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On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of United States declared war on Japan. The president described the Japanese attack the day before as “a date which will live in infamy” during his speech in congress.
United States enmity with Japan was caused by the latter’s expansionist and militaristic policies in China and Indochina. To sanction Japan, the United States, Netherlands and Great Britain froze Japanese assets in their countries. On top of it, the United States imposed a petroleum embargo on Japan to deny her military the sources of vital raw materials from Southeast Asia.
Japan had two courses to deal with the tense situation involving her and those hostile western countries. One was to have the petroleum embargo lifted by making a semblance of withdrawal from some conflict areas but all the while maintaining control over other areas that she already occupied. And the extreme measure was to prepare for war.
The United States thought that Japan would not launch an attack against her because Japan was too weak to initiate an attack considering that it had committed a large part of her forces in the occupation of China and Indochina. Because of it, Japan’s forces were so overstretched that it would be unlikely that it could mount a large scale attack against the United States.
The rise of General Hideki Tojo as premier pushed Japan further to militaristic tendencies. He set November 29, 1941, as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without a war. Tojo’s deadline which was kept secret meant that war was inevitable.
Japan thought that the US presented a clear threat to its plan to seize petroleum and other resources from her neighboring Asian countries. In that connection, she had to neutralize the US Pacific Fleet which was based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. If it would attack the naval base at all, Japan expected the United States to declare war, but would not be willing to fight long and hard enough to win.
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On December 7, 1941, the first wave of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came at about 7:53 a.m. Carrier-based Japanese torpedo planes attacked the American airfields in the Hawaiian island. Shortly thereafter the ships at the “Battleship Row” were also struck by the torpedo planes.
The second wave of attack by the Japanese torpedo planes was launched at about 8:55 a.m. It hit ships that were already damaged by the first wave of attack and also attacked other targets. The raid was all over by 9:55 a.m. or just in about two hours. As a result, 18 US battleships were sunk or badly damaged, 188 US aircrafts were destroyed and about 3,000 American naval and army personnel were killed or wounded. The Japanese on the other hand had only negligible casualties.
The Japanese forces however were not able to destroy any US aircraft carrier because during the attack all were out at sea. Neither did they destroy submarines, maintenance areas and oil storage facilities. Had the Japanese hit those targets, the damage sustained by the US could have been very substantial.
Lapse in intelligence on the part of the United States contributed to the Japanese military success in Pearl Harbor. In October 1941, US naval authorities disseminated intelligence information to its fleet commanders of an imminent Japanese attack. However, Washington disagreed with the warnings.
US authorities were able to break the diplomatic code and knew that an attack was imminent just several hours before it happened. But because of problems in communication, the information was only relayed to Major General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the military commanders of Pearl Harbor, one hour after the incident happened.
There were also other signs of an impending attack. One was the sinking of a Japanese midget submarine which was spotted at the entrance of Pearl Harbor at 6:30 a.m. However, the naval authorities failed to appreciate the significance of that sunken submarine. The Army Radar Station in Hawaii also reported sightings of planes that were 50 miles from it. But the lieutenant who was told of that information believed that they were US planes returning from reconnaissance flight or they were B17s scheduled to arrive from California.
The attack on Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii forced the United States to join the war on the side of the allied forces. Germany and Italy declared war on the US on December 11, 1941, which escalated the worst global armed conflict the world has ever known.