Mounting resentments paved road to Pearl Harbor

pearl harbor

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, came as a tremendous shock to the American public. Most believed that war would be against Germany and Italy and failed to recognize that the United States was unprepared to rage an aggressive war. 

Who would dare attack the U.S.?

The origin of Japan’s conflict with the U.S. stemmed from a belief that the Japanese had a spiritual right to become equal with the imperial powers of the world. 

Extremist elements in the Japanese military looked with envious eyes on the other empires of the world and demanded the absolute right of Japan to control the destiny of the far Pacific. This was national chauvinism with a spiritual twist. 

The roots of the friction stretch back to the crushing naval victory of Commodore George Dewey over a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay May 1, 1898. The Spanish-American War victory gave America control of the Philippines, an archipelago comprised of almost 7,100 islands. 

Slow road to war

The American military quickly established a presence in the islands, promised self-government by 1916 made it official in 1934. American military forces would, however, operate in the region until 1946. 

This, along with the creating of a naval base in Hawaii and the annexation the islands in 1898, put the Japanese nation on a slow road to war with the U.S. 

Japan at the dawn of the 20th century was a country that had been in the process of modernizing since Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships had sailed into Japan half a century earlier. 

Japan saw a chance to expand its authority in 1905 with the surprise ambush and stunning defeat of the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits. The conflict was between two nations attempting to control northeastern China and Korea. 

President Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate the dispute, both sides approved, and then the two adversaries were disappointed with the results of the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth. The Japanese violent public reaction against the treaty eventually subsided but remained a “battle cry” all the way to 1941. Roosevelt did receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

The Japanese segregation in the California schools during the early years of the century did not help the “rising sun” attitude. In the second decade of the 20th century, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and found itself on the side of the Allied powers of England, France and the U.S. in World War I. 

For contributing nothing to the war effort, Japan was given control of the Mandate Islands Saipan, Tinian and the Marianas once controlled by Germany. The German assets in China were also awarded to Japan. In great secrecy, Japan transformed these islands into air and naval bases that would threaten the shipping lanes between Hawaii and Australia. 

Political unrest

The 1920s was a time of political unrest in Japan. Military leaders viewed the western countries as treacherous and a threat to Japan’s national security. 

With the military exerting considerable influence on foreign affairs, Japan withdrew from the London Naval Treaty of 1930. Japan was now clear to develop an intensive shipbuilding program. The Rising Sun nation was turning into a totalitarian state on the stage of Asian instability. 

Envious of the open-door policy of China, the Japanese leaders developed a plan to control China. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. This added territory served as a staging area for a bigger war in the summer of 1937 against the populated regions of China. The Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-shek were unable to stop the advancing Japanese armies who soon controlled much of the territory bordering the Pacific Ocean. 

It was during this period that three Japanese navy planes attacked the Panay, a U.S. patrol boat cruising the Yangtze River. Like several other neutral nations, the Panay’s mission was to protect American nationals and commercial interests. American commercial interests prevented any war-like action by President Roosevelt’s administration. 

Japan, however, saw this lackluster protest as a sign of weakness and continued to advance its interest in the far Pacific. 

Japan gains strength

In the meantime, Japan signed a treaty with Germany and Italy Nov. 6, 1937. This Anti-Comintern Pact recognized Japan as a leader of a new order for Asia. The three nations agreed to assist one another if anyone were attacked by a power not then at war. 

Japan’s leaders hoped these agreements would deter the U.S. and England from interfering with their plans in Asia by the prospect of having to fight a two-front war against fascism. 

When the League of Nations condemned these actions, Japan left the organization. During this interwar era, Japan invested heavily in carrier naval aviation. These endeavors put a strain on Japan’s natural resources. 

In late 1939, Japan began a three-year plan for economic and defense powers that would make Japan, China and Manchukuo self-sustaining in terms of iron, steel, coal, chemicals, vehicles and railroads. At the same time, she tried a diplomatic effort to obtain oil from Saudi Arabia. 

When the U.S. fudged this attempt, the mold was set for confrontation. 

Grew gives warning

For months, Ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo had been reporting that Japan’s pronouncements were not blustered, that it was committed to the expulsion of all Western interests and influence from the Orient. It was clear that Japan had further expansion in mind when it signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940. 

The war winds of Japan were suddenly felt in 1940 with the collapse of France, June 22, 1940. The Vichy French government permitted the Japanese to station troops in Indo- China. 

The nationalist fervor was articulated more clearly with the declaration of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was intended to reduce Japan’s reliance upon resources imported from Western powers. 

The year 1941 began with Ambassador Grew warning Secretary of State Cordell Hull that there was serious talk in Tokyo that Japan’s navy planned a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. 

During the middle of April, the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed. With an eye on the only adversary in the Pacific — the U.S. — the Rising Sun Empire made proposals to improve relations between the two nations. Negotiations began in May and produced barren results throughout the summer and fall of 1941. 

Preparing for war

In the meantime, the Japanese military decided that it needed to be prepared for war with the U.S. by the end of October. 

The U.S. intelligence community, with the help of the purple machine (magic), broke the Japanese diplomatic code and the naval code and were listening to Japanese chatter during the years of 1940 and 1941. Pearl Harbor was mentioned numerous times but the “big money” was on the Philippine Islands. 

On Nov. 26, 1941, Japan’s naval force left Hitokappu Bay in northern Japan toward Hawaii, the scheme the brainchild of Isoroku Yamamoto, a graduate himself of the Japanese naval academy. 

By Dec. 7, the Japanese fleet was north of Pearl Harbor and by 7:30 a.m., Japanese planes were roaring over ships of the Pacific Fleet. Shortly after 2 p.m., the Japanese envoys appeared at the State Department to deliver a 14-page message. The sneak attack was successful.

 That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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