Modern history

PART III

Image

WAR AND STRATEGY

CHAPTER 16

Japan’s Road to War

ON THE NIGHT of September 18, 1931, soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army, based in the semi-autonomous Chinese province of Manchuria, carried out a bomb attack against the South Manchurian Railway. The actual evidence of the explosion was scant; only about thirty-one inches of track were affected, and damage was so negligible that a speeding express train passed over the spot a few minutes later with no difficulty. But this was by intention, for the Japanese controlled the railroad line; their aim was to keep damage to a minimum—and blame it on the Chinese. The Japanese Army now had the desired pretext to launch an attack on Chinese forces, which it proceeded to do without delay. The Manchurian Affair had begun, marking the entry into an era of Japanese history they were to call, when it was all over, the Valley of Darkness.

Japan had gained many economic and political prerogatives in Manchuria, including the right to maintain military forces, as a result of its victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, as well as from a treaty with China. By the end of the 1920s, there was strong support in Japan to take complete control of Manchuria—“Japan’s life line,” as one Prime Minister described the province. It would supply the raw materials and “living space” thought necessary for the crowded home islands and vital, no less, for Japan’s military strength. Moreover, Manchuria’s geographical location made control seem essential for Japan’s security; the Japanese Army had grown to fear the dual threats of Soviet communism and Chinese nationalism. For their part, the other great powers concerned with the Pacific were increasingly suspicious of Japan, which, in the space of only a few short decades, had emerged as a formidable military as well as commercial power.1

“Shall We Trust Japan?”

In 1923, responding to the temper of the time, Franklin Roosevelt, who had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, wrote an article entitled “Shall We Trust Japan?” In introducing the article, the editors observed that one of Roosevelt’s “chief duties during a large part of his term of office was to prepare to fight Japan.” In the article Roosevelt observed that “long before the events of 1914 centered attention elsewhere, an American-Japanese war was the best bet of prophets. Its imminence began to be taken for granted.” A war now, he said in 1923, might well turn into a military deadlock, and then, “economic causes would become the determining factor.” Yet Roosevelt answered the question “Shall we trust Japan?” with a ringing affirmative. Japan had changed. It was honoring its international commitments; it had aligned itself with the Anglo-American postwar military order; and in the Pacific “there would seem to be enough commercial room and to spare for both Japan and us well into the indefinite future.”2

Indeed, through the 1920s, Roosevelt’s analysis proved correct. Japan had a functioning parliamentary system. The 1921 Washington Naval Conference defused a potential naval race in the Pacific among Japan, the United States, and Britain, and, thereafter, Japan had based its security on cooperation with the Anglo-American powers. But that cooperation did not survive the decade. The Japanese military, particularly the Army, came to dominate the government, and Japan embarked on its course of imperial expansion in East Asia—seeking, in the process, to exclude the Western powers from what it would call its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

This decisive shift was born of several sources. The Great Depression and the collapse of world trade brought great economic hardship to Japan, heightening the sense of vulnerability that came from lack of raw materials and shrinking access to international markets. At the same time, the Army and important segments of society were gripped by a spirit of extreme nationalism, moral distress, arrogance, and a mystical belief in the superiority of Japanese culture and imperial institutions and “The Imperial Way,” all of which was amplified by the conviction that the other great powers were deliberately seeking to restrain Japan to a second-rank position and deny it its due in Asia. To be sure, Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi, who favored an extension of the naval treaty arrangements with the United States and Britain, won a smashing electoral victory in February 1930. But the strength of the opposition was brought home a few months later, when a youth, enraged at Japan’s cooperation with the United States and Britain, shot Hamaguchi at a railway station in Tokyo. He never fully recovered, and died in 1931. With him perished the spirit of cooperation, and instead, a new cult of ultranationalism—bolstered by “government by assassination”—took hold. Japan also organized its new puppet state in Manchuria, which was dubbed Manchukuo, with the deposed Chinese emperor Pu Yi as its figurehead. When the League of Nations condemned Japan for its actions in Manchuria, it stalked out of the League and embarked on its own path—one that would eventually lead to ruin.3

The New Order in Asia

Over the next few years, as Tokyo elaborated its claims to a “mission” and “special responsibilities in East Asia,” Japanese politics seethed with conspiracies, ideological movements, and secret societies that rejected liberalism, capitalism, and democracy as engines of weakness and decadence. It was thought that there was nothing more noble than to die in battle for the Emperor. Yet some elements in the Japanese military were also, by the mid-1930s, focusing on the more practical question of how to wage modern warfare. Promulgating a doctrine of total war, they sought to establish a “national defense state” in which the industrial and military resources of the country would all be built up and harnessed for that grim eventuality. Those officers who had either closely observed or studied the German failure in World War I attributed that nation’s defeat to its economic vulnerability—its relative lack of raw materials and its inability to withstand the Allied naval blockade. Japan, they gloomily recognized, was far less well-endowed than Germany. Indeed, it faced a unique problem of supply. It was almost bare of the resource of oil. While petroleum held a relatively small place in the country’s energy mix—accounting for only about 7 percent of total energy consumption—its significance was in its strategic importance. Most was consumed by the military and in shipping. By the late 1930s, Japan produced only about 7 percent of the oil it consumed. The rest was imported—80 percent from the United States, and another 10 percent from the Dutch East Indies. But America was committed to an “open door” policy, political as well as economic, in Asia, which was wholly at odds with Japan’s imperial ambitions. With the United States emerging as Japan’s most likely antagonist in the Pacific, where, in the event of war, was the necessary oil to be obtained to fuel Japan’s ships and planes?

That question had already sparked an acrimonious split between the Japanese Army and Navy, which would be crucial to the evolution and direction of Japanese policies. The Army was focused on Manchuria, North China, Inner Mongolia, and the threat from the Soviet Union. The Navy, under the doctrine of hokushu nanshin—“defend in the north, advance to the south”—had its sights set on the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Indochina, and a number of smaller islands in the Pacific, in order to provide the empire with secure access to natural resources, particularly the prime and absolutely essential resource—oil. Both military services, however, were united in their central objective: to restructure Asia in a “spirit of co-prosperity and co-existence based upon the Imperial Way”—Asia under Japanese control.4

In the early 1930s, soon after the Manchurian Affair began, the Japanese government sought to assert domination over the oil industry to serve its own needs. Sixty percent of the internal market was held by two Western companies—Rising Sun, the Japanese affiliate of Royal Dutch/Shell, and Standard-Vacuum, otherwise known as Stanvac, the amalgam of Jersey’s and Standard of New York’s operations in the Far East—with the rest split among about thirty Japanese companies, which imported their oil from a number of American producers. With the support of Japanese commercial interests, which wanted to improve their market position, the military won passage in 1934 of the Petroleum Industry Law, which gave the government the power to control imports, set market share quotas for specific companies, fix prices, and make compulsory purchases. The foreign companies were required to maintain six months of inventories beyond the normal commercial working levels. The objective in all this was obvious: to build up the Japanese-owned refining industry, to reduce the role of the foreign companies, and to prepare for war. At the same time, Japan was also establishing a petroleum monopoly in its new colony, Manchukuo, with the aim of squeezing out the Western companies.

The foreign companies recognized that they were going to be squeezed. The American and British governments also disapproved of Japan’s new, restrictive oil policies. But how to respond? There was talk in Washington and New York and London about an embargo—full or partial—that would, in retaliation, constrain the supply of crude oil to Japan. In August 1934 Henri Deterding and Walter Teagle went to Washington to see both State Department officials and Harold Ickes, the Oil Administrator. The oil men suggested “frightening” Japan into moderation by merely hinting at an embargo. Word would get back to Tokyo, they hoped, and perhaps would lead to changes in Japanese policy. In November 1934 the British Cabinet endorsed the Foreign Office’s position that “the stiffest possible resistance should be offered” to the Japanese oil policies, including government support of a privately organized embargo. However, Secretary of State Cordell Hull made clear that the U.S. government would not support such an action, and that was the end of the embargo talk for the time being. Meanwhile, the pressures and tensions between the oil companies and the Japanese government continued to build, right up to the summer of 1937. Then Japan’s circumstances abruptly changed.5

“Quarantine”

Over the night and morning hours of July 7 and 8, 1937, two obscure clashes took place between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. As hostilities escalated over the next several weeks, the Chinese Nationalists took a defiant stand against further concessions to Japan. “If we allow one more inch of our territory to be lost,” the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek declared, “we shall be guilty of an unpardonable crime against our race.” The Japanese, for their part, had decided that the Chinese needed to be chastised and its Army dealt a “thoroughgoing blow.” A little over a month after the first incidents, on August 14, the Chinese bombed the Japanese naval station at Shanghai. Japan went to war with China.

Japan immediately accelerated efforts to put its economy on a full war footing. It also proceeded quickly to patch up relations with foreign oil companies. The government did not want to risk any disruption of oil supplies. At the same time, a special session of the Diet, convened to approve mobilization legislation, passed the Synthetic Oil Industry Law. It provided for a seven-year plan aimed at producing, by 1943, synthetic fuels—primarily liquid fuel out of coal—in volumes equivalent to half of Japan’s entire 1937 consumption level. The goal was not only ambitious, it was also extremely unrealistic.

From the very first, official American policy and public opinion supported China as the victim of aggression in the Sino-Japanese War. But the United States remained very much in the grip of isolationism. Fourteen years had passed since Franklin Roosevelt, then merely a former assistant navy secretary, had written his “Shall We Trust Japan?” article. Now, as President, Roosevelt felt frustrated, both by the political constraints at home and by the ominous developments abroad. In a speech in October 1937, he obliquely broached the idea of establishing a “quarantine” to check the spreading “epidemic of world lawlessness.” After a Japanese air attack on four American ships in the Yangtze River, he privately explained to his Cabinet that, by quarantine, he meant “such a thing as using economic sanctions without declaring war.” But neutrality legislation and the prevailing isolationist sentiment prevented the President from putting the idea into practice.6

As reports of Japanese attacks on Chinese civilians began to mount, however, American sentiment turned more sharply against Japan. In 1938, after newspaper and newsreel pictures of the Japanese bombing of Canton, polls found that a large majority of the American public was opposed to the continued export of military materiel to Japan. But the Roosevelt Administration was fearful both of undermining Japanese moderates by too strong a stand and of interfering with America’s ability to respond to what was seen as the more immediate and serious threat of Nazi Germany. So the Administration went no further than to adopt a “moral embargo” on the export of airplanes and aircraft engines to Japan. Lacking legislative authority, the State Department took to writing letters to American manufacturers, asking them not to sell such goods. Washington was also alarmed by the implications of the growing ties between Japan and Germany, both of which had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, ostensibly aimed against the Soviet Union. But Japan was resisting German pressure to move closer—chiefly, Tokyo explained to Berlin, because Japan’s dependence on the United States and the British empire for indispensable raw materials, and for oil in particular, meant that it “was not yet in a position to come forward as an opposer of the Democracies.”

Here was the deadly paradox for Japan. It wanted to reduce its reliance on the United States, especially for most of its oil, much of which went to fuel its fleet and air force. Japan feared that such dependence would cripple it in a war. But Tokyo’s vision of security and the steps it took to gain autonomy—its brutal expansion in pursuit of its “co-prosperity sphere”—created exactly the conditions that would point toward war with the United States. Indeed, in the late 1930s, the supply requirements for the war with China actually increased Japan’s trade dependence on the United States. To complicate things further, foreign currency constraints made it more difficult for Japan to pay for imports. This forced strict restrictions on supplies for the domestic economy, including the rationing of oil and other fuels, thus weakening efforts to build up a war economy. The fishing fleet, which was one of the main sources of Japan’s food, was ordered to give up oil and instead to depend exclusively upon wind power!7

By 1939, the United States was explicitly opposed to Japanese actions. Still, Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull hoped to find a middle ground between overly strong American countermeasures on the one hand, which could provoke a serious crisis in the Pacific, and appeasement on the other, which would only encourage further Japanese aggression. The Japanese bombing of Chinese civilian centers, especially the bombings of Chungking, in May 1939—“milestones in the history of aerial terror,” in the words of the journalist Theodore H. White, who covered them for Time—shocked and further aroused American public opinion. Various groups, such as the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression, campaigned hard to cut off all American exports. “Japan furnishes the pilot,” said one pamphlet. “America furnishes the airplane, gasoline, oil, and bombs for the ravaging of undefended Chinese cities.” A Gallup Poll in June 1939 reported that 72 percent of the public favored an embargo on the export of war materials to Japan.

Within the Roosevelt Administration, however, there was intense and sharp discussion about how best to respond, including the ever-present question of direct economic sanctions. But Joseph Grew, the American ambassador to Japan, warned of the possible consequences. The Japanese would submit, he reported from Tokyo, to any deprivation rather than see their nation humbled by Western powers—and lose face. On a visit to Washington in the autumn of 1939, Grew met twice with President Roosevelt and later wrote in his diary: “I brought out clearly my view that if we once start sanctions against Japan we must see them through to the end, and the end may conceivably be war. I also said that if we cut off Japanese supplies of oil and if Japan then finds that she cannot obtain sufficient oil from other commercial sources to ensure her national security, she will in all probability send her fleets down to take the Dutch East Indies.”

“Then we could easily intercept her fleet,” the President replied.

Grew was expressing foreboding, not commenting on policies that were imminent in the autumn of 1939. There was no plan for an embargo on oil. Nor, despite his remarks, was Roosevelt willing to risk a confrontation. But oil was fast emerging as the critical issue between the two countries.8

A year earlier, in September 1938, in The Hague, two American businessmen had sat together, close to a radio set, listening somberly to the latest news. One was George Walden, the head of Stanvac, the Far Eastern joint venture of Jersey and Standard of New York. The other was Lloyd “Shorty” Elliott, president of Stanvac’s producing arm in the Dutch East Indies. It was the time of the Munich crisis; Europe had seemed to be on the verge of war. But Britain and France had just given way to Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia in order to guarantee what Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would call “peace in our time.” But to Walden and Elliott listening intently to the radio reports of the speech Hitler had given that day, war seemed inevitable, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. And when war came to Asia, they were sure the Japanese would attack the East Indies—in Elliott’s words, “it was just a question of when and how.”

That night in The Hague, Walden and Elliott began working out what to do when the Japanese invasion came. The two men wasted little time in implementing their new plans. As a first step, all German, Dutch, and Japanese employees in the Indies who were of doubtful loyalty were dismissed. Plans were prepared for the destruction of Stanvac’s refinery and oil wells—but rather openly, as a deterrent to the Japanese. By early 1940, evacuation plans were also well advanced, and Walden indicated to local Stanvac officers in the Indies that if the United States placed an embargo on oil to Japan, the company “would cooperate fully” and “stop all shipments from all properties under its control all over the world,” even though much of that property was not under American jurisdiction. “Shipments from the Netherlands East Indies would be stopped,” he made clear, “despite the possibility that the Japanese Navy would attempt to take the properties there and despite the further fact that the American Government, due to cries within the United States against ‘fighting for Standard Oil,’ might not attempt to protect American interests in the Netherlands East Indies.”9

Japanese Advance and American Restrictions—The First Round

Increasingly worried about a cut-off of oil and other supplies from the United States, Tokyo instituted a policy to establish industrial self-sufficiency and to try to eliminate economic dependence upon the United States. The Japanese public, even schoolchildren, were bombarded with propaganda about how the “ABCD” powers, as they were called—America, Britain, China, and the Dutch—were engaged in a conspiracy to deny resources and strangle the empire. But Japan’s position appeared stronger after the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, and even more so after May and June of 1940, when the Germans swept through Belgium, Holland, and France, overriding all resistance. The Japanese continued their advance through China, and suddenly, with the colonial powers overrun, excepting Great Britain, all of the Far East looked truly vulnerable. As if to underline that threat, the Japanese abruptly demanded far larger supplies of oil from the East Indies, now under the sway of the Dutch government-in-exile in London. Fearful that a beleaguered Britain would withdraw its own forces from the Far East, Washington made a fateful decision; it transferred the American fleet from its base in Southern California to Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Since the fleet was, at the time, already on maneuvers near Hawaii, the move was accomplished with a minimum of fanfare. One purpose was to stiffen British resolve. The other was to serve as a deterrent to Tokyo.

The summer of 1940 was a major turning point. In June, Japan started on the road south. It asked the new, collaborationist government of France to approve the dispatch of a military mission to French Indochina; it demanded that the East Indies guarantee war materials; and it threatened Britain with war if it did not both take its troops out of Shanghai and close the Burma supply route into China. That same month, Roosevelt brought Henry Stimson into the Cabinet as Secretary of War. Stimson was a long-time critic of American exports to Japan and what he saw as insufficient resolve in U.S. policy. On July 2, 1940, Roosevelt signed the National Defense Act, passed hurriedly after the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Section VI gave the President the power to control exports; that would be the lever with which to regulate oil supplies to Japan.

In Tokyo, leaders who wanted to avoid a collision with the Western powers were rapidly losing ground. A section of the secret police organized a plot to kill those seen as favoring efforts at a settlement with Britain and the United States. The targets included the Prime Minister. The plot was aborted in July, but the message was clear. That same month, the Japanese Cabinet was reconstructed under the new Prime Minister, Prince Konoye. The militant general Hideki Tojo—known as “Kamisori,” the “Razor”—became War Minister. He had formerly been Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, which had fabricated the original provocation on the South Manchurian Railway in 1931.10

In the second half of July 1940, virtually simultaneous developments in Tokyo and Washington pointed Japan and the United States more directly on their collision course. Oil was the linchpin. The Japanese strengthened their commitment to drive into Southeast Asia. That, they thought, would help them win the war in China. To assure adequate supplies, Japan would attempt to get additional oil from the Dutch East Indies one way or another. It also sought to import far larger than normal volumes of aviation gasoline from the United States, setting off alarm bells in Washington. Meeting on July 19, 1940, with senior advisers, Roosevelt pointed to a map across the room. He explained that he sat there day after day eyeing that map, and he had finally come “to the conclusion that the only way out of the difficulties of the world” was by cutting off supplies to the aggressor countries, “particularly in regard to their supply of fuel to carry on the war.” There was no dissent in the discussion that followed about taking such a step vis-à-visthe European aggressors. However, the question of Japan occasioned very sharp words, and no consensus about whether that would make things better or worse.

The next day Roosevelt signed legislation authorizing the building of a twoocean Navy, so that the United States could meet the Japanese threat in the Pacific without leaving the Atlantic Ocean to Germany. That being the case, some asked, why continue to provide Japan with oil supplies to fuel its Navy? Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and War Secretary Stimson tried to promote a proclamation that would have meant a complete embargo on oil exports to Japan. But the State Department, still fearful of provoking a rupture with Japan, succeeded in redrafting the proclamation so that the ban was limited only to aviation gasoline of 87 octane or higher, as well as some kinds of iron ore and steel scrap. That would protect gasoline supplies for the U.S. military, as American planes used 100-octane fuel. But the ban did not hinder the Japanese, as their planes could operate with fuels below 87 octane. And, if need be, the fuel could be raised to a higher octane in Japan simply by “needling” it with a little tetraethyl lead. As it turned out, Japan bought 550 percent more 86 octane gasoline from the United States in the five months after the July 1940 proclamation than before. Despite appearances, an embargo had not gone into effect, only a licensing system. Still, Tokyo was alerted to what it might expect down the road.11

The alignments were now very clear. On September 26, 1940, responding both to Japanese moves in Indochina and to an imminent new Japanese pact with Germany and Italy, Washington banned the export of all iron and steel scrap to Japan—but not oil. The next day, Japan formally signed the Tripartite Pact with Hitler and Mussolini, tying itself much more tightly into the Axis. “The hostilities in Europe, in Africa and in Asia are all parts of a single world conflict,” said Roosevelt. But he believed that the European war, which threatened the very survival of Britain, took precedence, and thus he remained committed to a “Europe first” strategy. That meant husbanding all possible resources for Europe. Roosevelt had an extra reason for caution: The Presidential election was only a month away, he was running for an unprecedented third term, and he did not want to risk doing anything that looked provocative in the intervening weeks. The United States Army and Navy, concerned to avoid a confrontation with Japan while in the midst of their own build-ups, added their voices to those arguing against the imposition of an oil embargo. Meanwhile, the Japanese were trying to buy up all the petroleum supplies they could obtain, as well as drilling equipment, storage tanks in knocked-down form, and other supplies. The British now wanted to find a way to halt the flow of oil. They feared that if Japan did build large stockpiles, it would become relatively immune to any economic sanctions. Still, Roosevelt and Hull resisted cutting the flow.12

Quiet Conversations

Was there some way to find a modus vivendi, something short of war that would not leave Japan with an iron grip on Asia? What might have been overlooked? So asked Secretary of State Hull again and again. In an effort to find an answer, he began talking privately with the new Japanese ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, a former Foreign Minister. The two would meet at night, with only a couple of aides, usually in Hull’s apartment at the Wardman Park Hotel.

Each man epitomized his respective society. Tall and silver-haired, Cordell Hull was a backwoodsman turned statesman. Born in a log cabin in Tennessee, he had become a circuit court judge, a volunteer in the Spanish-American War, and then Congressman and Senator. Cautious, careful, “given to sifting a difference into its smallest particles,” and in his own way implacable, he had devoted himself since becoming Secretary of State in 1933 to one central purpose: breaking down trade barriers in order to promote a liberal international economic order that would also serve the cause of world peace. Now, in 1941, he could see all those labors going for naught. But he was not yet ready to give up. He was willing to explore and re-explore, well beyond most people’s ideas of patience, every cranny of U.S.–Japanese relations in order to find some alternative to a total breakdown. And he would seek to buy time.

Admiral Nomura shared Hull’s desire to avert a conflict. A political moderate, he was widely respected in Japanese political and military circles. At six feet, the solemn admiral stood out among his countrymen. He had lost an eye in a bomb attack by a Korean nationalist in Shanghai in 1932. That attack had also left him with a limp and more than a hundred metal fragments permanently in his body. During World War I, he had served as naval attaché in Washington, where he had gotten to know Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt. When the two met again, in February 1941, upon Nomura’s arrival in Washington as ambassador, Roosevelt greeted him as “friend” and insisted upon addressing him as “Admiral,” rather than “Ambassador.” Nomura felt comfortable in the United States, had many friends in the United States, and most certainly did not want war between the two countries. As he told the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, “his lips and his heart” were “at variance.” But he was a messenger, not a decision maker. Some years later, trying to explain how he had felt during the tense days of 1941, Nomura simply said, “When a big house falls, one pillar can not stop it.”

Beginning in March 1941, Hull and Nomura met on many evenings, perhaps forty or fifty times altogether, reviewing proposals, looking for any steps that would prevent a collision, plowing on and on through the discouraging, unpromising soil. To be sure, Hull had a startling advantage during all these talks. Thanks to the code-breaking operation known as “Magic,” the United States and Britain had cracked “Purple,” the top-secret Japanese diplomatic code. Thus, Hull was able to read, before the meetings with Nomura, Tokyo’s instructions to the ambassador and, afterward, Nomura’s reports. Hull played his part adroitly, never giving any hint of knowing more than he was supposed to know. In early May 1941 the Germans informed the Japanese that the United States had broken their codes. But Tokyo discounted that piece of intelligence; the Japanese simply did not believe that Americans were capable of such a feat.

Yet, despite “Magic,” there were many things that Hull and his colleagues in Washington did not know. Among them was the Japanese Navy’s concern that the American fleet in Hawaii, if left unattended in the midst of an invasion of the East Indies and Singapore, could launch a dangerous flank attack. As a result, the Japanese Navy had begun to plan a daunting and high-risk project—a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.13

Yamamoto’s Gamble—“Doubtless I Will Die”

As early as the spring of 1940, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleets, had started to outline this wild, almost preposterous gamble. He was the most daring, original, and controversial of the Japanese admirals, widely respected for his physical courage and leadership, though resented by some for his bluntness. He was short and broadly constructed; his face and his whole manner reflected willpower and determination. Of all the personnel on active duty in the Combined Fleets on the eve of World War II, he was the only one who had actually experienced combat duty in the Russo-Japanese War, almost four decades earlier, and to prove it, he was missing two fingers on his left hand, which he had lost in Japan’s great victory, the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.

Nothing could have been more in keeping with Yamamoto’s strategic vision—or his love of gambling—than his plan for an attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet such a proposal was particularly surprising coming from him. He had spent more than four years in the United States in the 1920s, first as a student at Harvard, then as a naval representative and attaché in Washington. He had read four or five biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and he regularly received and perused Life magazine. He had traveled through the United States, he knew the country and prided himself on his understanding of Americans, and he recognized that the United States was rich in resources while Japan was poor and that America’s productive capacity far outstripped that of his own country.

Indeed, even while developing his Pearl Harbor plan, Yamamoto continued to challenge the whole idea of war with the United States. Ultimately, he thought, such a struggle would be, at best, very risky and, most probably, a losing proposition. He was one of those naval officers who preferred to seek some accommodation with America and Britain. He was acidly critical of Japan’s civilian and Army leaders, and thought they were partly responsible for the tensions with the United States. The complaint about “America’s economic pressure,” he said, in December 1940, “reminds me of the aimless action of a schoolboy which has no more consistent motive than the immediate need or whim of the moment.” He scoffed at the ultranationalists and jingoists, with their “armchair arguments about war” and their mystical fantasies, who had so little understanding of the real costs and sacrifices that war would mean.

Moreover, the oil factor weighed heavily in Yamamoto’s mind. He had a special grasp of and sensitivity to the Navy’s, and Japan’s, oil predicament. He had grown up in the Niigata district, one of the regions responsible for Japan’s small domestic oil production, and his home town of Nagaoka was populated by hundreds of tiny factories producing oil for lamps. His time in America had convinced Yamamoto that the industrial world was moving from coal to oil and that air power was the future, even for navies. Acutely conscious of Japan’s oil vulnerability, as Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleets he insisted on restricting the Navy, the third-largest in the world, to training only in the waters immediately off Japan. The reason—to conserve petroleum. So concerned was he with Japan’s oil problem that he even sponsored experiments, to the chagrin of his naval colleagues, by a “scientist” who claimed he could change water into oil.14

Yet, whatever his doubts, Yamamoto was a fervent nationalist to his core, devoted to the Emperor and to his country. He believed that the Japanese were a chosen people and that they had a special mission in Asia. He would do his duty. “It’s out of the question!” he exclaimed. “To fight the United States is like fighting the whole world. But it has been decided. So I will do my best. Doubtless I will die.”

If Japan had to go to war, Yamamoto believed, it should go for the “decisive blow” and seek to knock the United States off balance, incapacitate it, while Japan secured its position in Southeast Asia. Thus a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. “The lesson which impressed me most deeply when I studied the Russo-Japanese War was the fact that our Navy launched a night assault against Port Arthur at the very beginning,” Yamamoto said in early 1941. “This was the most excellent strategical initiative ever envisaged during the war.” What was the most “regrettable,” he added, was “that we were not thoroughgoing in carrying out the attack.” His plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor—“at the outset of the war to give a fatal blow to the enemy’s fleet”—was decided upon in late 1940 and early 1941. Yamamoto’s objective was not only “to decide the fate of the war on the very first day” by knocking out the U.S. fleet in the Pacific, but also to destroy the morale of the American people.

The requirements of success for “Operation Hawaii,” as it was called, were many: secrecy; first-rate intelligence; superb coordination; high technical skills; many technological innovations, including development of new aerial torpedoes and new techniques of refueling at sea; absolute devotion to the cause at hand; and the cooperation of the weather and the waves. Yet, early in 1941, despite the secrecy, U.S. Ambassador Grew heard from Peru’s minister to Tokyo about a rumor that Japan was planning an attack on Pearl Harbor. Grew reported it to Washington, where it was immediately discounted. American officials simply could not believe—then or in the months following—that such an audacious assault was even possible. Moreover, officials in the Navy and State departments were astonished that an ambassador of Grew’s caliber could take seriously such an obviously ridiculous story.15

Embargo

From April through June 1941, the arguments continued to rage in the U.S. government about whether or not to cut off oil exports to Japan and to freeze Japanese funds in the United States—most of which were used to purchase oil. The Axis powers and America were clearly moving closer to direct confrontation. On May 27, 1941, President Roosevelt declared an “unlimited national emergency.” His aim, in the words of one of his advisers, was “to scare the daylights out of everyone,” about the true dangers of the Axis drive for world domination. Immediately following that, but acting on his own authority, Harold Ickes, just appointed Petroleum Coordinator, prohibited oil shipments to Japan from the East Coast. Petroleum supplies were getting short in the eastern United States—primarily because of transportation difficulties—and public opposition to exporting oil from the East Coast, especially to Japan, was building rapidly. The order, however, did not pertain to the Gulf or West Coasts. At the same time, Ickes was trying to promote a general embargo on all oil exports to Japan.

An angry President countermanded Ickes’s order, which led to a brittle and bitter exchange. “There will never be so good a time to stop the shipment of oil to Japan as we now have,” Ickes argued. “Japan is so preoccupied with what is happening in Russia and what may happen in Siberia that she won’t venture a hostile move against the Dutch East Indies. To embargo oil to Japan would be as popular a move in all parts of the country as you could make.”

“I have yours of June 23rd recommending the immediate stopping of shipments of oil to Japan,” Roosevelt replied sarcastically. “Please let me know if this would continue to be your judgment if this were to tip the delicate scales and cause Japan to decide either to attack Russia or to attack the Dutch East Indies.” He also delivered a stern little constitutional lesson, telling Ickes that the question of Japanese exports was “a matter not of oil conservation, but of foreign policy, a field peculiarly entrusted to the President and under him to the Secretary of State.”

Complaining about “the lack of a friendly tone in letters that have come from you recently,” Ickes, as was his wont, proffered his resignation—as Petroleum Coordinator, though not as Interior Secretary. But Roosevelt, as he had done so often in the past, refused to accept it. “There you go again!” wrote the President on July 1, 1941. “There ain’t nothing unfriendly about me, and I guess it was the hot weather that made you think there was a lack of a friendly tone!” Then by way of further explanation, Roosevelt said, “the Japs are having a real drag-down and knock-out fight among themselves…trying to figure out which way they are going to jump.” And he added, “As you know, it is terribly important for the control of the Atlantic for us to help to keep peace in the Pacific. I simply have not got enough Navy to go around and—every little episode in the Pacific means fewer ships in the Atlantic.”16

The “knock-out fight” to which Roosevelt referred had been precipitated by Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, which forced a major strategic choice for Tokyo: whether to continue on its southern course or to take advantage of Hitler’s success, join in the attack on Russia from the east, and help itself to part of Siberia. Between June 25 and July 2, 1941, senior officials in Tokyo grappled with and argued fervently over the choices. Finally, they made the fateful decision: They would put off doing anything about the Soviet Union, and instead concentrate on the southern strategy—and, in particular, seek to secure control of all of Indochina, deemed necessary in order to go for the East Indies. They did so with the recognition that the occupation of southern Indochina could well provoke an all-out American oil embargo, which would be “a matter of life or death to the empire,” in the words of the Navy General Staff. But Japan, it was also decided, would not be deterred from its objectives by the threat of war with Britain and the United States.

Through the “Magic” intercepts of the Japanese codes, Washington knew of the momentous debate and, at least to some degree, its outcome. “After the occupation of French Indochina-China,” said one intercepted message, “next on our schedule is… the Netherlands East Indies.” At Roosevelt’s Cabinet meeting on July 18, it was reported that the Japanese were virtually certain to advance into southern Indochina in the next few days.

“I would like to ask you a question which you may or may not want to answer,” Treasury Secretary Morgenthau said to the President. “What are you going to do on the economic front against Japan if she makes this move?”

“If we stopped all oil,” Roosevelt replied, “it would simply drive the Japanese down to the Dutch East Indies, and it would mean war in the Pacific.”

But he did indicate that, if Japan moved, he would support a different form of economic sanction: the freezing of Japanese financial assets in the United States, which would restrict Japan’s ability to buy oil. Even Hull, quite ill and generally discouraged, called in from a health spa where he was resting to advocate stronger export controls—though “always short of being involved in war with Japan.”

With its own back against the wall in Europe, Britain registered its concern that a total embargo might lead Japan to accelerate its southward advance, and the British were far from sure that Washington was prepared for the possible consequences, including war. But, in Washington, only the Army and Navy, focused on the Atlantic and Europe and intent on having as much time as possible for their build-up, were still reluctant to impose new curbs.

On July 24, 1941, the radio reported that Japanese warships were off Camranh Bay, and that a dozen troop transports were on their way south from the Japanese-controlled island of Hainan, in order to effect the occupation of southern Indochina. That same afternoon, Roosevelt, receiving Ambassador Nomura, suggested a neutralization of Indochina. He said that he had kept oil exports flowing, despite “bitter criticism,” in order not to provide the Japanese with a pretext to attack the East Indies—an attack that would have the eventual result, he indicated, of direct conflict with the United States. He also clearly suggested that, with “this new move by Japan in Indochina,” he might not be able any longer to withstand the domestic political pressure to restrict oil exports to Japan.

Such a shift was already at hand. Roosevelt himself did not want to impose a full embargo. He wanted to tighten controls, but to keep them, as he said, “day to day,” a flexible tool that could be adjusted to specific circumstances. His aim was to create maximum uncertainty for Japan, but he did not want to push it over the brink. He thought he could use oil as an instrument for diplomacy, not as the trigger for war. He did not want, as he told the British ambassador, to try to fight two wars at once. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles proposed a program that fit the President’s objective; it would hold petroleum exports to the 1935–36 level, but prohibit the export of any grades of oil or oil products that could be manufactured into aviation gasoline. Export licenses would be required for all oil exports. On the evening of July 25, the U.S. government ordered all Japanese financial assets in the United States to be frozen. Licenses—that is, government approval—would be required for each use of the frozen funds, including the purchase of oil. On July 28, Japan began its anticipated invasion of southern Indochina, and with that took another step toward war.

The new American policy was not meant to cut off oil entirely, at least explicitly, but a virtually total embargo was the actual result. A key role was played by Dean Acheson, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, and one of the few senior State Department officials to favor an out-and-out embargo. He turned the July 25 order into an embargo, in consultation with the Treasury Department, by completely preventing the release of the frozen funds necessary for the Japanese to buy the oil. “Whether or not we had a policy, we had a state of affairs,” Acheson later said. “Until further notice it would continue.” From the beginning of August, no more oil was exported to Japan from the United States. Two Japanese tankers were left sitting empty in the harbor at San Pedro, near Los Angeles, waiting for oil that had already been contracted for.17

“We must act as drastically as the U.S.A.,” said British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. But both Britain and the Dutch government-in-exile were, understandably, somewhat baffled as to exactly what American policy was. Still, Britain followed with its own freeze and an embargo, cutting off supplies from Borneo, as did the Dutch East Indies.

By the end of July 1941, Japan had secured its occupation of southern Indochina. “Today I knew from the hard looks on their faces that they meant business,” Ambassador Nomura reported to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo on July 31, after meeting with American officials. “Need I point out to you gentlemen that in my opinion it is necessary to take without one moment’s hesitation some appeasement measures.” The Foreign Ministry scathingly dismissed the ambassador’s concerns. With the Japanese thrust into Indochina and the consequent American freeze on Japanese funds—which, in practice, meant an embargo on oil—the countdown had begun. As Nomura was later to say to Hull, “The Japanese move into south Indochina in the latter part of July” had “precipitated” the “freezing measures, which in turn meant a de facto embargo and had reacted in Japan to increase the tension.”

But the embargo itself did not create the impending confrontation. It was virtually the only way left for the United States—and the British and the Dutch—to respond to Japanese aggression, short of military action. With the Japanese move into Southeast Asia and the Nazi sweep into the Soviet Union, the United States faced a horrifying prospect—of both Europe and Asia dominated by the Axis, leaving the United States the last island left between two unsafe seas. Thus, the President sought to use the oil lever. For the Japanese, however, it was the final link in their “encirclement” by hostile powers. Tokyo refused to recognize that it was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The embargo was the result of four years of Japanese military aggression in Asia. Tokyo had worked itself into a corner: According to its own calculations, the only oil securely available to Japan was what it held in its own inventories. There were no other significant sources that it could tap to make up for the closing off of American and East Indies supplies. If it were to maintain and secure its capability to wage war, then it would inevitably have to risk—or make—war.18

“We Cannot Endure It”

The leaders of the Japanese Navy had previously been far more cautious than the Army about a confrontation with the United States. But that was no longer the case in the light of what was taken to be a complete embargo. As a leading Japanese admiral later said: “If there were no supply of oil, battleships and any other warships would be nothing more than scarecrows.” Admiral Osami Nagano, the chief of the Naval General Staff, stressed to the Emperor that Japan’s petroleum reserves would, without replenishment, last no more than two years.

The new Japanese foreign minister, Teijiro Toyoda, expressed the paranoia in Japanese policy in secret messages to his ambassadors in both Berlin and Washington: “Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer,” he wrote on July 31, 1941. “Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas. Our Empire must immediately take steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep.”

How different it all looked to Cordell Hull. Ill and exhausted, Hull had gone to White Sulphur Springs to take a cure. “The Japanese are seeking to dominate militarily practically one-half the world…. Nothing will stop them except force,” he told Undersecretary of State Welles over the telephone. Still he sought to postpone what now seemed inevitable. “The point is how long we can maneuver the situation until the military matter in Europe is brought to a conclusion.”

Ambassador Grew, in Tokyo, saw the situation all too clearly. “The vicious circle of reprisals and counter reprisals is one,” he wrote in his diary. “Facilis descensus Averno est. Unless radical surprises occur in the world, it is difficult to see how the momentum of this down-grade movement can be averted, or how far it will go. The obvious conclusion is eventual war.” By that time, power shovels were already digging shelters around the perimeter of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.19

There were last-minute diplomatic efforts on both sides to stave off confrontation. With some support from the Navy, Prince Konoye, the Prime Minister, raised the possibility of a summit meeting with Roosevelt. Perhaps he could appeal directly to the American President. Konoye was even willing to try to jettison the Axis alliance with Hitler in order to reach an understanding with the Americans. Worried palace officials endorsed Konoye’s idea. “The whole problem facing Japan had been reduced to a very simple factor, and that was oil,” Koichi Kido, the Lord Privy Seal, told the premier in private, adding, “Japan could not possibly fight a war of certain victory against the United States.”

The Emperor himself gave Konoye’s idea his blessing. “I am in receipt of intelligence from the Navy pertaining to a general oil embargo against Japan by America,” the Emperor told Prince Konoye. “In view of this, the meeting with the President should take place as soon as possible.” Konoye suggested that Roosevelt and he meet in, of all places, Honolulu. The President was at first quite interested in the idea—indeed, taken enough to reply that he and Konoye should meet in Juneau, Alaska, instead of Honolulu. But Hull and the State Department strenuously opposed this breach in diplomatic due process. The Americans did not understand that this was Konoye’s last gamble to avoid the calamity, and they no longer had any reason to trust Japan. Nor did they think that Konoye had anything new to offer. Moreover, Roosevelt did not want to risk looking like an appeaser; he did not want “Juneau” to join the vocabulary along with “Munich.” No good purpose would be served in meeting Konoye without a reasonable agreement more or less settled in advance; Roosevelt was also reading the “Magic” intercepts, which indicated that the Japanese were intent on further conquest. So, for the time being, Roosevelt, with his talent for ambiguity, neither agreed to nor rejected such a meeting.20

“Dwindling Day by Day”

In Tokyo, on September 5 and 6, the most senior Japanese officials met with the Emperor and went through the formality of asking permission to assume a war posture, even while the diplomatic alternatives were still being explored. Again, access to oil was their central concern. “At present oil is the weak point of our Empire’s national strength and fighting power,” their briefing materials said. “As time passes, our capacity to carry on war will decline, and our Empire will become powerless militarily.” Time was running out, the military leaders reiterated in front of the Emperor. “Vital military supplies, including oil,” said the Navy Chief of Staff, “are dwindling day by day.”

How long would hostilities last in the event of a Japanese-American war? the Emperor asked the Army Chief of Staff.

“Operations in the South Pacific could be disposed of in about three months,” the Chief of Staff answered.

“The General had been Minister of War at the time of the outbreak of the China Incident, and… had then informed the Throne that the incident would be disposed of in about one month,” the Emperor retorted sharply. “Despite the General’s assurance, the incident was not yet concluded after four long years of fighting.”

The general tried to explain that “the extensive hinterland of China prevented the consummation of operations according to the scheduled plan.”

“If the Chinese hinterland was extensive,” the Emperor shot back, raising his voice, “the Pacific was boundless.” How could the general “be certain of his three month calculation?”

The Chief of Staff hung his head, with no reply.

The Naval Chief of Staff, Admiral Nagano, stepped in to the general’s aid. “Japan was like a patient suffering from a serious illness,” he said. “A quick decision had to be made one way or the other.” The Emperor tried to ascertain whether the senior advisers were in favor of diplomacy, first, or war, first. He could not get a clear answer.

The next day, when the same question was raised again, the Chiefs of the Army and Navy General Staff remained silent. The Emperor expressed his regret that they had not seen fit to answer. He then drew a piece of paper out of his robe and read a poem by his grandfather, the Emperor Meiji:

Since all are brothers in this world,
Why is there such constant turmoil?

The hall was silent. “Everyone present was struck with awe.” Then Admiral Nagano rose and said that military force would be used only when all else had failed. The meeting adjourned—“in an atmosphere of unprecedented tenseness.”

The coming winter weather put an operational boundary on how much time was left. If the military were to make its moves before the spring of 1942, it would have to do so by early December. Still, Prince Konoye kept hoping to find some alternative short of war. After the conference in front of the Throne on September 6, the Cabinet took up the question of whether synthetic oil production could be greatly and speedily increased. It was better to spend vast sums on such a program, said Konoye, than on war, with all its uncertainties. But the head of the Planning Board said that it would be an immense task—requiring up to four years, many billions of yen, and a vast amount of steel, pipes, and machinery. A huge massing of engineering skills and upward of four hundred thousand coal miners would also be needed. Konoye’s proposal was put aside. In late September, four men armed with daggers and short swords sprang at Konoye’s car, aiming to assassinate him. They were repulsed, but the Prime Minister was badly shaken.

On October 2, the United States officially rejected a meeting between Konoye and Roosevelt. Shortly after, unable to muster a credible alternative to war, Konoye fell from office. He was replaced as Prime Minister on October 18 by Hideki Tojo, the bellicose war minister, who had consistently dismissed diplomacy as useless and had opposed any compromise with the United States. Back in Washington, Ambassador Nomura futilely described himself as “the bones of a dead horse.” With diplomacy at a stalemate, Roosevelt himself fell into the grip of the fatalism that had captured those in both Tokyo and Washington. Yet he pleaded with Nomura that, between their two countries, there be “no last words.”

The two Japanese tankers had continued to sit in the harbor near Los Angeles since midsummer, waiting to pick up contracted supplies of oil. In the first part of November, they finally weighed anchor and sailed away, with no oil aboard. Now, no one could doubt the absoluteness of the oil embargo. With winter almost at hand in Tokyo, the Japanese authorities retaliated by cutting off all supplies of heating oil to the American and British embassies.

On through October and into November, Japan’s military high command and political leaders, often meeting in a small room in the Imperial Palace, continued to debate the final commitment to war. Again and again, the discussion came back to oil. Japanese oil imports had fallen drastically in 1941. Inventories were declining, too. “From the records available it is clear that this time-oil factor hovered over the conference table like a demon,” one historian later wrote. “A decision for war was considered the most readily available means of exorcising it.”21

On November 5, an Imperial Conference of the most senior leaders convened before the Emperor. He himself remained silent through the proceedings as was the custom in most circumstances. The Razor—Prime Minister Tojo—summarized the majority position. “The United States has from the beginning believed that Japan would give up because of economic pressure,” he declared, but on this it would prove to be wrong. “If we enter into a protracted war, there will be difficulties,” he said. “We have some uneasiness about a protracted war. But how can we let the United States continue to do as she pleases, even though there is some uneasiness? Two years from now we will have no petroleum for military use. Ships will stop moving. When I think about the strengthening of American defenses in the Southwest Pacific, the expansion of the American fleet, the unfinished China Incident, and so on, I see no end to difficulties…. I fear that we would become a third-class nation after two or three years if we just sat tight.”

The proposal before the conference called for the presentation of stiff last-ditch demands to the United States. If they were rejected, Japan would go to war. “Do you have any other comments?” Tojo asked the group. Hearing no objection, he ruled the proposal approved.

A Japanese diplomat arrived in Washington the third week of November to present the list of demands. To Secretary of State Hull, it read like an ultimatum. There was another arrival of Japanese origin in Washington that week: an intercepted “Magic” message of November 22, informing Nomura that American agreement to Tokyo’s latest proposals had to be received by November 29 at the very latest, for “reasons beyond your ability to guess.” For, “after that, things are automatically going to happen.”

On November 25, Roosevelt warned his senior military advisers that war could come very soon, even within a week. On the next day, Hull presented a note to the Japanese, proposing that Japanese troops be withdrawn from Indochina and China in exchange for a resumption of American trade with Japan. Tokyo chose to regard this proposal as an American ultimatum. On that same day, November 26, a Japanese naval task force that had gathered in the Kurile Islands was ordered to set sail, under radio silence. Its destination was Hawaii.22

While the Americans did not know about that specific fleet, Secretary of War Stimson did bring Roosevelt an intelligence report indicating that a large Japanese expeditionary force was moving south from Shanghai toward Southeast Asia. “He fairly blew up, jumped into the air, so to speak, and said he hadn’t seen it,” commented Stimson, “and that that changed the whole situation because it was an evidence of bad faith on the part of the Japanese that while they were negotiating for an entire truce—an entire withdrawal—they should be sending this expedition down there.” With that, the President arrived at a final answer to the question he had posed in his article almost two decades earlier. Japan could not be trusted. The following day, November 27, Hull told Stimson that he had completely given up on negotiations with Japan. “I have washed my hands of it,” said the Secretary of State. It was now in the hands, he added, of the Army and the Navy. That same day, Washington sent off “a final alert” to American commanders in the Pacific, including Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commander of the Pacific Fleet stationed in Hawaii. The message to Kimmel began, “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning.”

Up to the very end, there were those in Tokyo who saw nothing but disaster ahead. On November 29, the Senior Statesmen met with the Cabinet and the Emperor to plead that Japan seek some diplomatic solution as a better alternative than taking on the might of America. In reply, Prime Minister Tojo railed that to continue with broken economic relations would mean a progressive weakening of Japan. The Japanese leaders, in all their studies, all their discussions, had recognized that a long war would increasingly favor the United States because of its resources, capabilities, and endurance, but so strongly were the militarists gripped in the trance of their own making that those committed to war simply waved that consideration aside. War was on a speeding track.23

Pearl Harbor

On December 1, the special Japanese task force, still undetected, crossed the international dateline. “Everything is decided,” a flight commander on one of the Japanese ships wrote in his diary on December 2. “There is neither here nor there, neither sorrow nor rejoicing.” Tokyo gave orders to its embassies and consulates to destroy codes. An American military officer, sent to reconnoiter the Japanese embassy in Washington, found that papers were being burned in the backyard.

On Saturday, December 6, Roosevelt decided to send a personal note directly to the Emperor, seeking to dispel “the dark clouds” that had so ominously gathered. The message did not go off until nine o’clock that evening. Shortly after sending it, Roosevelt told some visitors, “This son of man has just sent his final message to the Son of God.”

At 12:30 in the afternoon on December 7, Washington time, Roosevelt received the Chinese ambassador. The President said he expected “foul play” in Asia. He had a feeling, he added, that the Japanese might do something “nasty” within forty-eight hours. At 1:00 P.M. Washington time, he was still chatting with the Chinese ambassador. At that very same moment—it was 3:00 A.M., December 8, in Tokyo—Roosevelt’s message was finally delivered personally to the Emperor. In the middle of the Pacific, it was the early morning hours of December 7, and the Japanese fleet was coming upon the Hawaiian Islands. Aloft above the flagship was the flag that had flown on a Japanese battleship in 1905, when the fleet had destroyed the Russian Navy in the Tsushima Strait. Planes were leaving the decks of the aircraft carriers. Their crews had been told that they were going to destroy the ability of the United States to cheat Japan out of its deserved place on earth.

The bombs began to fall on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor at 7:55 A.M., Hawaiian time.

An hour after the attack began on Pearl Harbor, Ambassador Nomura, accompanied by another Japanese diplomat, arrived at the State Department. They were kept in a diplomatic waiting room, while Hull took an urgent call from the President.

“There’s a report that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor,” said Roosevelt in a steady but clipped voice.

“Has the report been confirmed?” Hull asked.

“No,” the President replied.

Both men thought it was probably true. Still, there was one chance in a hundred that it was not, Hull thought, and he had the two Japanese diplomats brought to his office. Nomura, who had learned of the attack from the radio news, diffidently handed a long document to the American Secretary of State. Hull made a pretense of reading Tokyo’s justification for its actions. He could not control his rage. “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen such a document more crowded with falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any Government on this planet was capable of uttering them.” What use had been his many months of private conversations in his apartment with Nomura? To Hull, the backwoodsman turned statesmen, the two diplomats looked to him “like a pair of sheep-killing dogs.”

Neither Japanese offered any further comment. The meeting ended, but no one came forward to open the door for them, for they were now enemies. They opened the door out of Hull’s office themselves and rode down in an empty elevator that was waiting for them, and let themselves out to the street.24

All that day, the reports flowed into Washington from Pearl Harbor—disjointed, fragmentary, and finally, dismal. “The news coming from Hawaii is very bad,” Stimson noted in his diary at the end of that long Sunday. “It has been staggering to see our people there, who have been warned long ago and were standing on the alert, should have been so caught by surprise.” How could such a disaster have occurred?

Senior American officials had fully expected a Japanese attack, and imminently. But they expected it to be in Southeast Asia. Virtually no one, whether in Washington or Hawaii, seriously considered, or even comprehended, that Japan could—or would—launch a surprise assault against the American fleet in its home base. They believed, as General Marshall had told President Roosevelt in May of 1941, that the island of Oahu, where Pearl Harbor was located, was “the strongest fortress in the world.” Most of the American officials seemed to have forgotten—or never knew—that Japan’s great victory in the Russo-Japanese War had begun with a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.

At a fundamental level, each side had underestimated the other. Just as the Japanese did not think the Americans were technically capable of cracking their most secret codes, so the Americans could not conceive that the Japanese would be able to mount so technically complex an operation. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath, some of Roosevelt’s senior advisers believed that the Germans had orchestrated the assault; they assumed the Japanese could not have done it alone. And each side mistook the other’s psychology. The Americans could not believe that the Japanese would do something so daring and even reckless. They were wrong. And the Japanese, for their part, counted on Pearl Harbor to shatter American morale, when, instead, the attack would revivify national morale and swiftly unite the country. That was a much greater error.

After the fact, of course, the Japanese intentions could be clearly discerned in the mass of information that was available to the United States government, including the bountiful treasure of secret communications that came from “Magic,” the cracked Japanese codes. But in those tense months leading up to the attack, the clear signals were lost in the “noise”—the maze of complex, confusing, contradictory, competing, and ambiguous pieces of information. After all, there were also many indications that the Japanese were about to attack the Soviet Union. The dissemination of “Magic” itself and its intelligence was sometimes bungled, in critical ways. This was part of a larger failure, the breakdown of critical communication among key actors on the American side that may have been the second most important cause of the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, following only on the failure to believe that such an attack could take place at all.25

The One Mistake

The waiting was over. Japan and the United States were now at war. But Pearl Harbor was not the main Japanese target. Hawaii was but one piece of a massive, far-flung military onslaught. In the same hours as the attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Japanese were bombing and blockading Hong Kong, bombing Singapore, bombing the Philippines, bombarding the islands of Wake and Guam, taking over Thailand, invading Malaya on the way to Singapore—and preparing to invade the East Indies. The operation against Pearl Harbor was meant to protect the flank—to safeguard the Japanese invasion of the Indies and the rest of Southeast Asia by incapacitating the American fleet and, thereafter, to protect the sea lanes, particularly the tanker routes from Sumatra and Borneo to the home islands. The primary target of this huge campaign remained the oil fields of the East Indies.

Thus, Operation Hawaii was essential to Japan’s larger vision. And a critical element in its success—luck—had been with the Japanese attackers right up to the last moment. Indeed, the Japanese far exceeded even their own ambitions. The extent of the surprise and the incapacity of American defenses at Pearl Harbor were both much greater than the Japanese had anticipated. In their attack on Pearl Harbor, two waves of Japanese aircraft succeeded in sinking, capsizing, or severely damaging eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers, and four auxiliary craft. Hundreds of American planes were destroyed or damaged. And 2,335 American servicemen and 68 civilians were killed. All this added up to, perhaps, the most devastating shock in American history. The American aircraft carriers survived only because they happened to be out on missions at sea. The Japanese lost a total of only twenty-nine planes. Admiral Yamamoto’s gamble had paid off, handsomely.

Yamamoto himself might well have taken one more chance, but he was thousands of miles away, monitoring events from his flagship, off Japan. The commander of the Hawaiian task force, Chuichi Nagumo, was a far more cautious man; indeed, he had actually opposed the entire operation. Now, despite the entreaties of his emboldened officers and much to their chagrin, he did not want to send planes back to Hawaii, for a third wave, to attack the repair facilities and the oil tanks at Pearl. His luck had been so enormous that he did not want to take more risks. And that, along with the sparing of its aircraft carriers, was America’s only piece of good fortune on that day of devastation.

In the course of planning the operation, Admiral Yamamoto had observed that the great mistake made in Japan’s surprise attack against the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904 was in not being “thoroughgoing” enough. The same mistake was made once again at Pearl Harbor. Oil had been central to Japan’s decision to go to war. Yet the Japanese forgot about oil—at least in one crucial dimension—when it came to planning Operation Hawaii. Yamamoto and his colleagues, who had endlessly reviewed America’s preponderant position in oil, all failed to grasp the significance of the supplies on the island of Oahu. An assault on those supplies was not included in their plans.

It was a strategic error with momentous reverberations. Every barrel of oil in Hawaii had been transported from the mainland. If the Japanese planes had knocked out the Pacific Fleet’s fuel reserves and the tanks in which they were stored at Pearl Harbor, they would have immobilized every ship of the American Pacific Fleet, and not just those they actually destroyed. New petroleum supplies would only have been available from California, thousands of miles away. “All of the oil for the Fleet was in surface tanks at the time of Pearl Harbor,” Admiral Chester Nimitz, who became Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, was later to say. “We had about 4½ million barrels of oil out there and all of it was vulnerable to .50 caliber bullets. Had the Japanese destroyed the oil,” he added, “it would have prolonged the war another two years.”26

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!