We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Pacific Front7th December 1941

Japanese attack Pearl Harbour

Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour?
At first sight the Japanese decision to mount a surprise attack on the American fleet in Hawaii seems almost inexplicable. They knew they could never win this war militarily. So why did they do it?

Video Transcript

Commentary: This was the scene at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on Sunday 7th December 1941. Japanese warplanes had just attacked the American fleet lying at anchor.

Words of Gene La Rocque (American Naval officer, Pearl Harbour): We thought, ‘This is a dirty trick.’ Those stinkers, they attacked us by surprise in our own base, they weren’t fair, they weren’t honest, they didn’t do battle with us at sea. Those sneaky Japanese out smarted us. We were very surprised, all of us, that the Japanese were crazy enough to attack us in Pearl Harbour. We didn’t think they had the capability, nor that they would be bold enough to do it.

Commentary: What was happening here in China was one reason the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour. Because the Japanese wanted to rule this land, and the Americans objected. The Japanese had attacked Shanghai and other cities in China in 1937 and four years later they were still fighting the Chinese in a brutal and dirty war. By early 1941 the Japanese occupied large amounts of mainland Asia. And then in July ‘41 they advanced into southern Indo-China. The American government immediately decided to impose sanctions on the Japanese to punish them for this aggression – refusing to sell them crucial raw materials. But at the White House, President Roosevelt, his focus very much on the threat from Hitler, thought the Japanese were much less of a danger.

Professor Robert Dallek: I think the feeling in the United States was that Japan can never defeat us. How could they possibly defeat the United States? We are such a larger power, we have such industrial potential. Would they be so foolish as to attack us, to go to war with us? We’ll mop them up. They can’t really fight all that effectively. So we have to take a tough line with them. American public opinion wants it, the Congress is happy to see this happen. Take a tough line with them. And it’s not going to lead to war - that, I think, is the perspective of the time, of the moment. Of course absolutely wrong-headed.

Commentary: Then on the 26th November 1941, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote to the Japanese, saying they must get out of China as well as cease their aggression in South East Asia. Back in Tokyo this demand that the Japanese leave China was completely unacceptable. Now, with the consent of Emperor Hirohito, plans the Japanese had already made for a surprise attack on the Americans would be put into action. But even as these planes readied themselves to bomb Pearl Harbour, the Japanese leadership knew that they could never win a long war with America. They hoped to inflict a quick, devastating defeat on the Americans, and then make a compromise peace.

Professor Akira Iriye: The Japanese at the time felt that the Americans would be so shocked by this, so shaken by it, that they might be willing to come to some kind of an accommodation. That they might say, well, this is just too much. They’d rather not have another such calamity and they might be willing to let the Japanese stay in China instead.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: So there was this spurious thinking going on inside Japan that the US was weak, materialistic, a consumer society, lacked the sterner Japanese traits and attitudes. And that one demoralising blow would suffice to remove the United States from this conflict. They’d look at the cost of recovering from Pearl Harbour and resuming their hegemony in the Pacific and say no, we’ll just cut a deal with Japan. I mean, that is folly on a grand scale.

Commentary: And whilst the Japanese did manage to sink American ships at Pearl Harbour, they didn’t destroy the greatest prizes, the American aircraft carriers, which were away from the base. The price the Japanese paid for this attack was simple – all out war.

Archive of Franklin Roosevelt (8th December 1941): I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday December 7th 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

Commentary: In the weeks and months after Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Imperial Army managed to make great advances, both in mainland South East Asia and in Indonesia. But the joy of the Japanese at these victories was to prove short lived.


'End of Days' by Dominik Hauser used with permission of Shockwave-Sound.com.