December 7, 2013

December 7, 1941

On a lazy Sunday morning 72 years ago, American Army and Navy bases at Pearl Harbor were attacked by warplanes of the Imperial Japanese Navy. More than 2,000 Americans were killed and more than 1,000 were injured.

At dawn that Sunday, forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the U. S. Pacific Fleet and other military targets. Their goal was to cripple the fleet, allowing Japan to attack and capture the Philippines and Indo-China. This would grant Japan access to badly needed raw materials that would enhance the Empire’s plans to conquer and occupy Australia, New Zealand, and India. The Japanese believed that this would allow them to gain military and political control of East, Southeast, and South Asia as well as the entirety of the Pacific Ocean. The only thing standing in their way was the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto conceived and planned the attack, although he did not intend war with the United States. Yamamoto had first hand knowledge of American industrial strength and our material wealth. He also recognized America’s temperament and was unwilling to test it. Yamamoto  was a practical man, but his superiors were less so and were quite arrogant. Yamamoto was overruled, and being the good soldier and loyal subject, he applied his efforts as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Combined Fleet to a successful attack.

Yamamoto knew that the decision was a terrible mistake, and following the attack was quoted as saying "…we have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve…"

Yamamoto was right. The Admiral perhaps knew that by this one act Japan had doomed their plans to failure. Ironically Japan could have gained the coveted geography without attacking the U.S. Fleet. Pearl Harbor became the worst strategic mistake they could have made.

Prior to the attack the U. S. had written the Philippines off, assuming a strictly defensive posture against Japan. The attack resulted in immediate reaction and unprecedented unity from the American people and among the fractured political factions. Americans of every class sent sons and daughters to war as mothers entered the industrial work force. Every resource possessed by the U.S. was brought to bear. Until Pearl Harbor our war efforts were focused on Europe. Following the attack we turned our efforts to the complete defeat of Japan at any cost.

As Yamamoto feared, our industrial strength and the will of our people was the foundation for victory. Japan simply could not replace lost resources in the way we could. In many of the Pacific battles our military did not fair so well, but even with tactical losses we very often still gained strategic victory.

As we closed in on the Japanese homeland, the Samurai culture within the Japanese military displayed their desperation, and resulted in the Kamikaze attacks on our Navy. Japanese culture dictated that dying for the Emperor was a high honor and scoffed at the disgrace of surrender. Our military leaders recognized that taking the mainland would come at high cost. If Okinawa taught us anything it was this. Invasion of the Japanese homeland appeared out of the question. 

Back home our laboratories were busy developing the nuclear weapons that would bring a quick termination of the War in the Pacific, but at a terrible cost in human life and suffering.

Conservative estimates tell us that 225,000 died in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that as many more suffered lifelong effect. It was a decision where there could be no correct outcome.

Many Americans lived that surly would have been killed in any conventional assault, but one of the lingering questions remaining from that war has yet to be answered. Might there have been a way to have won this war yet avoid the unleashing of the nuclear dogs? We will never know. Philosophers and pundits will forever debate, and the answer will forever remain in the realm of speculation.