflation, is less than half of the defense budget in 1945. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they essentially signed their own death warrant as the “sleeping giant” line suggested. They “firmly entrenched the seeds of destruction of their navy, and near destruction of their nation.”
The other part of the “sleeping giant” that “woke” was the American people. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they did so without declaring war beforehand. Because attacking a nation without declaring war was against the tenants of the Hague Convention (a precursor to the Geneva Conventions), the attack on Pearl Harbor was seen by the American people and the world as perfidious, terriblyruthless, uncivilized, treacherous and deceitful. Even Hitler, Japan’s ally, seemed shocked at such an outright wicked attack. It angered the American public to the point that the army recruitment centers were lined out the door the following morning, December 8th, 1941. On the same day, President Rooseveltaddressed Congress asking for a declaration of war on Japan.In his Day of Infamy speech (see page 6), FDR put into perspective the feelings of all Americans towards the attack and secured the fuel for the war effort that would last until 1945. As shown by the propaganda posters, Pictures 1-8 in the Appendix, the anger of the American people and their want of revenge would be immortalized by the phrase “‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’” It would drive young men to enlist, young women and older men to work in the factories, and all American citizens to buy war bonds. The sentiment of anger towards Japan was kept up throughout the war through use of propaganda, as well as morale boosting war bond drives from national heroes, a notable one being the 7th War Bond drive led by the servicemen who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, immortalized in the famous, Pulitzer prize-winning photograph (see Picture 9). From the ashes of Pearl Harbor came the fuel necessary to win the war, that fuel being war bonds and an industrial labor force.
Also very important was the fact that the United States was attacked;America was not the aggressor. This factprevented the large faction of isolationistsfrom speaking out against getting involved in affairs across the globe, as it is impossible to stay out a war that comes to your own soil. After WWI, the isolationist movement grew very rapidly in the US; citizens wanted America to keep to itself and to stay out of the “European affair.” This group was the only factor that held back Roosevelt from entering the war in 1939. However, after the dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor,even the isolationists concluded war was necessary. In fact, the Declaration of War was almost ratified unanimously by Congress, with only one vote dissenting, a pacifist Representative from Montana, Jeannette Rankin, who also voted against going to war in 1914. The anger from the attack is essential in understanding the benefit of the attack on Pearl Harbor for the US. No other possible situation could have resulted in that same way. With the luck of the carriers being spared, and the easy replacement of material due to American industrial might, Pearl Harbor was essentially an excuse for FDR to declare war without being at all in a disadvantage, while at the same time silencing the large number of isolationists.Essentially, it was a perfect opportunity to strengthen oneself without fear of reprisal. To reiterate, the sentiment caused by the attack became the fuel for the war effort. As said earlier, the attack essentially won the war for the US; and the combination of industrial might and the resulting anger of the people is the reason why. The US always had the industrial might, but without the passion for revenge, how much backing would the war effort had received? Had the Pacific Fleet not been surprised by the attack, defended itself, and came out in a relatively acceptable position, America might have gone to war, but to what end? How manypeople would have gone to work in the factories if there was no anger, if there was no “Remember Pearl Harbor”? This, is why Pearl Harbor should be considered the best possible way for the US to enter the war; the combination of industry and massive support and patriotism for the war made the attack essentially a confirmation of the “Japan’s inevitable defeat.” Without the sentiment, the war would have been much more difficult to fight and to politically maintain.
Lastly, but also quite important to understanding the benefits of the attack on Pearl Harbor,was the German and Italian response. On December 11th, 1941, Germany and Italy jointly declared war on the United States. While this might seem like a very irrational decision considering what we now know about American patriotism and industry, it was actually quite a valid move at the time. Having seen the devastating attack inflicted on the US, Germany, like Japan, believed America to be knocked out of the war early on. While the US had not sued yet for peace, Hitler believed that a declaration of war from Germany and Italy would push them over the edge in fright. Obviously, this was not the case, asCongress responded with declarations of war of its own on the same day. At the time however, Germany and Italy had little reason to be afraid. No one had seen the US military in action at all yet, having only been at war with Japan for three days, and the mighty Atlantic separated the two now-warring powers. Hitler believed Japan would defeat the US before Germany ever had to deal with them at all.
Another motive for declaring war, Germany was in the middle of the Barbarossa offensive, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union that dominated the European theater. If Germany declared war on the US, as dictated by the terms of the Tripartite Pact, the alliance signed by Germany, Japan, and Italy in September 1940 that formed the Axis Powers, Japan might declare war on the USSR and help the Germans attack the Soviets from two fronts. Japan, however, was not interested, and Germany was stuck with a very undesirable situation. The US did not enjoy it either, now having to fight in Europe and the Pacific, but she was in a more desirable position fighting Germany than Germany was fighting the US. During 1940-42, FDR and Churchill met at numerous conferences, such as the Atlantic Conference, where “the two leaders agreed to meet regularly to discuss strategy”against Germany should the US enter the war, and also determined at the Washington Conference that the Allies would focus on a “Europe first” policy rather than Japan in the Pacific. The US had no such strategy in the Pacific, and Britain’s only plan was simply “‘main fleet to Singapore.’” Even without such a strategy, the US fought on both fronts with equal ferocity and industrial support. As history shows us, the US offensives won both fronts. The US had the ability to fight in multiple theaters at the same time, due to its enormous industry, whereas Germany and Japan could not. Because the US had this ability, due to the patriotism and industrial might America experienced, it can be said that the declaration of war on the US was when Germany lost the war. And because Pearl Harbor was the reason Germany declared war, one can therefore conclude Pearl Harbor lost the war for Germany.
Germany’sinevitable fate was highly beneficial to the US, as the defeat of Germany allowed America to dominate the post-war situation in Europe, and further her capitalist and Democratic cause across the globe and become Earth’s leading power. FDR’s main goals in WWII were not only to stop the fascist threat, but also to assume global leadership and to replace Great Britain as the most powerful nation in the world. By winning the war, providing economic support to all countries devastated by the world’s most destructive war in history, and by helping to establish the United Nations, the US fulfilled that dream. Had the US not entered WWII, this never would have occurred. Because these results did happen, and seeing as being the world’s leading power is a very beneficial position, it can be said that entering WWII was the best decision America has ever made due to her position afterwards. While the US did not know what the outcome was going to be, the fact that the outcome did happen makes it the best decision ever made. As we discussed, Pearl Harbor allowed the US to enter the war in the best possible position and therefore should be considered the cause of America’s prestigious and affluent position today, because, without the way the US entered the war, and without the war itself, she would not be where she is today. To recap once again, the military and social situations following the attack on Pearl Harbor sealed the fate of the war, which allowed the US to take its place after the massive conflict as the sole superpower of the globe, making Pearl Harbor the best thing to happen to America in its history.
Every political, economic and social situation across the globe today can be attributed in some way to the results of WWII. Whether it be the economic prosperity of Europe, the constant tensions in the Middle East, or the equality of women in the United States, all can be related back to and explained by WWII. Because America dominated the scene following the war, she had enormous influence in post-war society across the globe. For example, Europe was economically tied to the Marshall Plan, West Germany was dependent on US and Allied military forces to defend her from the USSR, and Jews made their home in Israel through the US-backed motion in the United Nations. While the US was not involved in many world issues before WWII, for example, the decision to end the British mandate in the Middle East, America controlled or influenced nearly every aspect of the how the world worked after the Allied victory; America motioned for the statehood of Israel and was the first to recognize it on May 14th, 1948, even though it had no business in Israel before the war. The US continues to be controllingtoday in many respects. In some countries, the election of the US President is followed more closely than their own. This status has always clearly been linked to the situation following the end of WWII. From our redefinition of Pearl Harbor, as the reason why the US won WWII, we can therefore say that the US became the dominant power on the globe due to the attack as well, further expanding its influence over time. This is the reason why it should take its place in American culture, as it defines the US today. Everything that is America today is a result of that infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941.We should and will never forget the sacrifice made by the Greatest Generation; we have them to thank for who we are today.
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