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80 Years Later... Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor?

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Pearl Harbor was a bold gamble, that failed.

Today marks 80 years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Less than 75 American survivors remain. As the memorials commemorate the tragedy, many Americans, born generations later, wonder why Japan attacked the United States at all. 

A colorized photo shows the moment the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Shaw (DD-373) exploded after bring attacked by Japanese dive bombers. The bombs detonated in her forward ammunition magazine, causing the explosion. Remarkably, Shaw was repaired and returned to service, earning 11 battle stars during the war.

A colorized photo shows the moment the Mahan-class destroyer, USS Shaw (DD-373) exploded after bring attacked by Japanese dive bombers. The bombs detonated in her forward ammunition magazine, causing the explosion. Remarkably, Shaw was repaired and returned to service, earning 11 battle stars during the war.

Highlights

By Marshall Connolly (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
12/7/2021 (1 month ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: Pearl Harbor, attack, Japan, why

LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - For most Americans, World War II began on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But for historians, World War II was already well underway. 

The Japanese people have a long and proud history. During the long Edo Period from 1603-1867, the nation was ruled by a military class. By 1867, that era was brought to an end by the western powers, who came crashing in with their modern weapons and gunboats. The message was clear, open your country to trade with the world, or else. The Japanese realized they would have to embrace modern technology and ways if they wanted to retain their independence from the west. 

Although the Japanese were forced to abandon their traditions, they still remembered them. In particular, their military traditions became romanticized. By the 1930s, a wave of nostalgia-fueled militarism gripped the country. Its leaders, emboldened by their growing, professional and modern military, sought to carve out their own place on the world stage, equal with the great powers of the west. A plan was developed to secure an empire across Asia. Critical to this plan was the resources the nation would seize, oil, rubber, iron, food, and more. 

With its military leadership enjoying unrivalled power and influence, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Mongolia in 1936, and China in 1937. The world condemned these actions, but did nothing to stop them. Officers and soldiers, convinced of their superiority over others, felt empowered to run amok and commit terrible atrocities. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were brutally targeted and murdered in campaigns of genocide. 

The world responded by sanctioning trade with Japan. The nation began to suffer from a lack of materials when it needed them most. The Japanese realized if they wanted to secure their empire, they would have to go farther then before and seize southeast Asia as well as multiple islands in the Pacific. 

The United States, as well as the British, French, and Dutch, held several islands in the Pacific. These islands were used as refueling ports, allowing ships to resupply as they crossed the vast ocean. By taking these ports, Japan could effectively protect themselves from American and European attack, since their enemies would be unable to supply their ships so far from home. Once these ports were in Japanese hands, all of Southeast Asia would be forced to accept Japanese dominance. 

But Japanese planners realized it would not be enough to capture these strategic locations. They also realized the American Pacific Fleet would have to be destroyed too. The United States maintained a massive fleet of three aircraft carriers, nine battleships, eighteen cruisers, and a host of destroyers. This force was powerful enough to counterattack the Japanese on equal terms or better. Therefore, a bold plan was conceived to launch a surprise attack on the fleet while it was docked in harbor. Since the United States was not at war, the ships would be at anchor, easy to hit, and unprepared to shoot back. 



Once the Pacific Fleet was destroyed, it would take the United States many months, perhaps a year or more, to repair the broken ships and launch new ones. During that time, the Japanese could run rampant across the Pacific, consolidate their gains, and gather their fleet to oppose the rebuilt, but likely still weak, American fleet.

The Japanese calculated that the United States, without its aircraft carriers, would realize the war was lost on day 1, and seek peace, leaving them to enjoy their new empire. 

The Japanese planned boldly. They planted spies in Hawaii to monitor the movement of ships. They trained pilots to dive bomb and torpedo ships in harbor, and modified their torpedoes to run in the shallow waters. 

By December 6th, everything was in place. The Japanese fleet snuck into position and was ready to launch the attack. 

At the same time, the Japanese coordinated attacks on several other locations, such as Wake, Guam, and Singapore, and more. The goal was to inflict a crushing blow across the whole Pacific that would break American and Allied morale. 

In the United States, there were anecdotal warnings that Japan was planning something. Intercepted communications caused suspicion, but contrary to popular belief, the information wasn't sufficient or shared enough to provide a coherent warning. 

Although American planners failed to catch notice of the attack beforehand, they enjoyed the benefit of luck. All three aircraft carriers, which were the primary targets for the Japanese, were absent from port, performing various tasks. Saratoga was in San Diego, Enterprise was sailing from Wake Island back to Hawaii, and Lexington was on her way to Midway. 

When the Japanese planes arrived over Pearl Harbor on the fateful morning of December 7, they couldn't spot the carriers. Bombs and torpedoes intended for the carriers were instead dropped on the battleships, which provided large and easy targets for the pilots. 

The attack was praised as a success in Japan. And in the United States, it was viewed as a tragedy. But Japanese planners knew they had failed in their goal to cripple the United States Navy. 

The Navy was able to absorb the loss of the battleships, and in just six months, the Navy was sufficiently prepared to fight back. When intelligence services learned Japan planned an attack at Midway Island, the Pacific Fleet was dispatched to surprise them. Between June 4-7, 1941, the Japanese lost four carriers and many of her experienced pilots, some of who were veterans of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

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This result crippled the Japanese, after which their fate became only a matter of time. 

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