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Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor should not have been a surprise

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The morning of December 7th, 1941 at 7:48 PST in Hawaii has been touted as a surprise attack that caught United States forces off guard and “a day that will live in infamy” as President Franklin Roosevelt declared, however careful inspection of events reveal that the attack was a logical conclusion to a chain of events culminating in the attack on America’s Pacific Fleet.

Clearly hindsight is 20/20, however events leading up to that fateful morning on Oahu could easily have been predicted based on Japan’s expansionism that began years before, and America providing the incentive for Japan to ultimately go to war with the United States.

Trouble was brewing as early as the late 1920s between Japan and America. The invasion of Manchuria in 1931 demonstrated imperial Japan’s desire to expand her territory of influence. Japan’s desire to acquire raw materials became a central theme for its expansionism.

In 1937 Japan’s aggression into Nanking, China resulted in nearly 300 thousand deaths which is known as the “Rape of Nanking”. Indiscriminate reprisals against Chinese civilians signaled that Japan wanted far more than mere territorial concessions. The sinking of the USS Panay in China during a Japanese air raid damaged relations between America and Japan although the Japanese government later apologized for the error and made restitution. During the two hour attack, Japanese pilots ignored the flags and the cabin that clearly showed American markings.

When Japan invaded French Indochina in 1940, America halted shipments of airplanes, parts, machine tools, and aviation gasoline which were perceived as an unfriendly act by Japan. Oil exports from America continued since the prevailing belief in Washington was cutting oil exports would be seen as a provocation to Japan. Japan’s economy was extremely dependent on American oil and foreign raw materials.

America’s demands for Japan to withdraw its imperial forces from China did not stop Japan’s continued expansion. Early in 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt made an ominous decision to relocate the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii. America later cut oil exports to Japan in July, 1941. All this did was move up the timetable for Japan to acquire the Dutch East Indies who richly was an oil territory.

Late in 1941 many observers believed hostilities between America and Japan were imminent. A Gallup Poll found that 52% of Americans expected war with Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

American strategists guessed wrong mainly, believing that Japan would attack the Philippines and not make Pearl Harbor a primary target. America also guessed incorrectly at Japan’s military capability by believing Japan could not conduct two major naval operations at one time. This was a serious error in calculation as Japan later proved.

Two waves from six Japanese carriers obtained the objective of making devastating attacks that knocked out America’s prestigious battleships and damaged or sunk other vessels. A third wave was cancelled by Japan’s Admiral Chuichi Nagumo against the advice of his subordinate officers due to a variety of factors.

The third wave was designed to destroy storage, maintenance, and dry dock facilities.

American Admiral Chester Nimitz stated that should the third wave of Japan had accomplished its objectives, Japan would have severely crippled the Pacific Fleet far worse than losing her battleships. Nimitz declared “it would have prolonged the war another two years”. Even Admiral Nagumo later declared that cancelling the third wave was a crucial error.

The attack of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor should have been a primary concern due to the immeasurable damage to logistics and morale it would have done. The worst case scenario was ignored simply because of the prevailing belief that Japan could not do it.

Should Japan had launched the third wave as planned and waited for the American aircraft carriers to be in port, the history of the Pacific theater would have been rewritten.



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