On December 7, the Levy Lecture Series featured a comprehensive presentation of Zoom webinars by historian Robert Watson, who has a doctorate in public policy, who discussed the prelude, buildup, motivations, execution , the consequences and the impact of the surprise attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor. naval base 80 years to the day since it happened. Watson, professor emeritus of American history at the College of Arts and Sciences at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, described the attack as “a tactically brilliant victory for Japan, but strategically a devastating loss.”
Watson is a passionate speaker and student of history. He titled the 10-year period leading up to Pearl Harbor as “Japanese belligerence.”
International tensions had built up since 1931 when Japan seized the province of Manchuria in China. In 1936, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, declaring both nations’ opposition to Communism. At its lowest point, the Nanjing Massacre, a horrific and systemic attack on thousands of Chinese civilians, began on December 13, 1937 and lasted until the end of January 1938.
The Tripartite Pact in 1940 established the Axis between Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan, and by 1941 Japan had invaded Indochina, escalating territorial aggression.
Watson said that Japan’s thirst for power and geographic territory arose out of imperialism, a need to acquire natural resources in the countries they invaded, and a belief in their pre-established racial superiority, the same way that Nazi ideology idolized Aryan genetic and racial superiority. .
From 1938, after the Nanjing Massacre, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to stem Japanese expansion through economic sanctions, embargoes, freezing of Japanese assets and granting loans to China. In 1940 he moved the Pacific Fleet, about 100 ships, to Hawaii and sent US troops to the Philippines. But these efforts were wasted; The Japanese plan to bomb the base of Honolulu, on the American territory of Hawaii, was already under development.
The Japanese attack was planned by the Japanese Prime Minister, General Hideki Tojo, a sadistic warmonger whose dream was to attack the United States. Watson said. For over a year, he and his senior advisers gathered intelligence by studying other successful attacks on naval ports (most notably Britain’s successful attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940), photographing where were the supplies, fuel, ships and barracks in Honolulu, and observe the routines of the American sailors based there. Japanese troops trained and refined their plans. Emperor Hirohito approved the plan on November 5 and authorized it on December 1, 1941.
The attack was planned and directed by the brilliant tactician, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet in WWII. He assembled a huge fleet (414 planes, 6 aircraft carriers, 16 warships, 23 submarines) at the Karil Islands in mid-November. This isolated outpost, known for its fishing, has been overlooked as a possible threat.
Watson listed Japan’s objectives for attacking the territory of Hawaii. General Tojo was determined to destroy the American fleet stationed there and thereby destroy American morale. The assumption was that once the United States was no longer a threat, Japan would have unrestricted access to conquer all countries in Asia and the Pacific. In this scenario, Nazi Germany would control Europe and Japan would control Asia.
The fleet began to travel to Hawaii and planned to invade from the north. A total failure of the imagination and planning of the American forces charged with protecting the country allowed the attack to take place, and the two main military leaders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, lost their commands in the aftermath of the disaster.
Watson described in detail many bureaucratic errors, such as delayed or undelivered messages, reports from the field ignored, orders from General George Marshall that were not followed. Congressional inquiries later revealed that the War Department was also responsible for many mistakes besides Kimmel and Short.
The surprise attack – planned in three waves – was a success. In the first wave, 173 planes unleashed a merciless attack on the unsuspecting base below. Fighter planes attacked Wheeler Airfield with orders to “strafe the airfield” with their machine guns. The planes were parked wing to wing, making it relatively easy for Japanese pilots and machine gunners. In a matter of minutes, 42 planes were destroyed and 41 planes were damaged, leaving only 43 planes unscathed.
At Pearl Harbor, dive torpedo bombers successfully destroyed or neutralized five of the eight battleships lined up on Battleship Row. “A 1,000 pound bomb exploded on the USS Arizona, sinking it and killing over 1,000 men on board. The USS Oklahoma was torpedoed and tipped over within five minutes of its attack, killing 400 men.
The second wave arrived an hour later, bombing airfields and other ships, and US forces still couldn’t muster a counterattack beyond five or six planes that took off. In total, the initial Japanese attack damaged 164 planes and 18 ships, killed 2,390 men and injured several hundred soldiers and sailors.
Fortunately for the United States, Japan decided that the third wave was unnecessary and ended the attack prematurely. The third wave was to attack US fuel tanks and supplies, which, if executed, would have made a military response nearly impossible. This strategic error by Japan allowed US forces to recover and begin repairing damaged planes and ships and manufacturing supplies for the war effort.
FDR declared war the next day and thousands of American men enlisted. United States morale was high because of the attack, and there was broad support across the country for the United States to go to war. Tojo completely underestimated the power of American resolve; this miscalculation would later be recognized as a precursor to Japan’s defeat.
The United States was also very fortunate that three aircraft carriers, the aircraft assigned to them, and the fleets of ships accompanying the aircraft carriers for their protection, were not in the port at the time of the attack. . They were being refueled and suffered no damage.
American manufacturing plants like GM, Ford, Chrysler, Bethlehem Steel, US Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, Goodyear and others have all joined in the war effort. Each has converted its processes to manufacture goods and materials needed for war. This so-called Arsenal of Democracy produced 27 aircraft carriers, 200 submarines and several thousand planes, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and ammunition. As men joined in battles overseas, women have successfully entered the workforce in record numbers as paid employees, and are no longer confined to “pink collar” jobs.
The war lasted for four years until August 1945. During this time FDR died and was replaced by Harry S Truman. Truman knew from intelligence reports that the Japanese were preparing a final push to attack US forces using suicide bombers armed with bombs. To prevent this bloodbath, Truman authorized the United States to drop two atomic bombs, one on each of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war. Truman also disaggregated the American armed forces and supported the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe and Japan.
Watson delighted the audience after the conference by answering many questions submitted online. Afterwards, one participant remarked: “A fascinating presentation. I never knew the United States was not so miserably prepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor. This puts our relentless security awareness and preparedness since World War II into perspective. Watson spoke fondly of the need to understand history, especially in light of recent current events.
Another viewer observed: “Professor Watson is an excellent speaker. I enjoy every program that I have heard him do. Today’s show was particularly interesting because he kept talking, was in no rush to finish, and revealed a lot about himself. While Pearl Harbor was interesting, his take on history teaching and critical thinking was fascinating. Thanks for one of your best programs!
Readers interested in watching the webinar can find it on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.