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Prelude to War
to War: Conflict in the Far East
of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor were sown long
before 1941. Throughout the early 1900s, Japan -- a small, industrial nation --
felt that it had been humiliated repeatedly by the West. Even though Japan had beaten Russia
decisively in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, Western powers had forced Japan to give up many of its victory spoils. Then, after World War
I, Japan -- unlike many of the victorious European nations -- wasn't allowed to
expand its territory despite having sided with the Allies. Through
assassination and other means, militaristic factions had taken political control
in Japan shortly after World War I.
suffering what it felt were repeated humiliations, Japan in the 1920s believed that it was
justified in expanding its territory and it envisioned ruling all of Asia while ousting
the Western powers. As the
only Asian industrialized country, Japan saw itself as Asia's leader and began
to use the thinly-veiled motto "Asia
for Asians" to justify its aggressions. With few natural resources
of its own, Japan eyed China's
bounty and, in 1931, invaded
Manchuria in northeastern China, an area rich in coal and iron. By this time, China
from centuries of dynastic rule and boasted a huge population but
was saddled with a feeble military and corrupt political leadership.
The Japanese incursion into Manchuria caused tensions with the United
States, which, for many years, had viewed itself as the protector of China.
However, the U.S. was unable to intervene against Japan,
since it was in the throes of an economic depression and because of the
isolationist attitudes that were prevalent in America at that time. Japan declared outright war against
China in 1937, further escalating tensions with the
In 1938, the United States, Japan's main
supplier of natural
resources, began pressuring Japan to
withdraw from China by cutting off some of her imports, but to no avail.
Tensions in Europe exploded the following year when Germany invaded Poland
followed quickly by the onset of World War II. In 1940,
Japan signed a mutual-defense pact with Germany and
Italy, forming the so-called "Axis." This pact proscribed Japan as the leader of a "new
order" in Asia and pronounced Germany and Italy as the leaders of a new order in
Europe. The neutral U.S., increasingly alarmed at Japanese aggressions,
cut off Japan's steel, rubber, and, finally, oil imports, still hoping
that Japan would retreat from China. With its oil supply now shut off,
Japanese leaders decided not to withdraw from China but rather to invade the
petroleum-rich countries of Burma and Indonesia (then called the Dutch East
U.S. Fleet Moves to Pearl Harbor
British, French, and Dutch preoccupied with the European theatre of war, the main
threat to Japan's planned invasion of southeast Asia was the U.S. Pacific
Fleet, consisting of three aircraft carriers, nine battleships, and
scores of other ships. The Pacific Fleet had been based in San Diego,
California but in 1940, as tensions continued to escalate with Japan, the United States decided
to move the fleet to Pearl Harbor in the territory of Hawaii, which
was several thousand miles closer to the hot-spots in Asia.
to move the fleet to Pearl Harbor was criticized by some American military
leaders who claimed that Pearl
Harbor was too shallow, that it was too far from the U.S. mainland and
vulnerable to attack, that supplies (such as diesel oil for the ships) would
have to be imported, and that its single channel could be a bottleneck for ships
trying to get out to sea. Despite these objections, the Navy, in
the spring of 1940, moved the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, a place
many Americans had never even heard of.
Japanese military leaders were planning to invade the oil-rich countries of
southeast Asia, they decided to first attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl
Harbor. By knocking out the U.S. fleet in a surprise attack, they
reasoned, Japan would have enough time to secure the oil fields and other
resources in southeastern Asia before the United States could
counter-attack. Therefore, in November of 1941, a large Japanese fleet,
including six aircraft carriers carrying dozens of torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers
and fighter planes, secretly left Japan and raced through the stormy waters of
the Northern Pacific, heading for Hawaii.
Above left: Aerial view of Pearl Harbor, looking
south. This was taken about six weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack.
Above center: Another aerial view of Pearl Harbor, also
taken in October, 1941.
Above right: The U.S.S. Saratoga (foreground) and her
sister ship U.S.S. Lexington anchored off Diamond Head. The
American carriers were the prime target of the Japanese planes during the Pearl
Harbor attack, but none were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7.
The Lexington had left on December 5 to deliver planes to Midway Island,
and the Saratoga was undergoing repairs in Bremerton, Washington. A
third carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, returned to Pearl Harbor on the
afternoon of December 7 after delivering planes to Wake Island.
Above left: While the Japanese fleet was heading to Pearl
Harbor, American servicemen enjoyed the sun and sand in Honolulu.
Above right: The carrier Akagi, flagship of the
Japanese fleet that headed to Pearl Harbor in November, 1941.
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