All of us know the story of Pearl Harbor. America was isolationist and wanted nothing to do with the World War II that was raging in Europe. Japan and Germany were working hand in hand to spread throughout their respective spheres of influence. A small part of the Japanese government, knowing that America was their greatest threat to spreading more into Asia, decided to attack Pearl Harbor suddenly, without warning, and totally unprovoked. America was totally caught off guard by this attack of a country they thought was a friend. That was the story I grew up hearing. But there is one problem with it… None of it is true. This is the truth of Pearl Harbor.
After opening to international trade, Japan found itself in a very dangerous position. Japan was a technologically inferior nation in a time of massive western colonization. The name of the game at the time was empire building. Everyone was doing it (even America with all her messages of freedom and self-government). During this time, countries had one of two choices, eat or be eaten. Japan chose the former.
This is the Meiji Restoration in a nutshell: Japan’s main goal was to get to the point that it would be strong enough to not only defend itself but to spread its influence, or in other words, colonize. While us today, still suffering with many of the after-effects of western colonization, see colonization as inherently evil, that is not the way it was seen at the time. Many colonizing countries felt they were benefitting those they conquered. For example, when Japan would take over Korea later, one of their messages to the Korean people was to the effect of, “would you rather be under the control of fellow Asians, or white Europeans?” And to a point, Japan was right. Europe was really excited to dig into the riches of Asia and did a lot to destabilize existing governments. One of the few forces holding back the white-European hordes was plucky little Japan.
After the Russo-Japanese war, Europe and America realized that Japan was now a power, and basically had first dibs on colonization in Asia. And they resented Japan for that. This is where the seeds of WWII were sown.
When Europe literally exploded into the worst war in human history, Japan joined the allied side and quickly absorbed German holdings in Asia. After the war, Japan was one of the founding members of the League of Nations. After a generation of struggle, Japan had made it into the big boys club. In less than 100 years, Japan had gone from isolated nation woefully outmatched by even the weakest western country, to one of the top nations on the planet. And Japan was only looking forward.
There is a great quote by Thucydides, father of political realism, who said, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Basically, what Thucydides is saying is, “Powerful people have all the power and make the decisions. If you don’t have power, too bad.” That was the view of colonizing nations including Japan, and it was perfectly acceptable at the time. So when Japan began to get more and more involved in China, it seemed like the next natural step for Japan. But the west was incensed. Why? Was it because of the suffering of Chinese people? Or any other high-minded sentiment? Hardly. To those in power, control is a zero-sum game – if another country is flourishing and expanding, it is only to your detriment.
So America and many member nations of the League of Nations opposed Japan’s ventures into China. Japan saw this as being incredibly hypocritical. To Japan, it seemed that the west’s only intention was to isolate Japan into a little box where it could be controlled. They had forced Japan into several “arms control” treaties where Japan had to agree to have a smaller navy fleet than America and Britain. Hardly seems fair.
Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, Japan’s economy was really struggling. Japan’s ill-conceived ventures into China had proven very costly in both lives and treasure. Furthermore, Japan was terribly overpopulated and the food was becoming a problem. Japan seemed really stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, you are a tiny island nation with no real natural resources and you need to spread to more colonies if you want to keep up with the other powers that will eat you up if you become too strong. On the other, there are many nations restricting the very thing that is your only hope for survival. So, is it any wonder that Japan left the League of Nations and continued to colonize?
To punish Japan, America and other trading countries stopped exporting oil to Japan and set up a trade blockade to stop Japan from getting the lifeblood it needed to survive. They gave Japan an ultimatum – get out of China, or put up your dukes to try and stop us.
The idea that an attack by Japan on American forces was a total surprise and was unprovoked is a total lie. America was expecting an attack, and actually kind of itching for it. American officials knew that conflict between the two powers would eventually come to blows. America had some colonies in Asia and was to main naval power in the Pacific. To many American leaders, it was better to fight Japan now while it was still reeling from economic cut-offs and a 10-year conflict with China. If they waited, Japan would have only gotten stronger and eventually might have started taking over American holdings. Furthermore, American code breakers had tapped into Japanese diplomatic communications and knew an attack was coming. They even knew what day it was going to happen. The surprise was the actual attack location; Pearl Harbor.
So at this point, both America and Japan knew that it was going to come to blows. But there is one major problem, in a protracted conflict, Japan had absolutely no chance of winning. The entire point of Japan’s push for colonies was that Japan had very limited natural resources and to support a modern industrial nation, they needed more territory. America, on the other hand, had an incredibly vast country with nearly unlimited natural and human resources. While America had greater armaments and resources, Japan had one of the best strategic thinkers of the war on its side; Isoroku Yamamoto.
Yamamoto had been a major force that pushed Japan to develop naval aviation, which Japan and America were the world leaders in this arm of the military. He planned an absolutely ingenious attack. Yamamoto understood America and predicted that if they did not neutralize the American Pacific fleet in the beginning of the war, all would be for naught. So he planned a massive attack on six targets! Pearl Harbor gets all of the attention, but only hours after the attack, while everyone was still reeling, Japan operated a coordinated attack on the American holdings in the Philippines, Guam, and the United Kingdom territories of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. And nearly everything went swimmingly! How audacious!
Of course, I don’t intend to show any indifference towards those brave men and women who lost their lives on both sides, but this was an incredibly well-planned and well-executed attack, that rivaled anything German armies were doing. It also shows just how good a military Japan had.
Yamamoto’s plan was to cripple the Pacific fleet and take as much of the Pacific as possible. He hoped that by the time America could rearm, Japan would be so entrenched in the Pacific that America would come to the negotiation table in a position of weakness.
But as we know, all did not go as well as Yamamoto would have hoped.
History is never as simple as we wish to make it. After a war, it is tempting to make it about “good and evil,” but almost no conflict is so clear. Japan had good reasons to be as aggressive as it was. Does that excuse many of the less savory things that happened? Of course not! But if we want to really understand the past and prepare for the future, we have to understand both sides of a conflict. Even the things that make the side we see ourselves on seem not quite as pure as we would hope.