14. Japan and the Road to Pearl Harbor

THE JAPANESE AIR STRIKE at the United States Pacific Fleet in its base at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, transformed the wars in Europe and Asia into one gigantic, global struggle. Ever since 1939, the United States had moved closer and closer to war, without getting fully involved in it. Except for ships on the North Atlantic convoy runs, Americans were still determinedly aloof; finally, it was not escalation of the U-boat war, but the quite uncoordinated activities of Japan in the Far East that catapulted America into the ranks of the belligerents. The ultimate irony of the whole situation is that Japan went to war not because she thought she could defeat the massive industrial power of America, but because she was already frustrated by her inability to defeat China.

Ever since the China Incident in 1937, the Japanese armies had moved from triumph to triumph on the Asian mainland. They overran large areas of northern China; they forced the Chinese government twice to move its capital. In 1938, they adopted a policy of military occupation of the coastal areas, and therefore of economic strangulation. Early in the year they took Tsingtao. The Chinese rallied, but after some checks in the spring the Japanese advance resumed. The old nineteenth-century treaty ports went one by one, Amoy, Suchow, and on down the coast. On the Manchurian border ebullient Japanese troops clashed with the Russians. In September, the nucleus of a puppet government was established, and in October, after months of ruthless and indiscriminate bombing, they took the city of Canton, upriver from British Hong Kong, and the greatest port of entry remaining to the Chinese; Hankow fell a few days later and the Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled upstream to Chungking. The Western Powers protested ineffectually, but by early 1939, most of China’s access to the outside world was gone. Only a few tenuous links were left; through Russia, up from the south through Burma, and up the Red River from French Indochina. As the imperial powers became more and more preoccupied with matters nearer home the Japanese turned to economic and political pressure designed to drive them completely out of China.


For all their victories, the Japanese could not, in Clausewitzian terms, win the war. The Chinese people had consolidated behind Chiang’s government, and all parties, even to some extent the Communists, cooperated against the enemy. The ultimate aim of war is to break the opponent’s will, so that he no longer offers opposition; the Chinese refused to be broken. The string of victories seemed endless, but the reservoir of Chinese seemed inexhaustible. Like others before her, Japan was wearing herself out killing Chinese.

The Japanese were also bothered by European affairs. As they were willing to take advantage of the early 1939 crises to enhance their own Asian position, so they felt threatened by the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact. This seemed to be encouraging Russia to turn east, and in fact was regarded in Japan as a considerable betrayal by Hitler. The army lost some of its political prestige through this, as it had been strongly pro-German. Through the last months of 1939, there was some diminution of the direct pressure on China as a result of events elsewhere.

The campaigns of 1940 and the fall of France changed all that. The all-too-apparent weakness of the democracies and their imperial holdings in the Far East encouraged the Japanese to increase their pressure once again. Though active fighting in China was burning down from mutual exhaustion, the economic stranglehold was tightened. The Imperial Navy too became increasingly interested. Hitherto, the Japanese Navy had had little to do with the China Incident; China had no navy of her own to speak of, and the sailors had been more or less bystanders to the soldiers’ war. Now Japan’s naval leaders cast increasingly covetous eyes southward. A move into Southeast Asia and the islands of the East Indies might achieve much. Occupation of Thailand, Burma, Malaya, French Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies would give Japan enormous opportunities for exploitation. There were tungsten, rubber, tin, rice, oil, quantities of things Japan needed and did not have; there was the chance to cut off all western access to China. There was also the chance for the navy to make its contribution to Japan’s bid for hegemony.

Even better, there was not too much in the way. French Indochina was garrisoned by a weak and isolated force getting orders, but not much else, from the Vichy government. The British were fully committed in Europe; they were running Malaya and Burma on a shoestring. The Dutch government after May of 1940 was in exile, operating out of rented space in London. Russia had no interests in the south, indeed would be delighted to see the Japanese turn in that direction. The only power still able to do anything about a Japanese advance into the “Southern Resources Area” was the United States. The Japanese planners assessed that if the Americans would not fight for Paris, they would not fight for Saigon.

For the next two years, therefore, from early 1940 to late 1941, the Japanese gradually expanded their influence and their control in the direction of Southeast Asia. Slowly the tension between them and the United States mounted.

In June of 1940, Japan demanded that the Vichy government grant it concessions in Indochina. Vichy agreed, being able to do little else, and Japanese warships immediately appeared in Indochinese ports. Troops entered the northern part of the country in September. Meanwhile, the British, under the same kind of pressure, agreed to close the Burma Road, the last line by which supplies could be pushed through to the Chinese Nationalists. In August, the British pulled their garrisons out of the international settlements in Shanghai and northern China. At home in Japan, a new cabinet under Premier Prince Konoye began to reorganize the government along militarist and totalitarian lines. Konoye’s Minister of War was a man named Hideki Tojo. A soldier, former military attaché in Germany, he had been chief of the secret police in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, then its chief of staff. He was known as a leading militarist, and his promotion into the cabinet meant a measurable escalation of militarist attitudes.

In September, Japan reaffirmed her relations with Germany and Italy; in spite of the Russian affair the community of interest among the dictators was too strong to be ignored, and they now signed a tripartite pact which pledged them to full support should any one of the three become involved with a country not yet at war. The Germans thought that clause applied to Russia; the Japanese thought it applied to the United States. By the end of the year Japan had allied wih Thailand, and in 1941 she concluded a neutrality pact with Russia, and then in July fully occupied the remainder of Indochina, leaving the Vichy French to lead a sort of half-life under Japanese domination. By then, too, Japan had decided to go to war with the United States.

As Japan became more overtly expansionist, the United States became more overtly disapproving. Each Japanese territorial initiative was matched by an American diplomatic or economic response. Gradually, the two countries moved onto a collision course. It was the Japanese rather than the Americans who faced, and accepted, the logical conclusion of this course of events.

With the Hitlerian domination of Europe, the United States moved more and more into the forefront as the protector of imperial interests in the western Pacific and east Asia. American protests went back right to the start of the China incident, and had become so routine that they were completely discounted in Tokyo. The Americans had condemned the initial Japanese aggression against China, with no result. The sinking of the gunboat Panay in 1937 was explained away by Japan. In late 1938, Secretary of State Cordell Hull told Japan that the United States continued to regard the nine-power treaty of 1922, byproduct of the Washington Naval Conference, as the basis for all action with regard to China. The Japanese politely pigeonholed the American note.

Early in 1940, the 1911 trade treaty between the United States and Japan ran out. The American government refused to renew it and said it would trade with Japan only on a day-to-day basis; that bothered the Japanese; they were heavily dependent on American industrial imports. But the collapse of western Europe encouraged them to press on; the opportunities were too good to miss, and the Americans seemed disposed only to talk.

The American attitude was indeed equivocal; the man in an argument who wants to talk but not fight is at a disadvantage against the man who is willing to talk, but even more willing to fight. The Americans favored China, rightly but usually for the wrong reasons; because of missionary involvement of long standing, and because Madame Chiang Kai-shek was American-educated. The Americans saw Chiang as the defender of democracy in China, which he may have been, but not as the most successful of the warlords, which he also may have been. The American public, correctly if a bit simplistically, saw China as the good guys and Japan as the bad guys. The Japanese understood neither that nor why American politicians had to take any account of it anyway. They met American moral protestations with suggestions that the two powers cut up the east Asian pie between them. Figuratively as well as literally, the two sides spoke different languages.

In February of 1941, the Japanese sent Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura to the United States to negotiate on existing disagreements, but Nomura made little progress. Every time he and the American State Department seemed about to reach a meeting of minds, the Japanese forces in Asia took another leap forward, and the negotiations had to start all over again.

They began to near the flash point in July. When the Japanese completed the occupation of French Indochina, the British and American governments responded by freezing Japanese assets; Roosevelt had to do it by presidential decree, but it was done nevertheless. The Americans also began to look seriously to their Far Eastern defenses, such as they were. General Douglas MacArthur, at the time head of the United States military mission to the Philippines, which were being groomed for independence, was named Commander-in-Chief Far East, and assumed command of both the Philippine armed forces and the weak American garrisons there. In August, President Roosevelt warned Nomura that Japanese aggression must cease. Japan was still sufficiently dependent upon imports that this was in effect presenting her with an either-or proposition. Either she could give up her ambitions completely, including getting out of China, or she could go to war with the United States in order to obtain the materials that would enable her to fulfill those ambitions. The Americans somewhat naively hoped the Japanese would choose the former; instead they chose the latter.

In October, General Tojo replaced Prince Konoye as premier; this was an indication that Japan was firmly committed to her forward policy. The next month both sides took what were effectively final positions, with little common ground between them. The Japanese proposed that the United States unfreeze their assets, reopen trade, and that the two countries cooperate in the East Indies, i.e., divide them. The United States countered with the suggestion that Japan get out of China and Indochina, and recognize the Nationalist Chinese government, after which the United States and Japan would sign a trade agreement. For practical purposes, negotiations had collapsed by late November.

The Japanese had of course recognized that even before it happened, and they had been planning war since at least mid-summer. Once the Americans had frozen Japanese assets, the military planners had gone to work. Army and navy leaders sat down together and worked out their war plans. The most noted of their military men was an admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, internationally known and widely respected in naval circles. Yamamoto spoke fluent English, having spent several tours of duty in the United States. He was an expert on oil and on naval aviation. He was also remarkably ambivalent in his attitudes toward the Americans, swinging between contempt for their casual approach to affairs—their navy was “a social organization of golfers and bridge players”—to undisguised admiration for their industrial power and their organizing ability. He was practically the only high-ranking Japanese officer to say that for Japan to fight the United States was folly. Having said that, he then went ahead and planned the war.

In 1894, an ostensibly weak Japan had gone to war with China. Launching a preemptive strike, she had seized what she wanted, and then negotiated peace. In 1904, she had done the same with Russia. Now she was going to do it with the United States. Yamamoto guaranteed his government six months of victory; after that it would be an open ball game. But the Japanese military planners said they had all the oil they needed to start their war. Six months would enable them to overrun the Southern Resources Area and the islands of the western Pacific. They could establish a defensive perimeter based on the East Indies and the mandated islands of the mid-Pacific. After that the Americans could do as they pleased. Let them bang their heads against the perimeter until they learned to accept the situation. Americans were not fighters, and eventually they would make a negotiated peace; Japan would have what she wanted. In all of the western Pacific, indeed from Panama all the way to Suez, there was really only one obstacle to Japanese aggrandizement: the United States Pacific Fleet.

Just how strong that was, or how strong the Allies were, was a matter of conjecture. On both the Japanese and the Allied side, force levels were fluctuating rapidly, and both sides had extensive commitments already.

The armed forces of the United States consisted of about a million and a half men, over a million of whom were but partially trained and poorly armed. The United States Army Air Force had 1,200 combat aircraft, including 150 four-engined bombers. The United States Navy possessed 347 warships, including seventeen battleships and seven aircraft carriers. A substantial amount of this American strength was committed to the Atlantic or to the defense of continental United States, however. It was more realistic to count what the Allies, the United States, Britain, Australia, the Netherlands East Indies government, had in the Pacific. There were about 350,000 troops, all of them poorly equipped and scattered here and there in penny-packet garrisons. There were about ninety warships, and less than a thousand aircraft, many of them obsolete. These forces were spread from the Indian frontier all the way to the American West Coast. The only major homogeneous unit was the Pacific Fleet. After the spring maneuvers of 1940, the fleet was based out of Pearl Harbor rather than its usual West Coast ports, as a means of putting pressure on Japan to behave. Late in 1941, the British too agreed to increase the pressure, and sent the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulseout to Singapore. They wanted to send an aircraft carrier as well but could not spare one.

The Japanese had about 2,400,000 trained troops and a partly trained reserve of nearly three million more. They possessed 7,500 aircraft, including 2,675 first-line planes, most of them much better than the Allies’. They were producing another 425 each month and were training nearly 3,000 pilots a year. Their navy was first-class, and unlike the army, was not deeply involved in China. It had about 230 combat vessels. They had a relatively weak merchant marine of about six million tons. But above all, they enjoyed the inestimable advantages of interior strategic position, homogeneity of units, unity of command, and singlemindedness of war aims. They knew what they wanted and they knew what they had to do to get it. They began planning the destruction of the U. S. Pacific Fleet.

Phase one of the Japanese war plan called for them to operate in two areas simultaneously. What they wanted to obtain was control of the Southern Resources Area. They proposed therefore to move south from the home islands and Formosa, and attack the Philippines and Hong Kong; moving from China and Indochina they would hit British Malaya at the same time, and advance on Singapore. So far they were in line with American strategic thinking. Through the prewar years the U. S. Navy, sure that someday it would have to fight Japan, had produced a series of war plans. All of these were seriously compromised by the war in Europe and the high-level decision that Germany was the enemy with first priority. Faced with that, United States planners were forced to adopt a defensive stance in the western Pacific. When war began, the Americans, British, and to a lesser extent the Dutch, would hold on as long as they could against the southern Japanese advance. If necessary they would fall back on the so-called Malay Barrier—Malaya and the East Indies—which they would hold. While this operation was in effect, the Pacific Fleet would come to the rescue, the Japanese would be defeated, and the Allies would move north again, quite possibly relieving the Philippines before they even fell. It all depended upon how fast the Pacific Fleet mobilized and got out to the islands, and how soon they would be able to beat the Japanese in an open fight.

The Japanese first phase offensive contained another area of operations, however. As early as January of 1941, Admiral Yamamoto had suggested that if Japan were to go to war with the United States, she might as well do it in a big way, and he therefore proposed that she launch her war by a strike at the Pacific Fleet in its home base at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese military leaders were thoroughly scared by this and regarded it as far too risky even to contemplate. Yamamoto contemplated it anyway and began training his aircrews and his officers for the attack. Not until October did he get the green light, and by then his forces were fully ready.

In November, the heart of the striking force, six aircraft carriers under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, gathered in the fog-bound Kuriles Islands north of Japan. Choosing a northern approach route that would keep them clear of foreign ships and American patrol planes, they sailed late in November. The Japanese government took its final decision on December 2, and that evening sent out its message: “Climb Mount Niitaka.” By then the carrier striking force was well on the way to Pearl Harbor.

All went well. They crossed the International Date Line about halfway between Midway, the farthest outpost of the Hawaiian chain, and the Aleutians, and turned southeast on the 5th. At dark on the 6th, course was changed again, due south. Dawn on the 7th put them some two hundred miles north of the island of Oahu; as far as they could tell, they were completely undetected. A radio station in Honolulu promised a clear and warm day, perfect island weather.

The Americans knew something was going to happen. They had broken several of the Japanese codes; they knew that Admiral Nomura in Washington had been instructed to burn his code books and present a note to the United States government precisely at 1:00 P.M. on the 7th. They even knew what the message said, but its significance, as well as that of the time—it would be 0730 in Hawaii—was not especially noted. The British had spotted troop transports and fleet units in the Gulf of Siam, and all signs pointed to an attack on Malaya.

The American armed forces had indeed sent out an alert which was billed as a “war warning,” but they thought again that it applied more to the Far East than anywhere else. There was some consideration of a possible attack on the Panama Canal. Hawaii, however, was well prepared, and the chief danger anticipated there was sabotage. The military and air force garrisons responded to this threat by lining up all their planes and equipment in neat rows so they could be more easily guarded.

Most of the fleet was in port for the weekend. The navy was involved in a heavy training schedule, and Saturday night was time for some relaxation. The three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet were at sea, one on the West Coast, two delivering aircraft to mid-Pacific garrisons. One battleship, Colorado, was in the States having an overhaul. The remaining eight were at Pearl, seven lined up along Battleship Row, just off the naval airfield on Ford Island.

The fates conspired against the United States that morning. The Japanese first attack wave was picked up on a vintage radar set, but there was a flight of new bombers due in from the West Coast. Even though these planes were coming from the wrong direction, no one reacted.

Not until the first wave struck, and the first bomb dropped, at 0755, did the Americans realize they were in a war. There were about 190 planes: fighters, dive-bombers, high-level bombers, and torpedo planes. The pilots of the latter had been especially trained and equipped to make their attacks in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. While the fighters attacked the air stations around the island, the rest went for the fleet. Within minutes, Battleship Row was a shambles: Oklahoma capsized, West Virginia was hit by torpedoes; counterflooding allowed her to settle on the bottom, her guns still firing. California too lodged on the mud. Nevada alone, at the inboard end of the row, got underway, but was badly hit and beached before she could clear the harbor. Arizona took several torpedo and bomb hits, including one in her forward magazine; surrounded by burning oil she sank with more than a thousand of her crew trapped inside.

The first Japanese attack cost them only nine planes. The second wave came in after a lapse of about twenty minutes, and was hit by everything the Americans could throw at them; it was not much, but it brought down another twenty planes, and several more had to be written off after they got back to their carriers.

In an hour the United States forces lost about 150 planes, and another hundred damaged. Every battleship at Pearl was damaged, though only two, Oklahoma and Arizona, were total losses. Several smaller vessels were sunk or damaged. There were 4,575 casualties. Perhaps more important than what the Japanese hit was what they missed. The carriers were at sea, and they would prove the queen of naval warfare. The repair facilities were not seriously damaged, and Pearl remained a usable base; most of the fuel storage was intact.

Still, Yamamoto’s six months of victory had gotten off to a tremendous start. Pearl Harbor was one of the greatest surprise attacks of all time, a fair rival to Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The Japanese could unroll the map of conquest, with very little to challenge them from San Francisco all the way to Suez. In the first two hours of hostilities they had swept the board almost clean. But in London, Winston Churchill’s first thought was “We have won the war!” and he later wrote that that night he went to bed and slept “the sleep of the saved and the thankful.” All reservations cast aside by the galvanic shock of Pearl Harbor, the United States was in at last.

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