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Pearl Harbor

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The unification of Germany between 1864 and 1871, and the proclamation of the German Empire in the latter year, destroyed the balance of power in Europe. The rapid industrialisation of the new Germany created an economic colossus in the heart of Europe; and the imperative to feed that industrialisation turned Germany into a disruptive power striving to seize raw materials and markets by imperial expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.

Japanese history in that period followed a similar trajectory. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 – essentially the overthrow of the old samurai warrior caste by a new, modernising elite – triggered a similar process of industrialisation, militarisation, and imperialism.

Japan, to an even greater extent than Germany, lacked the resources and markets to sustain her economic development. She was soon embroiled in aggressive wars to gain territory in Korea, Manchuria, and China.

Pearl Harbor from above. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But by the late 1930s, the ‘Northern Road’ was blocked – by the Soviet Union – and Japan’s rulers were forced to look to the ‘Southern Road’. Especially important were the oil and rubber of the Dutch East Indies.

The Japanese regime was now dominated by the Militarists, a home-grown brand of fascists with a strong base among army officers and middle-class youth. The Militarists combined modern militarism with traditional warrior culture: samurai with battleships.

The expansionism of Imperial Japan brought it into conflict with the European empires with possessions to protect in South-East Asia, and of course with the United States in the Pacific.

Like Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan lacked the resources and manpower to sustain a long war of attrition. Both powers were compelled to launch blitzkrieg wars to grab as much as they could before their enemies could fully mobilise.

The campaigns in the Far East between December 1941 (Pearl Harbor) and June 1942 (Midway) were every bit as spectacular as the Nazi conquests in Europe in the first two years of the war. They created a vast Japanese Empire and imposed upon the Allies a long, expensive, bloody war of attrition to destroy it.

The surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 signalled the start of the Japanese blitzkrieg. It also ‘awakened a sleeping giant’ and thereby guaranteed the eventual defeat of the Japanese Empire.

At that time, the US Pacific Fleet comprised nine battleships, three aircraft carriers, 12 heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, 50 destroyers, 33 submarines, and 100 patrol bombers.

Although the attack effectively destroyed the Fleet’s largely obsolescent battleships, the crucial factor was that none of the three carriers were caught by the attack.

The survival of all three US carriers allowed the Pacific Fleet to recover remarkably quickly – as Yamamoto put it in a discussion with the Japanese Prime Minister, Prince Konoe, ‘In the first six to 12 months of a war with the United States and Great Britain, I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.’ (The IJN’s first decisive defeat at Midway came just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

Perhaps the final words should be another (apocryphal) Yamamoto remark: ‘I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’

In our special this time, David Porter first charts the rise of Imperial Japan between 1868 and 1941, and then offers a forensic analysis of the attack – one of the greatest triumphs of naval aviation in military history.


This is an extract from a special feature on Pearl Harbor from the latest issue of Military History Matters.

Read the full article in the magazine, which you can subscribe to here, or here via an online subscription at The Past website.

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