Tuesday, December 7, 2021 is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pear Harbor, Hawaii. Like so much of our history, so little is remembered about that attack, and so much of what is remembered is, at least in part, wrong. With Critical Race Theory—Marxist, anti-American propaganda—replacing actual history, it’s important to get the truth where and where we can. Perhaps we can provide guidance for the upcoming generation.
Invaluable historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson does yeoman service in his December 7th American Greatness article. I’ll provide excerpts and a bit of commentary, but by all means, gentle readers, take the link and read the whole thing.
Most Americans once were mostly in agreement about what happened on December 7, 1941, 80 years ago this year. But not so much now, given either the neglect of America’s past in the schools or woke revisionism at odds with the truth.
The Pacific war that followed Pearl Harbor was not a result of America egging on the Japanese, not about starting a race war, and not about much other than a confident and cruel Japanese empire falsely assuming that its stronger American rival either would not or could not stop its transoceanic ambitions.
Far too many don’t realize just how arrogant and cruel the Japanese of 1941 were. Absolutely certain of their own racial superiority and invincibility, they eventually forced us to use two atomic bombs to end the war in the Pacific.
On an early Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a tactically successful, but strategically imbecilic, surprise attack on the U.S. 7th Fleet—while at peace and without a declaration of war. The assault—synchronized with subsequent bombing and invasions of the Philippines and British-controlled Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and some Pacific Islands—did not just ensure an existential Pacific theater war between Japan and America. It also prompted the entry of the United States on December 11 into the European theater of World War II, after both Italy and Nazi Germany first declared war on America. Had the latter not done so, it is arguable that the United States would have instead concentrated on Japan alone and might have knocked it out of the war even earlier.
This is classic Hanson: direct, to the point and unassailably accurate.
Revisionists often cite conspiracy theories that the Roosevelt Administration lured Japan into the war by previously limiting oil exports to Tokyo (a mere five months before Pearl Harbor) or by foolishly moving the 7th Fleet from San Diego to a deliberately exposed and not so well defended Pearl Harbor.
Such contrarian views fail to persuade because the one-sided source of tensions had been clear to all for a decade. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. It resumed its war with China by invading the mainland in 1937. In September 1940, it absorbed French colonial Indochina. The idea of a Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was informally circulating by 1940, as a blueprint of consolidation of the planned Japanese imperial wartime acquisitions of China, and the former British, American, French, and Dutch colonial territories.
The mercantile system was envisioned as a sort of Asian version of a would-be Napoleonic Europe but based on the supposed racial superiority of Japan and the propagandistic and cynical notion that even harsher Japanese imperialism would be less resented by Asians in the Pacific than then current nation-building colonialism of Western powers. Such crude propaganda was never taken too seriously outside of Tokyo, given the Japanese mass civilian killings of conquered Asians in Nanking, China and the massacres that followed from the takeover of Singapore.
As I fear we’re about to learn again—they that will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it—weakness invites attack.
In more realist terms, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor because it could. Its fleet was larger than the American Pacific 7th fleet (though not by any means the entire U.S. Navy). And in many categories of fighter aircraft, torpedoes, and ships, the Japanese Imperial Navy in late 1941 was temporarily superior to that of the Americans.
The United States had further lost deterrence in Japanese eyes because it did nothing when its chief allies Britain and France were attacked by Nazi Germany in 1940, the former bombed in autumn 1940 and spring 1941, the latter conquered in seven weeks by the Wehrmacht in May 1940.
Sadly, we may no longer have this capacity:
Tokyo had no real appreciation that the United States was already building a second fleet of modern carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines that would soon make the American navy larger than all the world’s fleets combined. Indeed, the Americans would launch over 145 aircraft carriers, including over 20 Essex fleet carriers, the most advanced in the world.
Tokyo had no inkling that the anemic Depression-era American economy was capable of rapid expansionary growth. More specifically, the American gross natural product by late 1944 would outpace all five economies of the major combatants—Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—combined.
And now we stand on the brink of losing that economic and military strength and superiority.
As far as the December 7 surprise attack itself, it is best seen as the worst of both worlds—conducted expertly enough to ensure damage and thus incur American furor, but not so much as to cripple America’s war-making ability or to frighten the American public into submission.
This is particularly insightful:
Again, if tactically brilliant, the Pearl Harbor attack strategically would prove a colossal disaster for Japan. It failed even to shut down the port at Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese fleet vetoed ideas of critically needed third and fourth air strikes—necessary to destroy U.S. oil storage and repair shops in the Pacific harbor facilities. Within days, Pearl Harbor was receiving 7th Fleet shipping.
More disastrously for the Japanese, the Pacific fleet’s three American aircraft carriers based at Pearl—Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga—were out to sea on December 7 and therefore safe. Lexington’s dive bombers would soon help sink a Japanese carrier and damage others just six months later at the Battle of Coral Sea, before itself being lost at the battle. Both Enterprise and Saratoga would fight in several key Pacific battles and survive the war.
As far as the relatively old and slow American battleships of Battleship Row (most were built well before 1920), had their captains received advanced word of the Japanese approach and steamed out to meet the attackers without air cover, American fatalities might have been 10 times higher—given all eight battleships likely would have been sunk on the high seas well before reaching the Japanese fleet.
Even if it was not immediately understood, the Pacific war quickly taught an essential lesson: the days of the Battleship, and naval gunnery, as the decisive force in naval combat, were over. The wave of the future—the immediate future—was the aircraft carrier.
The largest, most heavily armored and most powerful battleship the Japanese ever built was the Musashi. On October 24, 1944, the Musashi was attacked by about 260 aircraft from four US carriers. After sustaining 19 torpedo hits and at least 17 bomb hits, the battleship sank, having never used its guns in combat against enemy ships.
Several American battleships survived the war, but were mothballed, though several were reactivated during the Vietnam War and for a time thereafter, but they too were never again used for the purpose for which they were designed: ship to ship combat.
Here’s a correction of another common misunderstanding:
Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, is often romantically portrayed as a mythical almost reluctant warrior who supposedly all along knew that he would awaken a sleeping giant by the attack. Thus, he accepted the reality that he could only run wild for six months before he was overwhelmed by American industry, technology, and righteous furor. In this historically incomplete view, the taciturn Yamamoto was a tragic hero ordered to find some impossible strategy of defeating a much larger and stronger United States.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yamamoto himself agitated for the surprise Pearl Harbor attack. And he even threatened to resign if a skeptical General Tojo and Emperor Hirohito did not grant him a blank check to bomb the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Hawaii, a diversion of resources many in the Japanese military felt was unjustified, especially with the ongoing and increasingly expensive quagmire in China.
Yamamoto successfully argued that while the Japanese army lacked the firepower, armor, and mobility of Western land-based forces, Tokyo’s imperial air and naval power had already achieved parity—both in the quality of their arms and numbers of ships, planes, sailors and airmen.
And in the case of 1941-era arms, Japan was often superior to both the Americans and British—at least if it struck quickly before the two Western powers were fully rearmed. Or so Yamamoto believed in arguing his victory would discourage the ensuing demoralized Americans from challenging a new vast Japanese Pacific empire. Supposedly Washington would sue for a truce, recognizing Japanese prior colonial acquisitions.
There’s a lesson here for us, circa 2021:
In sum, it was largely Yamamoto’s enormous ego, his tactical genius, and his strategic ineptitude, along with Japanese hubris, that explain the strategic idiocy of a brilliant but short-lived victory at Pearl Harbor. But to be fair, no student of military preparedness, economic resources, or social organization could have ever believed that a relatively vulnerable and isolationist United States, still reeling from recurring cycles of depression, in less than four years would have fought simultaneously across the Pacific and Europe with a 12 million person military, the largest economy in history, and the world’s most formidable weapons such Essex class fleet carriers, Balao submarines, B-29 long-range bombers, Hellcat and Mustang fighters and the world’s first atomic bombs.
All that was unleashed some 80 years ago this December—once a sophisticated Japanese Empire foolishly attacked the United States at peace.
We may soon find out if it remains foolish to attack the United States at peace. May we be no less the land of the free and the home of brave than we were in 1941.