The U.S. decision to enter World War II was not one which was hastily made. World War I had been simmering for some time, over two years in fact, prior to the U.S. entrance into this bloody affair. Endless debate had occurred at all levels of our government, and even among the general population, to the appropriate role of the U.S. in this war. As one factor after another combined to make U.S. involvement more of a probability, one factor in particular would prove to be the final straw which would topple the decision making process from one of restraint to one of action. This factor was, of course, the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was attacked on the morning of December 7, 1941 and would prove to be Japan’s greatest mistake, a mistake for which the consequences would extend throughout the war and well into Japan’s post-war future. More immediately, however, it would serve to drop the restraint which the U.S. had maintained as the war had raged on in Europe for over two years. The U.S. would have entered WWII even if the Japanese did not attack Pearl Harbor. The axis powers, Germany and Italy, were gaining to much power in Europe and then Japan decided that they were going to join with the axis powers, this was not settling well with the U.S.
World War II spanned a six year period between September 1, 1939 (the date of Germany’s invasion of Poland) and September 2, 1945 (the date of the Japanese surrender) (“Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941—Overview and Special Image Selection.” 2). After the invasion of Poland, Germany quickly struck again crushing Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France. In June 1940 Great Britain stood alone against Germany and then that same month Italy joined Germany’s side in the war. It was realized even at the time of the U.S. decision to enter the war that it would be a war which would probably result in more long-term and far-reaching political and cultural consequences than any other war in history. This was realized by Japan and the United States as it was in the other major players of the war.
The United States, at first neutral to the events which rapidly unfolded during World War II, entered the battle December 8, 1941on that same day1,000,000 enlisted in the armed forces. Japan, angered by United States resistance to their expansion into the South Pacific (the Philippines and the Virgin Islands), had attacked the United States Pacific fleet (docked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii) the previous day (December 7, 1941).
Interestingly, the Japanese had decided to enter the war only six days previous to the actual bombing on December 1, 1941 at an Imperial conference. They did so because of the Hull note issued the previous week (November 26, 1941) which required them to liquidate all the possessions they had captured during the previous decade from China.
Indeed the United States had been remotely involved in many aspects of the war up until this point. There was, however, considerable friction between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders regarding the exact role the United States should take before the attack (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 3). Both Japan and Germany had been expanding their territories at a very fast rate and Roosevelt and other key players in U.S. government wanted to halt that expansion (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 3). Some contend, in fact, that Roosevelt: “began to maneuver the U.S. into the war, even as he assured his countrymen he was taking every step to keep America out” (“Buchanan as Historian” 2). In reality, even Roosevelt had shown reluctance to enter into the actual warfare which was engulfing Europe. Instead the U.S. resorted to embargoes and various other forms of economic restraints which were designed to bring Japan back under control (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 3). Recognizing even prior to the release of the Hull note that war was more of a probability than a possibility, the U.S.
Navy had begun to build up their Pacific fleets, fleets which were stationed to a large degree in Pearl Harbor (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 4). General Douglas MacArthur is quoted in fact as having proclaimed just two days before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that: “Nothing would please me better than if they would give me three months and then attack here” (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 3).
Statements such as this, and the building up of the Pacific fleet in itself are testament to the fact that the U.S. was not only ultimately planning for war but was engaging in a deliberate effort to eventually entice Japan into attacking.
The U.S. and Japan were not alone in engaging in activities which they knew would entice the other to enter the war. There were a number of events leading up to the bombing at Pearl Harbor, in fact, which could either be classified as a series of mistakes on the part of the Japanese or as a deliberate attempt by that country to entice the U.S. to war.
The original intent by the Japanese was to deliver an ultimatum of war prior to actual attack of the United States. Japan’s foreign minister and the navy supreme command, however, were unable to agree exactly when an ultimatum of war should be delivered to the United States (Borg and Okomoto 1). This would lead to one final act of negligence which, along with the bombing itself, could not help but translate into U.S. involvement in World War II.
On December 7, 1941 at 1:00 P.M. Washington time. It decided by the Japanese as the time at which the ultimatum of war would be delivered to the United States (“America at War American Military History: Revolutionary War to World War II.” 1). This timing was to allow fifty minutes prior to the actual bombing in order to give the United States time to agree to a compromise on the Hull requirements and meeting international requirements regarding a declaration of war. What actually transpired in the hours leading up to the bombing was a series of bumbles on the part of the Japanese (Borg and Okomoto 1). They were bumbles, however, which would directly translate into all-out war.
On the morning of December 7, 1941 everything was going normal as the Japanese bombers and torpedo planes approached the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor to find them virtually defenseless. Sundays on the base were spent at a more relaxed pace than usual. Crews rose late and officers often stayed ashore. On this day almost all of the ships’ guns were unmanned, and much of the ammunition was locked up. Two of the three Pacific fleet’s aircraft carriers were at sea. The third was back in the United States being refitted.
At 7:55 a.m.(12:55 a.m. in Washing ton D.C.), the bombers and torpedo attack planes broke into the mornings calmness. The first wave of Japanese planes arrived to find the base virtually defenseless. By the end of the second wave of planes two hours later, 21 American ships had been sunk or damaged. Almost the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet had been decimated at the cost of only 29 Japanese planes.
Five of the eight battle ships stationed in the harbor that day were sunk, eleven smaller ships (cruisers and destroyers) were also badly damaged. There were 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians killed, and 1,178 people were wounded. The U.S.S. Arizona had the most casualties with 1,177 servicemen killed when a 1,760-pound bomb struck it causing the ammunition on board to explode (“Remembering Pearl Harbor” 5).
The United States Navy had been dealt a stunning blow by the Japanese, but it was not the over whelming victory that the Japanese had thought that it was (Lippman 2). One main reason was the failure to knock the American aircraft carriers out of action. The Japanese commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor only launched two waves of attacks on the American ships, he thought that the attack was an extreme victory by Japan. The commander could have launched a third wave but decided not to, but by not launching the third wave he left many of Pearl Harbors dockyards and oil storage tanks intact. If these would have been destroyed the naval base would have become useless. Another reason the attack was not that successful was that all of the battleships were attacked in shallow water. All but two of them were raised, repaired and put back into service. If these ships had been forewarned, they would have been sent to battle and attacked in deep water not only losing the ship but the crew also (“Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941—Overview and Special Image Selection.” 1).
The two Japanese delegates who had been assigned the task of delivering the ultimatum to Secretary Hull’s office did not arrive until 2:20pm, over an hour after the Pearl Harbor attack had begun (Borg and Okomoto 1). This was only one of a series of bumbles which would precede the attack on Pearl Harbor. It like, most of the others revolved around poor communication both within the Japanese government and between the Japanese and the United States. Each added to the decision making process as to whether or not the U.S. should enter the war.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, of course, the Japanese failure to comply with international protocol regarding the declaration of war prior to a bombing was almost the main cause in terms of how it impacted the U.S. decision making process to enter the war. While the decision making process up until the time of the bombing could be said to have been rational, this rationality was thrown into a swirl of confusion, anger, and hatred once the bombing occurred. The American public was shocked that the sanctity of our national borders had been violated. Our military leaders, congress, and the president alike were stunned that the Japanese could have been so deceitful. The decision to enter World War II could have been made, therefore, the time that first Japanese plane entered our airspace with the intention of dropping bombs on our shores without declaring war on the United States.
The United States retaliated to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by swiftly entering the war and declaring war on Japan the next day. We watched the destruction and horror of Pearl Harbor, this came after two years of watching Hitler crush countries in Europe. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States making it a global conflict. The American people were not going to fall victim to Hitler and the other axis powers doing the same thing in Europe. Hitler’s German enemies were willing to listen to American advice as to a suitable post-Hitler German government (Grigg 8). We retaliated partially in defense of our own sense of sanity and power. No civilized nation gets attacked by surprise and does not retaliate, especially one that is a world leader.
To many of our decision makers, in fact, the decision surrounding our entry into World War II, could be said to have been based on the cultural differences which existed between the United States and Japan, differences which were only escalated by the strong sense of nationalism projected by both countries (“Attack at Pearl Harbor, 1941.” 1). While this may have been the case in the hours following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the decision making process up until Pearl Harbor had not been characterized by emotion but by strategic calculation. In the initial hours following the bombing, however, numerous cultural and ideological factors entered into the decision making process. It was only at this point that the United States’ decision to enter the world degraded from one of rational restraint to one of ideological reaction. It is important to emphasize that even at this point, however, the careful framework which had been laid by our decision makers was still in place.
While the decision of the moment may have been considered irrational by some historians, this temporary irrationality was completely tempered by the thought process which had occurred prior to that one inflammatory moment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the American people would not stand being attacked. And they definitely would not stand without any retaliation on Japan.
American ideology was of course the product of our history at this critical time just as it is today. At the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor the United States’ rise to world leader status had taken almost two hundred years. This rise had encompassed the period of strong colonialism which was evident as early as the 1770s as well as in the turbulent times of the early 1900s. Through it all, however, the United States had not only survived but had also learned many lessons. One of the greatest lessons was the manner in which our power could be wielded to accomplish even the most self-centered of our goals. World War II, however, was not self centered. While there were certain U.S. interests at stake, the U.S. approach to the war was initially one of restraint. While we were involved in some critical issues of the war, we were not involved in the warfare itself until after the attack at Pearl Harbor. That aspect of the decision making process to enter the war was, therefore, most certainly rational. This rationality would quickly fall apart, however with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. This attack cut at the very heart of United States history and ideology.
By bombing Pearl Harbor the Japanese invoked not only the military might of the United States but also her political and economic power. The most important strength that the U.S. had was the infuriated American people. This was a horrific attack on America and united everyone just as the World Trade Center attacks have done. Americans then and still today will not tolerate the killing of innocent people, especially with no forewarning. The attack on Pearl Harbor would ensure the hostilities of the United States with Japan for at least next six decades. The U.S. would not have let Japan enter the war without the U.S. itself entering because that would have meant that the axis powers would have complete control of Europe and Asia. With the strength Germany’s and Italy’s ground forces and Japans navy, it would not have been long before the axis powers took complete control of the world. The U.S. would have entered World War II even without the attack on Pearl Harbor, but American casualties would have a much higher number and the war would have lasted much longer. And without the attack, American military forces would not have had the extra motivation for fighting gained from the attack on Pearl Harbor.