Setting the Stage



The Beginning of World War II

As important as the attack on Pearl Harbor was and is to the people of the United States of America it did not just happen there were events that preceded, and precipitated the attack. From 1931 onward the Japanese were aggressively expanding their footholds on the continent of Asia. At the expense, chiefly, of the Chinese, who were weakened by the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists much to the dismay of American and British interests in that part of the world.1

Many people when asked when did World War II begin? Answer September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. In fact, the war broke out eight years before with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Then, in 1940, after Hitler had conquered France and the Low Countries the Japanese took advantage of France in her weakened condition by getting her to agree to their ‘protective’ occupation of French Indo-China-now Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The United States would not stand for such aggression from a country they relegated to an inferior role in the Pacific, thus President Roosevelt (armed with the ability to read Japanese diplomatic ciphers since early 1941) demanded, on July 24, 1941, that all Japanese troops be withdrawn from Indo-China. To give the demand teeth, on July 26, 1941 , he issued orders to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States , and placing an embargo on oil supply. Prime Minister Churchill took simultaneous action.


United States

Looking back, the above action could be seen as President Roosevelt's attempt to bring the United States of America into World War II. However, Roosevelt , if nothing else, was the consummate politician, and there was and is one very important political rule that all presidents try to follow: Never be the first President of the United States to start a war. With this rule in mind, the above action takes on a new appearance. The United States viewed Japan in a very paternalistic manner, in much the same way they viewed the Native Americans in the mid to late 1800s whom they also saw as inferior. Paternalism, in this case, can be defined by the following statement: the Japanese are under developed, but could and should be given the values and belief system of Western Culture, and thus live in the most technologically advanced and civilized society possible. President Roosevelt also knew, as a result of the remarkable code-breaking operation known as Magic, the Japanese had made a decision at the Imperial conference on July 24, 1941 to combine diplomacy with a covert military offensive.2 Armed with this new information and its paternalistic view of the Japanese the United States prepared itself for a possible offensive.



The Japanese had feared, since their contact with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British in the Sixteenth Century, a disruption of the carefully ordered social structure on which centuries of internal order had rested. At the Beginning of the Seventeenth Century the Japanese closed their borders to the West. They remain closed for 200 years, until the West armed with new technology forced them open. It was at that point that the Japanese, as John Keegan states in his book The Second World War:

...Accepted that, if Japan were to remain Japanese, it must join the modern world, but on terms which guaranteed that the processes of modernization were retained in Japanese hands. The technology of the Western world would be bought; but the Japanese would not sell themselves or their society to the West in the course of acquiring it.3

So Japan , from the middle of the Nineteenth Century to 1918 made major progress toward their goal. But, this emulation of the West, and their assistance against Germany in the Great War did not win Japan a place among the great military powers of the world. In addition, the Washington naval treaty of 1922 again put Japan in an inferior position in relation to the United States and Royal Navies in the Pacific Ocean . The treaty set a limit on Japanese capital ships to 3/5 of the United States and Royal Navies. In the years between the wars, this nation of 60 million people could not produce enough food to feed itself.4

Given the paternalistic view of the West over all, and the United States specifically, and the Japanese fear of the loss of their culture to the Western way of life, and the need for Japan to feed its people, aggressive expansion from the Japanese point of view seemed to be the only option. Asking for help would have reinforced the inferior view of Japan held by the West.


Why did the Japanese attack?

Did the Japanese believe that they could strike a blow so devastating to the United States of America that the American people would remain in their self-imposed isolation? Whatever the Japanese people may have thought of their chances in a war against the United States, it is clear that the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, did not hold much hope for a Japanese victory over the United States in a protracted war as he told Prime Minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoye: If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year….5 Japan had the time and opportunity for one, possibly two, major quick strikes that would cripple or destroy America's Pacific Fleet. Then, while the US Fleet was rebuilding, Japan could consolidate its holdings, and prepare for a US response. According to Edwin Dorn former Under Secretary Of Defense, both:

The United States and Japan were pursuing policies that were leading inexorably to war. Japan had occupied Manchuria , was threatening much of Asia and had joined in a tripartite alliance with Italy and Germany …. By late November 1941, civilian and military leaders in the US had concluded that conflict was imminent; the only questions were when and where it would occur.6

The Japanese had three reasons for attacking the United States of American. First, the United States cut off Japan's oil supply, and other strategically important materials. Second, the United States froze all Japanese assets in the country. This meant the Japanese could not use them for anything. Lastly, Japanese nationalism would not allow them to be dictated to by anyone


The Plan

Before Yamamoto was given the responsibility for planning a strike against the United States , the Japanese plan in case of war with America was to use their main fleet in the south Pacific, and at the same time attack the Philippine Islands. This would cut off a United States advance to relieve their troops in the Philippines. That is the move the Americans expected, and it was reinforced by Japan's occupation of Indo-China. Using the time-honored strategy hit'em where they ain't looking; Yamamoto devised a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto first experienced combat on a cruiser at the battle of Tsushima against the Russians in 1905. As time passed, he came to the conclusion that future naval wars would be fought from the decks of aircraft carriers. Thus, he learned to fly, but by early 1941 Yamamoto was unsure of his grasp of essential air-sea operations. So, like the good naval officer he was, Yamamoto sought the assistance of the best aviator in the Japanese Navy, Minoru Genda, to help him plan the attack.

The overall plan, of which the attack on Pearl Harbor was the centerpiece, took final form in September 1941. In essence, it called for five separate simultaneous operations. On Z-Day… two small amphibious forces would move against the American outposts of Wake and Guam islands….7 Those two islands were inside the perimeter surrounding what Japan called the ‘Southern’ later referred to as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In truth, only the Japanese saw prosperity within that defensive perimeter. Another amphibious force would begin landings on the islands of Mindanao and Luzon in the Philippines. That move was based on the old Japanese plan. Those forces were based on Formosa , Okinawa , and the Palau Islands . At the same time, land, sea, and air forces from Indo-China and south China were to strike the islands of Malaya and Molucca part of the Dutch East Indies . The hook on which those four simultaneous operations hung was, of course, Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor strike force, called the Combined Fleet by the Japanese, consisted of six aircraft carriers, four large and two small, and other assorted vessels. Its goal was to come within 200 miles of Pearl Harbor without being detected, launch and recover its air groups, and leave behind a twisted mass of metal that was the United States Pacific Fleet. To achieve it the Combined Fleet had to overcome two problems. First, Japanese torpedoes were unable to run in Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row, for the water was too shallow. They would have to be modified. Second, but equally important, was the possibility the Combined Fleet could be spotted underway which would bring the success of all the operations into question. To deal with that possibility, Yamamoto and Genda plotted a course that would take the Combined Fleet from the rough waters of the Kurile Islands between Japan and Siberia south-east to a point 200 miles north of Pearl Harbor. That route was far from the commercial shipping lanes. Such a route would lower the odds of the Combined Fleet being detected, for the United States would not be looking for an attack on Pearl Harbor, from its point of view, the Philippines were the most likely target. On November 26, 1941 the Japanese Carrier Strike Force set sail for Pearl Harbor the remaining ships of the Combined Fleet followed a few day later.




1 B. H. Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971), 109.

2 John Keegan, The Second World War. (New York: Penguin, 1989), 248.

3 Keegan, 241.

4 Keegan, 242.

5 Keegan, 241.

6 Edwin Dorn, Advancement of Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short on the Retirement List. (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1995), Memo: 1-2. (Hereinafter Dorn Report)

7 Keegan, 253. Z-Day—Japanese term for the beginning of military operations.