by Victor Davis Hanson // WND

Photo via WND
Photo via WND

The Japanese did not see their attack on Pearl Harbor as foolish at all. What in retrospect seems suicidal did not necessarily seem so at the time. In hindsight, the wiser Japanese course would have been to absorb the orphaned colonial Far Eastern possessions of France, the Netherlands and Great Britain that were largely defenseless after June 1941. By carefully avoiding the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, the Japanese might have inherited the European colonial empire in the Pacific without starting a war with the United States. And had the Japanese and Germans coordinated strategy, the two might have attacked Russia simultaneously in June 1941 without prompting a wider war with the United States, or in the case of Japan, an immediate conflict necessarily with Great Britain.

But in the Japanese view, the Soviets had proved stubborn opponents in a series of border wars, and it was felt wiser to achieve a secure rear in Manchuria to divert attention to the west (the Russians, in fact, honored their non-aggression pact with the Japanese until late 1945) – especially given the fact that the Wehrmacht in December 1941 seemed likely to knock the Soviet Union out of the war in a few weeks or by early 1942.

In the imperial Japanese mind, the moment was everything: It was high time to get in on the easy pickings in the Pacific before Germany ended the war altogether.

While the United States had belatedly begun rearming in the late 1930s, the Japanese were still convinced that in a naval war, their ships, planes and personnel were at least as modern and plentiful, if not more numerous and qualitatively better than what was available to the United States. The growing isolationism of the United States that had been championed by the likes of icons like Walt Disney and Charles Lindbergh, the persistent Depression, and the fact that the United States had not intervened in Europe, but instead watched Britain get battered for some 26 months from September 1939 to December 1941, suggested to many in the Japanese military command that the United States might either negotiate or respond only halfheartedly after Pearl Harbor, especially after the envisioned loss of the American carrier fleet.

Japanese intelligence about American productive potential was about as limited as German knowledge of the Soviet Union. In Tokyo’s view, if Japanese naval forces took out the American Pacific carriers at Pearl Harbor, there was simply no way for America, at least in the immediate future, to contradict any of their Pacific agendas. Nor on Dec. 7 could the Japanese even imagine that Germany might lose the war on the eastern front; more likely, Hitler seemed about to take Moscow, ending the continental ground conflict in Eurasia, and allowing him at last to finish off Great Britain. Britain’s fall, then, would mean that everything from India to Burma would soon be orphaned in the Pacific, and Japan would only have to deal with a vastly crippled and solitary United States. In short, for the Japanese, December 1941 seemed a good time to attack the United States – a provocation that would either likely be negotiated or end in a military defeat for the U.S.

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  1. Allan James Kiley

    The Japanese militarists violated one of Sun Tzu’s major dictums: Know your enemy! If they had they would have known that the United States did not want a war and would have done almost anything to stay out of it. The only way to get them full raging force into it was to do what they did.

  2. I was told by someone once, that the Japanese invasion force was spotted, but that the attack was allowed to happen, so that the Americans would get interested in the rest of the world and do something before it was too late.

    Does anyone know if there is any truth to this?
    Thank you.

    1. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Japanese naval force, aka ‘Kido Butai’ was spotted or observed by aircraft or by naval or merchant ships, from the time that they left port in Japan and subsequently the Kurile Islands, until the time that they launched the two aerial strikes the morning of December 7.

      It is a fact that the first Japanese aerial strike was observed by a mobile U.S. Army radar station located on high ground at Opana Point on the north shore of Oahu. The Japanese planes were approximately 130 miles north of Oahu when they were first observed on radar. The enlisted men manning the radar station contacted the army information center by telephone and reported the radar contact, but were told by the officer on duty that ‘they shouldn’t worry about the radar contact, as it’s probably a flight of B-17’s coming in from the mainland.’

      The historical revisionists would lead you to believe that the Roosevelt administration knew where and when the Japanese would strike, but this is not true. Nobody in the American government or military suspected or even thought that the Japanese would strike Pearl Harbor. Southeast Asia, Malaya or even the Philippines maybe, but not Pearl Harbor.

  3. There are some strong flaws in the arguments:

    – The Japanese knew that in the long run they would be outnumbered by the US-industry capacities. Especially admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, had visitied the USA more than once and had a good picture of the opponent.

    – Roosevelt demanded stopping the advance of Japan into Indochine. Otherwise the US will go to war or at least will support the Britain, France and the Netherlands in the far east. So the Japanese risked a war with the western powers fully supported by the US while they themself could not attack the US.

    – Tokyo knew very well: The farther the japanese fleet would advance to the south, the longer the eastern flank would have been. So the US could have started attacking those lines at their will. A situation Tokyo had to avoid at all cost. A situation that in 1945 was the beginning of the end.

    After considering the pros and cons Yamamoto told the government, that they either should stop any advance or take the full risk of a war with the US. But if waging war with the US, they should start it under the best military conditions possible, ie. with a US-fleet including the carriers destroyed. Tokyo never expected an easy war. They were at least as surprised of their rapid advance as the western allies.

  4. Regardless of Japanese motivations, Kimmel & Short got what they deserved! MacArthur, however, should have been shot for the disaster in the Philippines…

  5. So basically, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” eh? That was one whopper of a miscalculation, I’d say. For which the Japanese people paid a hefty price.

  6. FDR did everything possible to provoke the Japanese, first by abruptly cutting off all oil and steel exports to them in the summer of 1941, then freezing all Japanese assets in the US. This was clearly intended to provoke the Japanese into attacking us. We’d broken the Japanese codes in the summer of ’41 as well; Roosevelt was fully aware of their war plans and that a Japanese fleet was heading toward Pearl Harbor. These facts were also suspected by a good many Americans as well, primarily members of the America First organization, which opposed any American involvement in either European or Asian conflicts. Roosevelt deliberately withheld this information from his Pearl Army and Navy commanders. Of course, he didn’t expect that they’d inflict anywhere near the damage they did, after all, being merely a bunch bandy-legged little slant-eyed (if treacherous and cunning) Asiatics. Of course, being that the Left and academics (same thing, really) records and largely invents history, the truth is largely unknown to the public of this nation.

    1. You spout a lot of personal opinions that you construe as facts. But that’s all they are, opinions. Sure, FDR did cut off exports of oil and scrap iron and steel to Japan, but he didn’t do it with the intent of provoking Japan into attacking the U.S.A. FDR wanted to exert economic pressure on Japan in order to get them to begin negotiations to leave China, which was partially occupied by the Japanese Army during this period. Same with the freezing of Japanese financial assets in the U.S.A. In fact, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. government was extremely careful and circumspect not to make any sudden or bold moves that the Japanese government or military could interpret as threatening.

      As for the Japanese codes that you say we broke in the summer of 41, I have to assume that you are referring to the Japanese diplomatic ‘Purple Code’. This code was only used by the Japanese Foreign Office, and there was never any information of military significance coded and transmitted in the ‘Purple’ diplomatic code. The breaking of significant Japanese military codes, such as the JN-25 naval code, was successfully performed (partially performed at that) after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

      So no, neither FDR, Knox, Stimson, Hull, General Marshall, Admiral Stark, Admiral Kimmel or General Short had any detailed knowledge of ‘Japanese war plans’, and they certainly did not have any knowledge that ‘a Japanese fleet was heading towards Pearl Harbor’. It would have been impossible for FDR to deliberately withhold critical military information from his military commanders in Hawaii, because it was American military personnel who performed the signals intelligence, cryptographic analysis and interpretation of this intelligence information (diplomatic and military). So please, refrain from expounding revisionist opinion as historical fact.

      The military command on the island of Oahu was given ample warning from their commanders in Washington that the diplomatic negotiations in Washington were breaking down and that the military situation in Asia and the Pacific was becoming more and more dangerous. Both Admiral Kimmel and General Short were extremely short-sighted in their response to the numerous communiques and the ‘war warning’ that they received from their military commanders in Washington (Admiral Stark and General Marshall, respectively), and neither Kimmel or Short took the initiative to shift their command from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing prior to December 7.

      As for history, it is well known that the victors write the history, regardless of whether their politics are left, right or center.

  7. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong but I seem to remember reading somewhere that when the Japanese planes returned to their carriers after bombing Pearl Harbor, one of Yamamoto’s lieutenants asked him if he was going to send a second wave to bomb what they missed in the first wave, i.e. the oil storage tanks, the dry-docks, and any other ships still afloat. Yamamoto was quoted as saying “No, there’s been enough killing for one day” and with that the Japanese fleet set sail for Japan. Had Yamamoto sent that second wave to administer the coup de grâce on the American Pacific Fleet the war in the Pacific would have been totally different.

    1. Actually, the Japanese did fly off 2 air strikes the morning of December 7. Admiral Nagumo was in command of the Japanese naval strike force that bombed Pearl Harbor December 7 (he flew his flag in the aircraft carrier Akagi). Admiral Nagumo was never in favor of the strike on Pearl Harbor, even though he was chosen to command the naval strike force. He was personally relieved that Japanese aerial casualties were comparatively light and that no Japanese ships had been damaged or sunk. Nagumo did listen to recommendations from his staff that there were important targets in Pearl Harbor that needed to be destroyed (the ship repair facilities, the petroleum tank farm and the submarine base). Admiral Nagumo’s staff also recommended that the Japanese fly off reconnaissance patrols the next day (Dec. 8), in order to locate the American aircraft carriers (two of which, Enterprise and Lexington were in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor). This they did, but fortunately for us they did not make contact with the carriers. Admiral Nagumo, mission accomplished steamed back to Japanese home waters.

      Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, was in the command center of the battleship Nagato, anchored in the Japanese inland sea the morning of Dec. 7 (Dec. 8 Tokyo time).

  8. I recall reading a book that talked about bureaucracies and their infighting. Pearl Harbor was discussed, and one of the memos the author cited was from either a senior Army General or Navy Admiral, saying that they’d gotten some cracking of the Japanese codes, and that this information should NOT be shared with any of their enemies – including the other branch of the US military and FDR…

    He had similar types of memos he cited, showing how the Japanese Army and Navy fought each other even more. They’d rather lose the war than the political infighting… And they did.

    Kimmel and Short were far more worried about sabotage than attack – which is why they had the planes bunched together where they could easily be guarded.

    Note that a US Admiral resigned over transferring the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl, because he said it could and would be attacked. FDR chose not to listen – why FDR chose to transfer the fleet to Pearl is unclear to me; I don’t know if he meant to dangle it in front of the Japanese (to get them to attack) or so that the fleet would be 3 weeks closer to being able to attack, or just to show that he was “doing something”.

  9. Disclaimer: About half of my response below is cut and pasted from the internet.

    In early 1940, Japan began to fortify the Marshall Islands which lie in the central Pacific. The threat to American communications between Hawaii and the Philippines convinced President Roosevelt in June 1940 to order the United States Pacific Fleet to move its main Pacific base from California to Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt did this to send a signal to the Japanese of US concern over continued Japanese aggression in China. The move was designed to demonstrate the naval power available to the United States in the Pacific region, and to act as a deterrent to Japanese aggression against American, British and Dutch colonial possessions in East Asia. The move was not without significant risk, because it placed the American Pacific fleet within striking distance of Japan’s navy.

    Revisionist historians have tried to make much of Roosevelt’s decision to move the Fleet to Pearl Harbor, in support of their thesis that Roosevelt was trying to maneuver the Japanese into attacking the U.S., so the U.S. could get into the war. The historical revisionists would lead you to believe that the Roosevelt administration knew where and when the Japanese would strike, but this is not true. Nobody in the upper echelons of the American government or military suspected or even thought that the Japanese would strike Pearl Harbor. Southeast Asia, Malaya or even the Philippines maybe, but not Pearl Harbor.

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