Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

In honor of Pearl Harbor Day

Posted by sanityinjection on December 5, 2008

Pearl Harbor Day, which is this coming Sunday, December 7, doesn’t get quite as much attention anymore since 9/11 sort of eclipsed it in terms of memorable atatcks on US soil. So I offer a couple of tidbits today in observance of the day (I rarely post on Sundays.) Interestingly, the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 also occurred on a Sunday.

When I was growing up, we were all taught that the Japanese deceitfully executed a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor without declaring war first, something America would never do. While this notion seems a bit passe in today’s age of undeclared wars and the obvious value of surprise in limiting the attacker’s casualties, it is also not entirely accurate. The Japanese were actually big believers in observing the diplomatic niceties. Their intention was to have their formal declaration of war delivered to the US government immediately before the start of the attack, so their attack would be a surprise but still allowed under international law. As it happened, the Japanese Embassy in Washington delayed transcribing and delivering the message, while US codebreakers who had intercepted the message also failed to get the information in the right hands quickly enough – it was, after all, a Sunday.

It is also not true, as some rumors insist, that President Roosevelt knew in advance that the attack was going to happen. The Roosevelt Administration and the War Department were expecting a Japanese attack at some point in the near future, but did not know exactly where or when.

During the attack, the Japanese concentrated on wiping out the US battleships and airplanes. They thought that with the Pacific Fleet neutralized, they would be able to win quick victories in Asia and end the war there before the US could recover. As a result, they largely ignored the following targets: Fuel depots, dockyards, the submarine base, the codebreaking office. Also, none of the three US aircraft carriers was present. Of the ships that were hit, only three were permanently lost (and much equipment was salvaged from these), with most being rebuilt or refitted with more modern equipment. Thus, in hindsight the attack proved to be a failure for Japan.

It was also unnecessary. Japan believed that it was necessary to neutralize the Pacific Fleet in order to keep the US Navy from intervening if Japan attacked US or British possessions in Asia. In fact, US military doctrine by this time did not call for immediate counterattack in the Pacific, but favored remaining on the defensive against Japan in order to concentrate on preventing Britain from falling to Hitler’s Germany.

The attack was planned by Admiral Yamamoto. Yamamoto was educated at Harvard and, although portrayed in the American media during the war as an evil aggressor, he was opposed to his country’s invasion of China, alliance with Nazi Germany, and war against the US. He did not believe Japan could win a war with the US because of the latter’s superior economic resources. Nevertheless, with his enemy General Tojo in charge of the Japanese government, he knew war was inevitable, and felt that Japan’s best chance was to win quickly before the US could fully marshal its resources. Yamamoto was an extremely capable military leader, and his death in 1943 during a US ambush targeting him specifically was a huge blow to Japan.

There was no attempt during the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese to target civilians.  A few dozen civilians were killed, mostly by US anti-aircraft shells that failed to explode until they landed in civilian areas. Nearly half the 2400 US fatalities during the attack happened when the ammunition magazine in the front of the USS Arizona exploded.

The greatest impact of Pearl Harbor was a psychological one. There had not been a major attack on US soil in 125 years. The attack destroyed the isolationist and pacifist movements in the US by shattering the notion that America was safe from the wars on the other side of the oceans, as well as the racist idea that the “little yellow people” were not advanced enough to take on a Western power.  In a matter of days, Pearl Harbor brought a sense of unity to the American people where none had existed before, much as 9/11 did for a more brief amount of time.

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