- Steve Johnson
At dawn on December 7, 1941, America was at peace, although it was clear a war was coming. Nazi Germany had overrun most of Europe and was literally at the gates of Moscow. Britain was slowly starving as Nazi submarines sank the ships carrying food and medicine the British needed. Although the United States sent huge amounts of war supplies to Britain and Russia and had greatly expanded its own Army and Navy, Americans were unwilling to go to war against enemies who had never attacked us.
Adolf Hitler, ruler of Nazi Germany, was careful not to attack American ships or planes. Such an attack had brought America into the last war Germany lost, World War One, and Hitler didn't want to fight the United States again. He didn't think he would have to, either, as long as he was careful not to give the Americans a direct reason to fear German attack. Without American troops, he thought he would eventually be able to wear Britain and Russia down, no matter how many planes and trucks the Americans gave their allies.
He might have been right. But we'll never know, because Hitler was allied with the Japanese, and they had their own plans for war with America.
America had two fleets in 1941, just as it does today: an Atlantic fleet and a Pacific fleet. The Pacific fleet was bigger, with all the aircraft carriers and most of the battleships, because it faced the very large and modern navy of Japan.
The Pacific Fleet was based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, midway between America and Japan. Along the docks called "Battleship Row" floated eight of the world's largest and most powerful war machines, clad in steel plate and armed with massive guns.
That Sunday morning, the fleet was ready to take on any navy in the world. By noon, Battleship Row was in flames.
At around eight in the morning, 353 Japanese planes swooped down onto the island after flying over the ocean for hours. They struck Battleship Row, ships anchored nearby, and Hickam Field, where the Army's airplanes were based. American ships fought back, but Japanese planes were everywhere, and battleships have always had a hard time hitting small, fast-moving planes. Twelve ships sank, nine more were put out of action, and more than 300 airplanes were destroyed or badly damaged. One battleship, the USS Arizona, capsized with nearly all hands, taking over 1,000 American sailors with it to the bottom.
The Japanese believed that, with the Pacific Fleet out of action, America would be unable to stop Japan from taking over the oil fields of Indonesia. Then, Japan would offer peace, and America would have no choice but to accept.
They were mistaken on two counts. First, the battleships of the Pacific Fleet had been knocked out (though many were repaired and sent back into the fight months later), but its aircraft carriers weren't in port that day and were not sunk. In World War Two, carriers were much more important than battleships, and what the Japanese carriers had done to American battleships at Pearl Harbor, American planes would one day do to Japanese battleships at the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Philippine Sea. So the main element of American naval power in the Pacific was still intact.
The other mistake the Japanese made is that America did not seek peace, but victory. Hitler declared war on the United States three days later, and, although the U.S. Army began mobilizing to fight Germany, the Navy and Marine Corps devoted most of their effort to Japan. Over the next few years the Americans built over 1,000 combat ships and put 12 million men into the armed forces, while Japan had already mobilized all the men and ships it could find.
Furthermore, Pearl Harbor was viewed as a sneak attack by the Americans. The Japanese ambassador in Washington had been told to present a declaration of war a few minutes before the attack, but he was late, and the declaration came after Pearl Harbor had already been bombed. Because the Japanese had begun the war by cheating, Americans didn't think they could believe anything the Japanese said afterward.
They believed the only way to end this war would be to defeat Japan utterly, so that it no longer had the ability to wage war at all. This was an unusual approach for America, which had usually been content to accept peace terms from its opponents once it won on the battlefield. It meant America would have to destroy Japan's society, then rebuild it and protect it from aggressive neighbors until Japan was strong again. Thus began America's long involvement in the Far East, which brought it into the Korean and Vietnam wars and continues to this day.
In the Library
The Attack on Pearl Harbor: America Enters World War II by Tim McNeese.
Traces events leading up to and resulting from the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on American battleships at Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor: An Interactive History Adventure by Allison Lassieur.
"Describes the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as Japanese forces surprised Americans at the U.S. military base, and explains the significance of the attack today. The reader's choices reveal the historical details from the perspective of a Japanese pilot, a U.S. sailor, and an American nurse."
Pearl Harbor: A Primary Source History by Jacqueline Laks Gorman.
Explores the attack on the U.S, naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, including what caused the Japanese to attack and how the U.S. government responded. Primary sources recount the journey to war, the attack and its aftermath.
Pearl Harbor: Opposing Viewpoints by Deborah Bachrach.
This young adult book, part of the Great Mysteries series, includes vivid photos and a discussion of the the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself, and its aftermath.
Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women edited by Robert S. La Forte.
Learn about the attack on Pearl Harbor from the vantage point of those who were there. Also available as an eBook.
Victory at Sea: Volume 2: The Pacific Boils Over: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
Part of a documentary film about World War II featuring the high points of the war on land and sea, from September 1939 to September 1945, as recorded in footage by Allied and enemy combat photographers.
What Was Pearl Harbor? by Patricia Demuth.
This engaging account of what happened on "the day that will live in infamy" is written specifically for students.
World War II: The War in the Pacific
This HIstory Channel series includes commentary and actual combat footage.
On the Web
Pearl Harbor: Teacher's Guide
"Scholastic's 'My Story: Pearl Harbor' introduces your students to the momentous event of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Through this learning adventure, students will come to know about the events that led to the bombing, read the accounts of Pearl Harbor eyewitnesses, and relive the day Pearl Harbor was bombed through an interactive hour-by-hour account."
Pearl Harbor Attack: December 7, 1941
The Naval Historical Center gives the background of the attack and links to oral histories, survivor reports, action reports, and much more.
The Perilous Fight: Pearl Harbor
PBS has an overview of the battle, journal notes from an eyewitness, color photos, online video, and maps.
USS SHAW exploding Pearl Harbor Nara 80-G-16871 2 By Unknown navy photographer (US archives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pearl Harbour By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons