80 Years of Pearl Harbor Infamy

In the wee hours of December 7, 1941, the United States was, technically, a country at peace. There’s no doubt that the USA was actively helping Great Britain and the other Allied forces in their fight against Hitler, Mussolini, and the other fascist Axis powers, but technically America was not a party to the war. In fact, in December 1941 the United States and Japan were actually in peaceful negotiations to restore what had once been a mutually beneficial relationship. But that all changed when Japanese Navy Air Service planes and midget submarines attached the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Of course, the attack had swift and harsh consequences for people all over the world. Japan declared war on the United States, then Germany and Italy followed suit even though they were not required to under any treaties with Japan. The United States, in turn, declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy, and Great Britain declared war on Japan. By December 11, 1941, the United States was fully involved in World War II and history was bound to be written by the leaders of the Allied forces.


The United States had gradually been expanding its territories towards Asia. First Hawaii was annexed, followed by the the Philippines and a few smaller islands in the South Pacific. Japan believed that the United States was encroaching on Japan’s rightful sphere of influence and relations between the two nations gradually soured. The US also brokered an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 which left both countries dissatisfied and the resulting peace was uneasy at best and nonexistent at worst.

Over the 35 years following the end of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan became more expansionist and more hostile to those who were on lands that the Japanese believe rightfully belonged to them. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. In 1937, Japan invaded China for the second time in 40 years, withdrew from many diplomatic organizations including the League of Nations, and became generally more violent in its relations with just about every country on earth.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito

On December 12 and 13, 1937, Japan took two actions that really put it and the United States on a collision course. On December 12, the Imperial Japanese Navy sunk the USS Panay and three Standard Oil tankers on the Yangtze River near Nanking, China. Three Americans were killed and 43 more were injured. Japan would later say it did not see the American flags on the boats. An official apology and a cash settlement was offered and while many Americans remained suspicious, no further military escalation occurred.

On December 13, 1937, Japan commenced a six week campaign of mass murder and mass rape of Chinese citizens. The Nanking Massacre, as the event has become known, remains a point of contention between Japan and China to this day. Secrecy from both the Japanese and Chinese governments have kept historians from knowing the exact death toll, but most modern historians believe that between 50,000 and 200,000 Chinese citizens were murdered by Imperial Japanese troops. Citizens were buried alive, burned to death, shot, stabbed, beheaded, beaten, and killed in just about any way possible. Chinese prisoners of war were summarily beheaded without any judicial process. Additionally, historians believe that at least 20,000 women, including some minors and some elderly, were raped by the Japanese troops. It was a systematic rape of the sort associated with wartime as far back as the Punic Wars, and many women were mutilated and/or sodomized with weaponry as part of the rape. It was truly horrifying.

In response to these actions the United States began placing more and more trade restrictions on Japan and Japanese goods. The US even closed the Panama Canal to Japanese ships and embargoed many metal exports to Japan, which heavily relied on the United States for its iron and copper, of which 74% and 93%, respectively, came from the United States.

Despite all of this, the two countries were in negotiations all through 1941, even after the United States cut off all oil and gas exports to Japan in July 1941. In late November 1941 Japan offered to vacate Indochina (modern day Vietnam) and promised not to attack any Western territories in the South Pacific if those same Western powers would lift the trade embargoes, especially those of oil and gas. The US countered with a proposal that included all of the Japanese terms with the addition of requiring Japan to withdraw from China permanently.

Despite the stalemate, the countries continued to meet and negotiate until Japan suddenly cut off communications at about 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time (7:15 a.m. in Hawaii) on December 7, 1941.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday and by all accounts was a beautiful Sunday morning in Hawaii. The sky was clear and the temperature was in the low-70s, slightly above average for that time of year. American radar picked up a large group of aircraft about 150 miles off the coast of Hawaii, but the men monitoring the radar assumed it was a group of American bombers coming to Pearl Harbor from the mainland. In fact, this was the first wave of the assault on Pearl Harbor, and at 7:48 a.m. 183 Japanese airplanes began shooting and bombing American assets and people.

The USS Arizona burning after its forward magazine exploded from a Japanese bomb

Many American sailors were sleeping when the attack began, and alarms all across the naval base and within each of the ships jarred those slumbering into combat. A second wave of Japanese aircraft began shortly after the first, and only 90 minutes after the first bombs were dropped at 7:48 a.m., 2,335 American soldiers were killed and another 1,143 were wounded. Additionally, the US lost 188 aircraft and 4 battleships in the attacks, including the USS Arizona, which by itself accounted for 1,177 of the Americans killed. An additional 68 civilians were killed in the attacks.

The Japanese lost 29 aircraft and only 64 men in the attack. They did, however, lose all five of their midget submarines (four sunk and one grounded), and the only surviving one can be seen at the National Museum of the Pacific War (also known as the Chester Nimitz Museum) in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were confused and outraged, and the menagerie of war declarations made World War II more dangerous, more chaotic, and importantly, more evenly matched.

With support from the United States the Allies soon made headway into mainland Europe. US forces also launched an immense campaign in the Pacific with the intention of protecting its assets and foiling any Japanese efforts at further attack.

On December 8, President Franklin Roosevelt gave what is one of the more famous speeches ever given by a United States president, in which he declared December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” The entire speech (below) lasted less than ten minutes and served as fuel for increasing American patriotism. Men and women all over the country began volunteering for military service, and soon the Greatest Generation was fighting overseas to protect American safety and interests and to prevent the spread of fascism.

By the end of World War II, almost 73 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen would be killed between the Allied and Axis powers. Imperial ambitions were curbed and soon Africa was largely decolonized. A new wave of American patriotism spread throughout the United States just as waves of postwar inflation, shortages, and struggles ramped up in the United Kingdom. Germany was all but dismantled, Italy began to rebuild, and Japan gradually shifted governmental power from the emperor to elected officials.

Of course, the world also came to know several horrors. Details of the Nanking Massacre began to leak. Extermination and concentrations camps, where Jewish men, women, and children were held, maltreated, and killed by Nazis, were discovered in and around Germany. The Soviet Union lost about 11 million soldiers, crippling an entire generation. And nuclear weapons were used for the first, second, and, to date, last time.

A return to world peace was gradual. The Cold War began almost immediately, and for 45 years tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union simmered without ever fully boiling over. The idea that America should be the police of the world and stop the spread of communism resulted in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, whereas China and the Soviet Union slowly became world superpowers. A population increase due to the Baby Boomer generation continues to have an effect to this day, especially considering that the last five presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden) have all been Baby Boomers.

Pearl Harbor still functions as a naval base but now includes a memorial for the USS Arizona. Japan and the US are on the best terms they have ever been on. Germany is a legitimate democracy and likely the most influential and peace-minded power in continental Europe. The Soviet Union is gone, but Russia…well, Russia seems to be torn between an embrace of capitalism and a dedication to Cold War principals.

Despite all of that, we are still here, still talking about the attacks on Pearl Harbor, which happened eighty years ago today. It is important to remember that there are legitimate reasons for war. Being attacked like the United States was attacked on December 7, 1941 is certainly a good reason for going to war.

But then again, December 8, 1941 was also the last time the United States actually declared war on anyone. The ensuing conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Syria, and other parts of the world have all been the result of executive action without an official declaration of war. In this way it would seem that perhaps the United States has forgotten what it means to be prepared but reactive rather than somewhat unprepared and negatively proactive.

Even still, the loss of over 2,000 American soldiers and 68 civilians remains a key moment in global geopolitics of the twentieth century. Someday Pearl Harbor will be one paragraph in one history book. But today we remember and we mourn the loss of so many American lives.

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The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor

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