By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
In December 1941, the event that finally brought the Americans into the war was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese recognized America as a potential Pacific rival. The Japanese believed that it would be possible to knock out the Americans with a decisive blow. They could not have been more wrong.
The Japanese believed that American democracy had eroded the martial virtues. While Japan itself still believed in principles of a warrior society, America had gone soft.
They anticipated that an effective attack on American naval power would lead to an American withdrawal from the Pacific theater of action. They also understood perfectly that they’d have to win with a decisive blow, because in the long run, if it came to a long war, they would be out-produced by the American economy. They miscalculated, though; the reality was exactly the opposite of what they’d hoped.
American popular opinion, aroused and inflamed and outraged by Pearl Harbor, meant that the very last thing the Americans would have done after that was to agree to withdraw their forces from the Pacific. On the contrary, they were determined on war to the uttermost, to the complete defeat of Japan.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Attack on Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor was certainly a severe setback, but not ultimately decisive, and it was an amazingly audacious scheme to send the great Japanese fleets in complete radio silence, undetected, across the vast Pacific Ocean, close enough to launch their torpedo planes and bombers against Pearl Harbor. Their surprise was almost complete as the attack began on a Sunday morning, December 7.
The Japanese planes sank 18 American warships, including the battleship Arizona, which sank with more than 1,000 men on board, and the battleship Oklahoma. However, the American aircraft carriers and submarines—the vessels that were actually going to prove decisive in the Pacific war—were not there. They weren’t there in Pearl Harbor, and because of their survival, the American Navy was very rapidly able to recover from its losses, and become a highly effective fighting force, despite Pearl Harbor.
Not Really a Success?
The ships that were sunk, sank mainly in very shallow water, and many of them were later raised and repaired and re-commissioned so that they could play a crucial role in the campaigns against Japan that followed.
The Japanese navy lacked the fuel to search out and destroy the aircraft carriers after pilots returned from the raid on Pearl Harbor; they reported that the carrier planes had not been there. The American submarines, too, were going to be as deadly in the Pacific against Japanese shipping, as German submarines were deadly in the Atlantic against Allied convoys.
Silencing the isolationists
At the time, and ever since then, there have been scattered arguments by some historians, and lots of conspiracy theorists, that Franklin Roosevelt knew that the attack was coming, and that he actually welcomed it as a way of annihilating isolationist criticism.
It’s a highly implausible claim though; historical evidence is overwhelmingly against the idea that Roosevelt cynically knew about it and let it happen. It certainly is true, however, that the attack silenced the isolationists at once.
Japan and Germany: Allies
Hitler and the Japanese Empire were allies. Within two days of Pearl Harbor, Germany had declared war on the United States. Again, from Roosevelt’s point of view, that was actually well suited to his policies. He could already foresee that in the long term, Germany was going to be the greater threat. It had a bigger population, and it was more highly industrialized.
This solved what might have been a problem for Roosevelt. He might have faced the situation of the American people wanting to fight against Japan, but not caring to fight against Germany. This way, the American people recognized that so long as Germany and Japan were allied in a war with America, it made perfect sense to fight back against both.
The attack on Pearl Harbor led to an invasion scare in California. In the ensuing weeks of the attack, there were terrible scares in California that a Japanese invasion force was coming ashore. The allegation was then made that Japanese Americans—people who sometimes had been in America already for one or two generations—were spies, were sending information out, and were signaling to Japanese submarines.
The result was that in late 1941 and early 1942, the government decided that it would round up Japanese Americans and carry them away to internment camps, so that if among them were actual or latent traitors, they’d be unable to influence the outcome of the war on the California coast.
Japanese Internment Camps
So Japanese Americans, now being considered either actual or latent traitors, were forced to either give away or sell their property at far below market value, and were forcibly shipped to inland internment camps, usually in the mountain and desert states.
Far from covering up this deportation incidentally, the American media made the most of it, and magazine articles explained why it was happening. It was, then, a humiliating and mortifying experience for a generation of Japanese Americans, none of whom had actually been convicted of espionage.
Common Questions about How America Changed after the Attack on Pearl Harbor
The Japanese planes sank 18 American warships, including the battleship Arizona, which sank with more than 1,000 men on board, and the battleship Oklahoma.
The American aircraft carriers and submarines that were actually going to prove decisive in the Pacific war, were not at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Because of their survival, the American Navy was very rapidly able to recover from its losses, and become a highly effective fighting force.
The attack on Pearl Harbor led to an invasion scare in California. Americans suspected that Japanese Americans were spies. As a result, in late 1941 and early 1942, the government decided to round up Japanese Americans and carry them away to internment camps, so that if among them were actual or latent traitors, they’d be unable to influence the outcome of the war on the California coast.