By 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.
Click here for more about Pearl Harbor from our adult collection.
The following list has resources for young readers: