On this day in 1941, a surprise military strike by Japan led to the United States’ entry into World War II. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was meant as a preventative action — most historians accept that Japan’s intention on that fateful 1941 day was to discourage a U.S. fleet from interfering with Japan’s plans in Southeast Asia.
It was on December 8 — the day after the Pearl Harbor attack — that Roosevelt formally took America to war.
On This Day: 1941
Mainline Media News reports that the significance of Pearl Harbor is not fully appreciated by U.S. children, and perhaps adults.
“We became a world leader that day, and have remained one ever since,”
The unprovoked attack was important because it was a catalyst for enormous change. This is because of the complex series of events that preceded and followed the extraordinary incident.
“We need to help children see [Pearl Harbor] in proper context – the events and decisions that preceded the attack. Once they understand the cause and effect of Pearl Harbor, they grasp it much better.”
December 7, 1941 was described as a “date which will live in infamy.” The Sacramento Bee encourages readers to remember the “dark moment, even as we confront fearful times of our own.”
Three hundred and fifty Japanese warplanes swarmed over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs, launching torpedos, and firing machine guns. Six warships were destroyed in the surprise attack. The death toll was significant, with 2,400 military personnel and 70 civilians killed. A further 1,175 people were wounded.
This was only the direct death toll from the Pearl Harbor attack. The U.S. entry into World War II ended up costing more than 400,000 American lives. The U.S. involvement in the war lasted four years.
“As Californians were sitting down to a late breakfast or arriving for church services, the news was just reaching the mainland. And the news grew worse with every passing hour.”
Historians note that World War I also began with a solitary act of violence that exacerbated and inflamed existing tensions around the world. The first world war began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was visiting Sarajevo.
The significance of that act was also not immediately recognized.
“The reaction among the people in Austria was mild, almost indifferent. As historian Zbyněk Zeman later wrote, ‘the event almost failed to make any impression whatsoever. On Sunday and Monday (28 and 29 June), the crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine, as if nothing had happened.'”
Why did the U.S. declare war?
The Pearl Harbor attack was the final straw for U.S. policy-makers, convincing them they should declare war on Japan, thus entering World War II.
The attack on Pearl Harbor effectively killed domestic support for non-interventionism, which had until then discouraged U.S. policymakers from committing troops to the conflict in Europe and the Pacific.
In short, Pearl Harbor came as such a profound shock to the American people that it led directly to the American entry into World War II. Both Pacific and European conflicts were entered.
Historians note that domestic support for non-interventionism had been fading since the fall of France to Germany in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, the non-interventionists were silenced.
It is alleged that the military attack was totally unannounced — there was no formal warning of an escalation, even while negotiations were ongoing. This led American President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make his famous proclamation that the date December 7, 1941, “will live in infamy”.
The attack broke the accepted rules of military engagement. It happened without a declaration of war and without explicit warning. Pearl Harbor was ultimately judged to be a war crime at the Tokyo Trials.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later recollected,
“In all the war I never received a more direct shock. As I turned and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor who were hastening back to California. Over this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked”.
Because of the anger that it fanned among American voters, Pearl Harbor was frequently used in American propaganda as World War II wore on.
On this day: 1941
A New Pearl Harbor in 2015?
Pearl Harbor looms so large in the imagination that there are fears such an escalation could be repeated in 2015. When Turkey shot down a Russian jet recently, “World War 3” started trending on Twitter as Putin-watchers speculated gravely about how the Russian leader may respond.
World War 3 alarmists are understandably eager to invoke Poland — much has been made of Warsaw’s desire for nuclear missiles that it may point at Russia, as reported by the Guardian.
“Poland is considering asking for access to nuclear weapons through a NATO program in which non-nuclear states can borrow arms from the US.”
Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Szatkowski told Polish broadcaster Polsat that Poland intends to strengthen its defenses.
Such a move could potentially escalate tensions between NATO and Russia, who are already in a scuffle over Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet. Tensions also arose over NATO’s welcoming of Montenegro.
[Image by AP Photo]