This year marks the 75th anniversary of the December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 Americans.
President Obama is visiting Hiroshima this week, the site of the August 6, 1945, dropping of the atomic bomb that helped end World War II in the Pacific Theater. But strangely, he has so far announced no plans to visit Pearl Harbor on the anniversary of the attack. The president, who spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, should do so — given that many Americans have forgotten why the Japanese attacked the United States and why they falsely assumed that they could defeat the world’s largest economic power.
Imperial Japan was not, as often claimed, forced into a corner by a U.S. oil embargo, which came only after years of horrific Japanese atrocities in China and Southeast Asia. Instead, an opportunistic and aggressive fascist Japan gambled that the geostrategy of late 1941 had made America uniquely vulnerable to a surprise attack.
By December 1, 1941, Nazi Germany, Japan’s Axis partner, had reached the suburbs of Moscow. Japan believed that the German army would soon knock the Soviet Union out of the war.
Japan had also hedged its bets by signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviets. Japanese leaders assumed that even if communist Russia survived, Japan could avoid a costly land war on its rear flank. The U.S., not Japan, would likely have a two-front war.
By 1941, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium had all been defeated and occupied by the Third Reich. Only the British remained of the original European anti-Axis allies, and London had been under constant aerial assault by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz. Japan figured that Germany and Italy might soon win the war and wished to pile on before it ended.
Japan had calculated that all of Europe’s resource-rich Pacific and Asian colonies were now orphaned and up for grabs. By starting a Pacific war and knocking out the U.S., Japan could get its hands on the resources necessary to fuel its war machine.
British-held Singapore and the American bases in the Philippines were isolated and poorly defended. And they would be completely cut off once the U.S. Seventh Fleet and air arm were neutralized at Pearl Harbor.
Starting a war in the Pacific meant the Japanese would have easy access to huge supplies of oil, rubber, rice, and strategic metals for their newfound mercantile empire, the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The U.S. also had lost military deterrence. The Japanese had watched carefully as America did little to help its two closest allies: France and Great Britain. The former was easily overrun by the Nazis, the latter bombed unmercifully.