The United States Enters the Second World War, and Victory Becomes Inevitable
The news of the Japanese attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbour first reached Britain in the shape of an insignificant news item to the effect that Japanese aircraft had attacked some American shipping, which was heard at the end of the nine o’clock news on the evening of Sunday, 7 December 1941.
Mr Winston Churchill, listening at Chequers and alone with two American diplomats, did not, straight-away, think it significant. He was preoccupied with the news from Libya and from the Russian Front. However, it only took a few minutes” conversation after the news for Mr Churchill, from his ever-open office in Chequers, to be speaking to President Roosevelt. “Mr President,” he asked, “what’s this about Japan?” “It’s quite true,” said Roosevelt, “they have attacked us at Pearl Harbour. We are all in the same boat now.” Not even President Roosevelt at that moment knew the immense damage which had been caused by the Japanese attack, but to Churchill the news was one of the most exhilarating moments of his life. At last America was in the war, at last the ultimate issue of the war was no longer in doubt. “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful,” wrote Mr Churchill in his war memoirs.
The world picture at the end of 1941 was very much less disastrous than that at the end of 1940. Britain in 1940 was alone in facing the menace of Hitler and on 29 December there had taken place the heaviest and most disastrous air-raid on London since the beginning of the Blitz. At the end of 1941, Britain was still fighting for survival, and in the summer had only just reduced the U-boat sinkings in the Atlantic to a proportion which did not mean starvation for her and the end of the war effort.
In June, 1941, Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. He had met with more stubborn resistance than he had expected and 011 the Central Russian Front his army had just been checked in front of Moscow. In North Africa, after many ups and downs, the British and Commonwealth Army was attacking the Italians and Germans. The issue in North Africa was still uncertain; it was to result, in the long run, in a defeat, but this Churchill did not then expect.
The United States was lending Britain and Russia all aid short of war, and Mr Averell Harriman, one of Roosevelt’s inside team, had attended with Britain an Allied Conference at Moscow discussing aid for Russia. But if the picture was more promising then than in 1940 it was still fraught with uncertainty. The Japanese attack on the United States removed the uncertainty. The might of Britain and the Commonwealth, of Russia and then of the United States would inevitably prove invincible.
Japan had signed the anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy in 1936, and in 1937 had begun her long war aimed at the conquest of China, a war which inevitably made the United States her enemy. But in 1940 Japan for a while seemed to hesitate about the German Alliance. Her government had been annoyed by the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and had also been impressed first by Britain’s survival in the Battle of Britain and then by the sea victories won by the British Fleet in the Mediterranean. The Mikado and most of the Japanese aristocracy and some of the leaders of the Navy were convinced that Japan, with her vulnerable economy, should never run the risk of having to fight Britain and the United States together.
However, the fall of France and the weakness of Britain in the Far East tipped the scales the other way. Here were the vast rich colonial possessions of Britain, Holland and France almost ready for the taking: all through the summer of 1941 there was talk of Hitler’s victories over the Soviet Union: now was the historic moment for Japan to finish off Chiang Kai-shek in China and to impose on all the Far East the Japanese New Order, or as it was euphemistically called, “The Co-Prosperity Sphere”.
Prudent elements, a government headed by Prince Konoye, were still in charge of Japanese policy; but even the Konoye government was forced to make some move in the direction which the Army leaders desired. Japan demanded bases in Indo-China from Vichy and even before this demand had been granted had sent troops to seize them. The number of Japanese troops in Indo-China had been fixed by a convention in the summer of 1940; but the number was constantly being added to and by July, 1941, Japan had some five divisions stationed there. For this there could only be one apparent reason, the prospective invasion of Malaya and Thailand.
The American and British answer was, in July, economic sanctions and the freezing of Japanese assets. The Japanese Navy was very quickly forced to eat into its reserves of oil. Under popular indignation, a new government headed by Admiral Tojo was appointed by the Mikado and war with the U.S. and Britain became a probability, unless the Axis received some deafening blow.
The British fear, and it was a lively one, was that Japan would attack Malaysia and Singapore or Burma and that no casus belli would be given to the United States. Heart and soul behind Britain and lending all aid short of war, American destroyers and cruisers were protecting convoys in the Atlantic against German submarines, Roosevelt still realized that Congress would not declare war unless America was actually attacked. When sanctions were imposed on Japan, the American requirement for withdrawing them was not only that Japan should leave Indo-China, but also China. It was a hard demand. It meant that for Japan the alternative to war was to seek a full understanding with the US, which would entail denouncing the Alliance with Italy and Germany and all conquests in Asia from America’s allies.
In December, 1941, negotiations between Japan and the United States continued, each side making demands the other was bound to reject. Yet war is never inevitable until it happens. In November, Admiral Tojo appointed Mr Saburo Kurusu, who was known to be anti-Axis, as a special envoy to Washington to obviate the serious situation between the two countries,, This to some extent offset, in the eyes of the Americans, the huge military expenditure voted by the Japanese Diet in November, 1941, and its resolution ascribing the dangers of war as being due to “American intentions to create a world hegemony”.
Mr Kurusu, indeed, continued his peace negotiations right up to the moment the Japanese struck; and they struck, without a declaration of war, at the American Fleet, as indeed they had done at the Russian Fleet in 1904 before the Russo-Japanese war. The American government had not been fooled by Japanese diplomacy even though all hope had not been given up, and on 5 December President Roosevelt had sent a long personal letter to the Mikado warning him of the folly of going to war. But the government and the American Navy were caught off their guard completely by the Pearl Harbour attack.
Total American naval strength was of course vastly superior to that of Japan, and even the American naval concentration in the Pacific was very nearly the equal of the Japanese Navy. The attack on the Pacific Fleet’s naval base on Oahu, which is one of the Hawai-ian group of islands, was planned in October. It was designed at one blow to give Japan unquestioned naval superiority in the Pacific so that the conquest of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines could be carried out successfully. On 6 November, a number of battleships and cruisers protecting a force of aircraft-carriers sailed from the Kurile Islands north of Japan, where it had been secretly concentrated, to some 275 miles north of of Hawaii. Admiral Nagumo, who commanded this force, arrived at his striking point on 6 December without being observed at all.
Meanwhile, Japanese consular officials and agents in Hawaii had been sending Tokyo a constant stream of information so that, when the Japanese aircraft attacked, each pilot knew the exact location of each ship he was aiming at destroying. Ninety-two ships lay at anchor in Pearl Harbour, of which by far the most important targets were eight large battleships, the nucleus of the American Pacific Fleet.
It seems that fate was on the side of the Japanese. At 6.30 a.m. on 7 December a small Japanese submarine entered a prohibited area off Oahu and was sunk by destroyer and aircraft. The naval watch-officer was informed and, in his turn, informed the Chiefs-of-Staff at Pearl Harbour; but for some reason no general alert was given. More extraordinary still it is a fact that at 7.00 a.m. the operator of a provisional detector station out in the Pacific belonging to the American Army reported a large flight of aeroplanes about 130 miles from Oahu to the east-north-east. An army lieutenant decided that the aeroplanes must obviously be friendly ones and took no action. An unusually cloudy sky added to Japanese luck. A routine dawn patrol of American aircraft had passed over Oahu and reported nothing.
At 7.50 a.m. on that Sunday morning a great noise of approaching aircraft was heard on Oahu and at 7.55 the first bombs fell. Low-level bombers and torpedo aircraft attacked the ships in the harbour and the naval installations; high-level bombers bombed the airfields and also Honolulu some seven miles away. The attacks were followed by fighter planes firing machine-guns with incendiary bullets, particularly at the planes on the airfield; some pocket submarines attacked the harbour at the same time.
Just as there had been no adequate air or sea patrols, so inside Pearl Harbour no precautions against attack had been taken; warships were moored close one against the other and a large proportion of officers and ratings were on leave and many sleeping ashore. A similar peace-time carelessness pervaded the Hickham army-airfield close to Pearl Harbour and other aerodromes on the island. Before the last attack, which was made at 9.00 a.m. and which met with heavy anti-aircraft and naval gun-fire, the Japanese were able to strafe their objectives almost without resistance and aircraft were able to return to their carriers to refuel and to return to the attack. Of the eight battleships, the Arizona, California and Utah, a target ship, were sunk outright; the Oklahoma capsized shortly after being bombed; the Nevada was set on fire and put out of action for many months; the three others were more or less seriously damaged. Considerable additional damage was done to ships, a mine-layer was sunk, three cruisers damaged, two destroyers sunk and another damaged. Some 2,300 officers and men were killed and some hundreds of the nearly two thousand wounded died later. The Japanese are said to have lost 60 aircraft, whilst the Americans had 173 destroyed and over 100 damaged.
The United States Government set up a board of inquiry after the Pearl Harbour disaster and the report which was published very quickly found Rear-Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant-General Walter Short, commanding the Department of Hawaii, guilty of dereliction of duty. It became clear from the inquiry that both these senior officers had been warned of the danger of attack; if they had obeyed the warnings, the aircraft warning-system of the Army should have been working and the distance reconnaissance of the Navy in action. Most fortunately for the American Navy, some aircraft-carriers, among them the brand-new Lexington, were away from Pearl Harbour on manoeuvres.
If Pearl Harbour and the consequent entry of the US into the war made Allied victory inevitable, it began a period of staggering reverses for the Allied armies. Never did a nation exploit its advantages more rapidly than did japan. The maiming of the American Fleet enabled the Japanese to invade the Philippines after an air attack on 8 December which destroyed half the American and Philippino air-force on the ground. Thailand was invaded on 7 December, and very shortly afterwards the Japanese invasion of Malaya began.
On 10 December, off the east coast of Malaya, occurred the greatest British naval disaster of the war. During the autumn of 1941, Churchill had sent out two of Britain’s latest battleships, the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, more powerful than any ships of the Japanese Navy, to protect Malaya and to deter Japan from sea-borne invasions. They were both sunk by Japanese torpedo-bombers based on Saigon in Indo-China. Well might Churchill remark that the Japanese were far better versed in air-warfare than they had been given credit for.
Hong Kong fell into Japanese hands on 25 December. Nothing could stop the jungle-trained troops of Japan in Malaya, and Singapore surrendered on 15 February. By the end of February Japan, after wiping out the Dutch and British fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea, was in possession of the Dutch East Indies. The Philippines were finally won in May; and by the end of that month the Japanese had conquered Burma, were across the Indian frontier and had reached the Burma Road by which American and British supplies reached Chiang Kai-shek in China. By the end of May the Japanese troops in New Guinea were only 400 miles from the Australian continent.
Yet the Japanese totally misjudged the speed with which the United States Navy and Air Force could once again become effective in the Pacific. The American Pacific Fleet was quickly reinforced and not, as Churchill had feared might be the case, too greatly at the expense of the Atlantic where the battle against the U-boats was still at a critical stage. By April and May, 1942, American warships and carriers were carrying out heavy raids on Japanese bases and Tokyo was heavily bombed by sea-borne aircraft. After the hard battles of Coral Island and Midway Island (4 June) naval initiative in the Pacific passed once and for all from the Japanese to the Americans.
Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the United States on II December. Hitler had tried hard to persuade the Japanese to attack Russia and the British possessions in the Far East and not to embroil America in the war. When he and von Ribbentrop, his Foreign Minister, first heard the news of Pearl Harbour they refused to believe it. His better judgment had been against bringing in the US, but this first Japanese success made him change his mind. Ciano describes Mussolini as being very happy about America’s entry as, in his phrase, “it clarified the issues”,
What Mussolini thought was of no great moment, but it is astonishing that Hitler did not appreciate more fully the importance of America’s overwhelming industrial power in a long war. He was the victim of his own prejudices and theories and in one of his many monologues to his staff at his Headquarters he is reported as saying, in January, 1942, ‘I don’t see much future for the Americans. It’s a decadent country. And they have their racial problems. My feelings about them are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance. Everything about the behaviour of American society shows that it is half-Judaized and half-Negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold together?”
Fate blinds those bent on self-destruction, and so, strange as it may seem, the attack on Pearl Harbour comforted Hitler as well as Churchill.
- Navy History Heritage Command Official Overview
- History.com Account With Video
- About Education Account
- “Remembering Pearl Harbor:The USS Arizona Memorial”, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
- Hawaii War Records Depository, Archives & Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library
- 7 December 1941, The Air Force Story
- The “Magic” Background (PDFs or readable online)
- The Congressional investigation
- LTC Jeffrey J. Gudmens; COL Timothy R. Reese (2009). Staff Ride Handbook for the Attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941: A Study of Defending America (PDF) (Report). Combat Studies Institute.