No incident, aside from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in 2001, resonated with the American people more than Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese sneak attack in 1941 awoke a sleeping giant.
Before Pearl Harbor, the United States was a naïve, isolationist, and war weary country.
The attack propelled the United States into World War Two – ready or not. The shock and devastation that resulted from the Pearl Harbor event has to be seen as the worst military defeat in U.S. history.
Never Forget Pearl Harbor
War historian Robert Citino gave one of the best quotes about the impact of Pearl Harbor on the American psyche. “No moment in the history of the United States casts a longer shadow than Pearl Harbor, Citino said. “‘Remembering’ it has become a national imperative, a patriotic duty for the American people, and reminding us of that duty has become a ritual of media and political discourse—repeated so often and in so many ways that it’s become part of the routine of our communal life.”
It Started with a Rising Japan
Japan should have been seen as an inevitable enemy. It had been causing death and destruction in the Far East since the late 1930s and into the following decade. The American military was convinced that Japan would have to be reckoned with at some point.
The Japanese had over-run China in a war that began in 1937. They were raping and pillaging cities in that country. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in China were killed during the occupation by Japan.
Could Economic Sanctions Keep the Japanese from Ruling the Pacific
The United States, under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, decided that economic sanctions were the best way to punish Japan and keep its empire from growing.
FDR instituted embargoes against Japan for arms, scrap iron, and oil. He also froze all Japanese assets in the United States. But this was only expected to affect the Japanese military juggernaut in a limited way. What was to be the correct course of action to keep the Japanese from taking over the entire Far East?
FDR’s military advisors were unsure what to do. Should America embark on peace through strength, sending the message to the Japanese that the United States would intervene militarily? Or attempt a diplomatic and peaceful strategy even though Japan would still likely ravage their neighbors and spread the Japanese flag across the Pacific with violence and mayhem.
Japan Needed Natural Resources to Dominate the Region Fully
But Japan lacked raw materials to prosecute their war effort. They needed rubber, tin, and oil. They wanted to attack and take over Malaysia and Indonesia to quench this thirst for natural resources. However, the Japanese military command knew that if they ruled over these countries, the United States could enter the war.
Their eyes focused on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. Why not take out most of the American military with a decisive blow before it could get spun up for war? The Japanese snuck six carriers and a full load of escort ships and submarines near Hawaii. This was a 3,000 mile voyage that the Japanese were able to conduct in secrecy.
On December 7, 1941, on a beautiful and peaceful Sunday Hawaiian morning, the Japanese naval force attacked with a huge element of fighters, bombers, and torpedo carrier airplanes. The U.S. navy was totally unprepared and surprised. In around 90 minutes, the Japanese ravaged the American fleet – destroying 19 ships and 300 aircraft killing over 2,400 Americans.
The horrible attack roused the United States into action. The War Department thought that Japan would attack the continental states along with west coast. People vowed for revenge. Tens of thousands rushed to enlist in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. FDR addressed Congress with rousing words. Americans wanted to get even and this feverish quest for vengeance drove the country into war footing across multiple generations of people.
Pearl Harbor will never be forgotten. It created an ever-present analogy that reminded everyone what could happen when enemies are appeased or ignored, and the country lets its guard down militarily. Pearl Harbor taught war planners that economic sanctions were not always successful.
It showed the American military that intelligence collection and analysis was important to safeguard the country and it led to the creation of the Office of Strategic Services and the Central Intelligence Agency. It served as a reminder about what could happen to an enemy that is not dealt with firmly early. Allowing an adversary to continue to grow in strength without checking its power was a dangerous practice.
It was an example that proved that even though large oceans separated the United States, a determined enemy could still maneuver for an attack.
Thus, “Remember Pearl Harbor!” will always be a battle cry.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.