Marking the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we cannot fail to remember another day of treacherous attack.
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“Uh-uh. We ought to review. What if there’s an air attack?”
“Air attack? You gotta be kidding.”
WHY WEREN’T WE PREPARED?
There are answers to the question that every American male has asked at least once, why were we taken by surprise on that morning 70 years ago at Pearl Harbor. And one of the simplest and most vexing is that our radio intercept capabilities were functioning better in Washington, D.C., than at the Hawaii military bases while, ironically, communications between Washington and Admiral Kimmel’s H.Q. were technologically primitive.
Washington knew more about Japanese intentions than did Admiral Kimmel, indeed thanks to advances in code breaking the State and War Departments often read the communications of the Imperial war staff ahead of the Japanese ambassador. Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura, himself a full admiral, was due to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull at 1 p.m., and did not know that he was supposed to deliver an ultimatum regarding grievous and, in the argument he was ordered to make, war-justifying differences between the two Pacific powers. In Tokyo, the reasoning was that with the ultimatum delivered, the nearly simultaneous launching of imperial naval air power on Pearl Harbor was legal.
But Hull and Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, reasoned that after the delivery of the ultimatum, which their specialists had intercepted, they should assume some sort of countdown would begin. Of Plan Z, no one in Washington knew the details, even the name.
As he made his way to Foggy Bottom, Nomura thought he was going for another tense but, still, routine game of diplomatic penny ante with Hull. The latter, who was aware of the ultimatum, was preparing to reject it forcefully and gain a little more time — for he and the president no longer believed America could stay out of the war.
In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the Pacific fleet moved to Pearl Harbor naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu from San Diego, California, because of rising tensions in the eastern Pacific. Forward defense, you may think with some bitterness considering the result — though think too for a moment of the effect of an attack on San Diego. The Japanese plan, after all, was an early version of Rumsfeldian shock-and-awe. Yamamoto, who knew the U.S. well, did not believe Japan could win a long war. He had opposed a land war in China, the pact with Germany and Italy, and war with the U.S. But my country right or wrong and duty is duty, so he designed the best plan he could. The idea was to hit hard and demoralize the Americans and immediately offer them terms: they would think they were getting a good enough bargain, retain their non-belligerency. More likely, the admiral thought, the destruction of U.S. naval power would give the Empire time to conquer southeast Asia, pushing the Americans out of the Philippines, over-running the British at Singapore and the Dutch in Indonesia, threatening Australia; maybe terms could be offered then. The Japanese militarists, whose leader General Tojo had wrested the premiership in October, like their Nazi counterparts had a low opinion of the fighting spirit in free societies; Yamamoto was not so sure.
Reinforcements were on the way to the Philippines, some 40,000 troops, far fewer than the half-million General Douglas MacArthur said he needed to defend the islands. War news on a daily basis (including rather fanciful news put out by MacArthur) reminded Americans that trouble was coming. Yet as late as September, the year-old America First Committee claimed a million members across a broad range of political opinion that was agreed on the theme of staying out of the war.
Sending the fleet to Pearl could also be seen, let us be fair — Americans are fair — as forward offense, from the Japanese point of view, a signal that we really were intent, as their war party had been insisting, on interfering with the necessary, vital, and legitimate pursuit of their national interests in such places as China, Korea, French Indochina. We, by contrast — in their view — had through our sanctions blocked the normal management of their brutally conquered and administered possessions — scarcely better than slave camps — in Korea beyond, including the renamed Manchukuo where they had installed a puppet ruler who was not the last of the Manchus. We had dared raise our voices in protest at the rape of Nanking, 200,000 massacred, and at their savage behavior generally. The Japs — this was the universal English language term, used in newspaper headlines, and it was not in itself racist — despised all non-Japanese, Asian and Western both.
However, it was also more complicated, as politics and war and greed usually are. The Japanese might be a superior race of destiny, but they had concluded an alliance with the Teutons and the Latins. In all the sheer madness of the totalitarian early decades of the 20th century, none perhaps is more outrageous than the racial claims of Italians and Germans, nations in the middle of other nations, formed by successive invasions and migrations over centuries. But in Japan the fascists — using the term in its popular denotation — did at least have an ally that due to geography had a history of isolation and, in the hateful fantasies that replace political ideology, a claim to ethnic or racial purity, one that surely caused Hitler and Mussolini horrible carpet-chewing, mouth-foaming outbursts of envy. And this meant that any war involving Japan would also involve Germany and Italy. In fact, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill made plans to visit Roosevelt over Christmas to plan the American rescue of Europe.
The war in Europe, two years on, had expanded eastward into Russia and southward into the Middle East and North Africa. Like the Japanese in the Far East, the Germans and Italians coveted territories rich in the raw materials, notably oil, that they needed to sustain their empire-building militarized states. Not insignificantly, in doing this they encountered empires — Dutch, French, British — that employed military power too but whose purposes were primarily commercial not tyrannical and ideological.
This European war, recognized and named global by Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle from the start, was, as a practical matter, linked to the rising tensions between the U.S. and Japan. The Nazis despised the mongrel, as they called it, American nation, “half Jewish and half Negro” in their leaders’ words, and they believed in a coming showdown. In any case, they were well aware that American supplies to Britain and, since the summer, Russia through the Lend-Lease program meant the U.S. was not neutral.
In keeping with the U.S. position of opposing aggressive tyrannical states, there was an embargo on critical materials for Japan, a matter that the latter protested bitterly. It was, in fact, a principal concern of the diplomatic negotiations that had been taking place on and off for years and that now, in the last weeks of 1941, were at a critical pass.
The first sanctions had been imposed following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and they had been tightened over the years to include aviation fuel (though not oil) and iron. On the political side, the U.S. demanded Japan withdraw from China and cease its military build-up.
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