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The Pearl Harbor Attack: How it drew America into War (Fall 2012)

            Imagine a nation with a calm interior but all around it other nations are going up in flames. Until the end of 1941 that is what the United States was experiencing. The majority of Europe and the Pacific had been at war for two years previous to the infamous December 7th 1941 date. But at 7:55 am that day everything changed and history was written. 

            World War II was one of the most deadly wars in history. Not only were soldiers dying, but civilians, and innocent people were also being killed. Some were being brutally murdered based on nothing more than their religion. It was a time period many wished to forget. Tensions were high. In about a third of the world’s countries total war was being executed.

            After World War I and the depression America was trying to get back on her feet. An outcome of this domestic focus is that for the early years of World War II the U.S. had chosen isolationism. We did not want to get involved and lose tens of thousands of men again. But in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor the need to enter the war was becoming urgent. Britain and France desperately needed assistance in the fight against Nazi Germany. On the other side of the planet Japan was beginning their own empire. The U.S. had for a long time fancied themselves as the pacific power. But slowly and surely Japan was beginning to creep up and take it right out from under us. In 1931, Japan succeeded in the take over of Manchuria. After this conquest they focused their attention on conquering the rest of China. It was a drawn out, ineffective plan. The United States, meanwhile, is watching this take place and observing the possible outcomes that Japan is pushing for. America, after seeing how unfavorable these effects would be on our country, consequently sends aid to China immediately. The last straw came when Japan united with Germany in 1940 and emerged as an Axis Power. America did not take this lightly. No longer did we wish to export to Japan. We cut off all exports to them, including oil. Now this was incredibly important because Japan being an island nation did not have access to oil. When the United States cut off their supply, Japan viewed it as an economic war because Japan needed oil to run its country. They saw the embargo as the U.S. specifically trying to risk Japan’s survival as a superpower country. The effects of this embargo are many, but the most prevalent one ended up being the December attack on pearl harbor.

            America being focused on the issues at home was somewhat oblivious as to what was going on around the world. We knew there was war, and we knew that it would not be easily resolved. But the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor really should not have been a surprise at all. On October 16th 1941, two months before the actual attack, a Japanese message was decoded. On it was information of a possible armed attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Washington, for lack of a better word, discarded the message and only slightly strengthened the Pacific navy. This was not the only time a very obvious message was neglected. About an hour before the attack began radar picked up the first wave of planes headed straight for pearl harbor. The officer in charge ignored the planes thinking they were American planes coming in from the mainland. The last sign was a Japanese sub spotted and sunk while trying to enter the harbor mere hours before the attack. Perhaps if only one of these three events occurred then ignorance could be tolerated. But with three it is amazing that not one person caught on. Well actually it was only the navy leaders that did not link the messages, rumor has it that many lesser officials had predicted it. Finally on the morning of the attack, Washington broke more Japanese codes and discovered the imminent attack. Immediately the news was sent to Hawaii but through miscommunication it did not reach the ears of officials until after the conclusion of the attack. The events causing the attack, from the embargo to the decoded Japanese messages, were numerous and led to this catastrophic event in American history. 

            The morning of December 7th, 1941 was like any other Hawaiian Sunday, sunny, breezy, and beautiful. At 7:55 a.m., while many sailors and citizens were still asleep, the first wave of over 180 Japanese planes began their triumphant strike on the island navel base. The success of the Japanese was unprecedented. Their goal was to take control of the Pacific by crippling the U.S. navy, and they caught the Americans completely by surprise. They wreaked havoc on the 100 ships present. One target the Japanese went after with force was the eight battleships docked at in the harbor. The USS West Virginia and Oklahoma sank first. Followed by the destruction of the USS Arizona, which ended up being the most damaged and costing the most American lives. Before the end of the first air raid the USS Maryland, California, Nevada, and Tennessee all had also been hit, and were struggling to stay afloat. The second wave of Japanese took off 45 minutes after the first. It arrived at Pearl Harbor at 8:40 a.m. Its job was to finish what the first wave had started. They did not disappoint. In less than two hours the course of American history had changed. Hawaiian hospitals were overwhelmed. They were trying to tend to the wounded without being blown up themselves. Other United States backup could not make it to the Islands in time to bring support. U.S battleships in the Pacific were destroyed, some beyond repair. Overall when the day ended it was wholeheartedly a Japanese military victory. But ultimately the psychological victory went to America. Without meaning to the Japanese had lit a fire under the United States. Support for the war effort was exponentially increased. America almost unanimously yearned for war, people were angry and ready to fight back. 

            One American success did occur at Pearl Harbor. It was unconsciously done and probably pure American luck. But in the long run it saved the Pacific Navy. A huge target of the Japanese that eluded destruction was the American aircraft carrier fleet. It saved the future of the United States Pacific Navy that our carriers had been sent out to sea on a routine patrol of the Pacific. Throughout World War II in the Pacific, naval combat was common. The necessity of aircraft carriers for the transportation of airplanes was essential. This war was absolutely a technology war. Fast, efficient planes were necessary and aircraft carriers were needed to bring them to the fight. The destruction of the battleships is one thing, if the carriers had been attacked as well it would have taken twice as long for the American Navy to strike back. 

            The casualties for America was ridiculously higher than that of the Japanese. From planes to ships to people America’s suffering was felt across the country. Over 2,400 people were killed, 68 of them being regular civilians. Another 1,178 were wounded. The USS Arizona had a particularly awful ending. During the attack multiple bombs were dropped, but one contained the fatal ending to the Arizona. The bomb was dropped and went through the armored deck and settled in the ammunition room near the front of the ship. As the bomb detonated it blew apart half of the ship. Of the 1,512 men on the USS Arizona only 335 survived. There were 1,177 officers and crewmen casualties. This accumulated almost half of the deaths of the Pearl Harbor attack. Today the memorial of the Arizona is underwater. Since the ship was only able to be partly raised it was decided that it would remain an underwater graveyard as many are still trapped in the ship. The ship site was named a National Historic Site in 1989. The sailors who died effected the American people in a way they will never know, they will forever be in our hearts. 

            For the Japanese the purpose of the attack was to overcome the Pacific navel power, and for a brief period of time they accomplished that. America was in shock, but as the shock wore off, anger and revenge set in. Without meaning to the Japanese turned a divided nation into one ready for combat. On December 8th, the air was full of tension. The United States population was gathered around their radios to hear one of Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats. Earlier that day congress had declared war on Japan. On the 11th war would be declared on Germany. Slogans such as “Remember Pearl Harbor” graced the country as the war effort began. Before Pearl Harbor everyone in the U.S. was sure that war was coming, though they did not wish it. After the Pearl Harbor attack, however, America was ready and welcomed it. The war brought the United States out of the worst depression it had ever seen. Over 400,000 Americans would die in the course of World War II, this is a heavy price to pay for freedom. But with the power hungry leaders of Germany and Japan it needed to be done. 

            The two hour attack, had many causes and effects. Japan conquering Manchuria, and marking China as their next target promoted the American oil embargo on Japan. Which caused Japan to feel as if the United States did not care about Japan’s survival. An economic war produced a real war. After months of no American imports Japan set sail for Hawaii, and the rest is history. As of today Pearl Harbor is still the largest surprise attack America ever faced. It unified a country and prepared us for war as not many other things could have. It caused hostilities between nations, and in turn made the dropping of atomic bombs seem justified. A date that will live in infamy, is an understatement. After 71 years, we may have forgiven the Japanese, but we will never forget.

            The attack on Pearl Harbor has so many different history forces present. They caused this attack in more than one way. The main Japanese motivation for the attack was the embargo placed on all American exports to them. The most serious material that was banned was on oil, it is impossible to run a war-involved country without oil. This economic war falls under the Politics and Government force. As President Roosevelt was making the decision of placing the embargo he knew a consequence of it would be war. But politics usually comes with some sort of risk. Another prevalent force would be the Earth and Environment. Before the attack many said Pearl Harbor was a perfect navel base because it could not be attacked for the harbor is too shallow. The Japanese proved this geographical statement wrong. One reason as to why the destruction of battleships seemed so severe is because of the layout of the harbor. There is an island in the middle of it, which made it harder for the ships to get to the open sea. Ford island and the fact that many battleships were “double parked” added to their damage. Both of these environmental geographical elements determined a lot of the outcome of the attack. Finally, technological inventions added to the attacks severeness. Three different types of Japanese planes were used: fighters, torpedoes, and bombers. These three airplanes have very different tasks. Torpedoes fly low, and hit the ships hull below the water. Bombers flew above the torpedoes and dropped bombs on top of the ships. Finally, fighters flew high in the air and took down any American planes that managed to get off the ground. The invention of radar was also key in this attack. Though the Japanese planes were spotted well before they reached Hawaii, they were confused for American planes and disregarded. Over the course of the months leading up to the attack, and the fatal morning of the attack the history forces were present and controlling the situation. Because the history forces do not just cause history, they determine it. 

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