On the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we've been asked to reflect on what might have happened if Japan had not launched an attack on the US fleet on December 7, 1941.
The question is both interesting and relevant at a time when Japan experiences a military resurgence
and America's provocative Asia "pivot" is being rethought by the incoming and often unpredictable Trump administration. Trump's rash statements
about China, Japan, and South Korea have already roiled the waters throughout the region.
The assault on Pearl Harbor was not only foolhardy, it was ultimately suicidal. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison dismissed it as "strategic imbecility."
Many in Japan -- including most of the nine former prime ministers whom Japanese Emperor Hirohito met with a week prior to the attack -- had opposed it. Yet Gen. Hideki Tojo's government authorized the attack with the objective of destroying the US Pacific Fleet, which potentially could have blocked Japan's access to the resources of Southeast Asia.
The Pearl Harbor attack, however, was only partly successful. Though Japanese forces caused significant damage to the US Fleet and killed 2,335 US troops and 68 civilians, their attack was not fatal. The Fleet's three aircraft carriers weren't in Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred and many of the damaged ships and planes were able to be repaired. This would come back to haunt Japan the next June, when US forces, including two of those carriers, took out four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway and turned the Pacific war in the US favor.
The Japanese attack had given President Roosevelt the pretext he sought to bring the US into the war. Americans may have overwhelmingly favored the Allies over the despised Nazis and sympathized with the plight of Chinese being brutalized by Japan, but few wanted to get drawn into another war. World War I had left a bitter taste in their mouths. Not only had it not been "the war to end all wars" or the war to make the world "safe for democracy," it had enriched the greedy bankers and arms manufacturers -- the "merchants of death" as they were then known -- and done nothing to end colonial exploitation.
By 1941, Roosevelt surreptitiously maneuvered the US into confrontations with both Germany, which had conquered much of Europe, and Japan, which had seized Manchuria and Indochina and was waging a vicious war against China. At Newfoundland in August 1941, he told Churchill that he "would wage war, but not declare it" and do everything he could to "force an 'incident' that could lead to war." His overt support for Britain against Germany and decision to halt desperately needed exports of oil, metal, and other resources to Japan proved sufficient.
One day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt addressed Congress, which approved his war resolution with one dissenting vote. Three days later, Germany and Italy, Japan's allies, declared war against the United States.
The world would never be the same. But here's how it could've been different.
US and Japan on a collision course for years
The attack on Pearl Harbor has loomed large in the American imagination for several reasons.
Americans considered it a cowardly "sneak" attack because the Japanese had not declared war against the US. It occurred on American territory -- the US had forcibly annexed Hawaii in 1898 -- and revealed a stunning failure of US intelligence, heightening fears of US vulnerability in a dangerous world. It also triggered ugly discrimination against Japanese-American citizens and Japanese immigrants alike inside the United States. Almost 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps
until the end of the war.
But had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Pacific War would largely have evolved along similar lines. The US and Japan had been on a collision course for months if not years. With or without the attack on Pearl Harbor, the two countries were heading for war.
What most Americans forget is that it was not only Pearl Harbor that Japan attacked on December 7, 1941. As Roosevelt told Congress on December 8, Japan had also attacked the British colonies of Hong Kong and Malaya, the US colony in the Philippines, and US holdings in Guam, Wake Island, and Midway Island. The attack on Malaya actually preceded the assault on Pearl Harbor by more than an hour. In addition, though not mentioned by Roosevelt, Japan invaded Thailand. It also attacked Singapore, which was then part of British Malaya.
US officials had broken Japanese diplomatic codes in August 1940, enabling them to monitor Japan's war planning. They knew an attack was coming. They just didn't think it was coming at Pearl Harbor. The most likely targets in their minds were the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Malaya, and the Philippines.
Japan's attack on US bases in th