As the years pass, and 1941 falls into that black hole called “American History,” I fear that fewer Americans remember and understand why December 7 is a “date which will live in infamy.” For a generation that grew up since September 11, 2001, it is important to know why his date is special in our past.
Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
. . . The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.
. . . No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.
–Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Messsage to Congress (December 8, 1941)
At 7 A.M., Hawaiian time, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, two U.S. Army privates saw something unusual on their radar screens. More than 50 planes seemed to be appearing out of the northeast. When they called in the information, they were told it was probably just part of an expected delivery of new B-17s coming from the mainland United States. They were Japanese warplanes.
At 0758 the Pearl Harbor command radioed its first message to the world. AIR RAID PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. An hour later, a second wave of 167 more Japanese aircraft arrived. The two raids, which had lasted only minutes, destroyed or damaged nineteen ships, eight of them eight battleships, and 292 aircraft, including 117 bombers. And 2,403 Americans, military and civilian, had been killed, with another 1,178 wounded.
Few questions have tantalized historians and students of the period more than this: Did FDR or members of his administration and military command know the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and did they deliberately allow the attack that took more than 2,000 American lives in order to draw America into the most deadly, destructive war in history?
Some say FDR was preoccupied with the war in Europe and didn’t want war with Japan. Others hold that FDR viewed Japan—allied to the German-Italian Axis—as his ticket into the European war. The ultimate conclusion to this view is that FDR knew of the imminent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and not only failed to prevent it, but welcomed it as the turning point that would end obstruction of his war plans.
There is no longer any doubt that some Americans knew that “zero hour,” as the Japanese ambassador to Washington called the planned attack, was scheduled for December 7. According to John Toland’s account of Pearl Harbor, Infamy, Americans had not only broken the Japanese code, but the Dutch had done so as well, and their warnings had been passed on to Washington.
Here is where human frailty and overconfidence, and even American racism, take over. Most American military planners expected a Japanese attack to come in the Philippines, America’s major base in the Pacific; the American naval fortifications at Pearl Harbor were believed to be invulnerable to attack, as well as too far away for the Japanese.
While the conspiracy theorists persist, a convincing case for Roosevelt trying to avoid war with Japan has been made by many prominent historians. Among them, eminent British military historian John Keegan dismisses the conspiracy notion.
“These charges defy logic,” Keegan wrote in The Second World War. “Churchill certainly did not want war against Japan, which Britain was pitifully equipped to fight, but only American assistance in the fight against Hitler. . . .”
The U.S. Navy’s History and Heritage Command has an extensive collection of online documents and resources related to the Pearl Harbor attack:
This is the National Park Service link to World War II Pacific sites;
Find more on Pearl Harbor and World War II in Don’t Know Much About History