When I was a child in the 1960's remembering Pearl Harbor was a big deal. Things were simpler then, in my child's mind, which simply reflected what I heard from my parents, teachers, and television.
The attack on the U.S. Navy's base at Pearl Harbor (which included attacks on nearby military airfields and naval base) on December 7, 1941 was a clear demonstration of the essentially good nature of the United States of America, and the essentially evil nature of our World War II enemies, the Japanese and the Nazis. Having a German last name for our family, we did not like to lump in American Germans with those terrible Nazi Germans.
Over the years, gradually, I learned more about World War II and the events leading up to it, about Japanese, German, and in particular American history. A simplistic black and white picture turned into complex gray shapes and eventually into the colors of reality. In effect I was learning from other people's memories, or remembering events that occurred before I was born that had a big impact on my life in particular. My father was in the Marine Corp that infamous day, and later participated in the battle of Guadalcanal, where he caught malaria. My mother joined the women Marines a couple of years later and met my father when they were both stationed in Hawaii during the war.
Now I am doing research for my history of the U.S. War Against Asia, and I can remember a great deal that Americans are supposed to conveniently forget.
Did President Franklin Roosevelt know that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and sacrifice American lives there in order to goad the nation into a war frenzy, much as President Bush was accused of doing with the World Trade Center attacks? No, but the reality was worse. The United States had informally declared war, as had the Japanese. Recall that the U.S. itself often goes to war without a formal declaration of war, as for instance in Vietnam and in its many attacks on Native American nations. In fact General MacArthur was given permission to attack the Japanese in Formosa (now Taiwan) well before Pearl Harbor. Every U.S. commander in the Pacific knew an attack from the Japanese was very likely. No, it was just plain military incompetence that allowed the attack to be a surprise. The Japanese attack fleet expected the U.S. navy to detect their presence before the attack. They were surprised that their attack was as surprising and successful as it turned out to be.
More important, I think it is fair to say that the United States, or President Roosevelt, forced Japan into the war. William Manchester, who in American Caesar shows little sympathy with the Japanese, relates "Ever since Roosevelt had goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor, the war-making powers of Congress had been atrophying." [page 556] The Japanese puppets in China were fighting the U.S. puppet in China, and the imperialist powers [France, Great Britain, Holland and the U.S.] were crippling the Japanese economy with an embargo. The Japanese had allied with the Axis powers only because they had no where else to go. Neither Italy nor Germany had colonies in Asia. In fact the record shows that Japanese repeatedly offered to break their alliance with the Axis if only the U.S. and Great Britain would allow them access to oil and other natural resources that the islands of Japan lacked.
The whole affair was tinged with racism. Recall that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the leader of the racist Democratic Party that kept African-Americans in virtual slavery in much of the United States during this era. Even in the 1960's I was taught that all non-white people, including the Japanese, were inferior while living in the almost 100% Democrat city of Jacksonville, Florida. Most American leaders felt that Japan should have been colonized by white people like every other Asian nation. The fact that Japan had developed its economy and military to the point where it could resist colonization in itself was a threat to American, British, French and Dutch colonies and spheres of influence in Asia. These colonial powers were not against military intervention in China or the rest of Asia; they were only against Japanese intervention. Remember that the U.S. still held the Philippines as a slave colony and military outpost, ground under the heel of General MacArthur. The Japanese liberated the Philippines and allowed the Philippines to declare independence soon after Pearl Harbor.
Why did the U.S. not gone to war with Germany before Pearl Harbor? There had been plenty of excuses. Partly by staying neutral the U.S. was able to more rapidly shift to producing the armaments that would eventually allow it to win the war. But I think Roosevelt and other racist and anti-communist Americans were ambivalent about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who killed over ten million communists during the war.
Another coloring factor is the contradiction to the pretensions that America was a peaceful nation that would never have attacked the Japanese. The fleet at Pearl Harbor was there specifically to attack the Japanese. Another huge invasion fleet had sailed from the West Coast towards the Philippines before Pearl Harbor. The United States had ten times the industrial capacity of Japan, and the Japanese knew that Roosevelt planned to cripple them as a nation. They expected to lose a war with America. Top military leaders in Japan believed they were very likely to lose a war with America. But they believed (with good evidence) that to the extent they had any chance to defend Japan, they had to take the initiative. The record shows they were quite surprised at how incompetent the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines were at the beginning of the war.
Later the myth was created that the Japanese (recall they were viewed as an inferior people) were incompetent soldiers who only achieved success by duplicity. But as far as I can tell, while they had their share of incompetent officers, and any office can make a bad guess and have an apparently incompetent moment, the Japanese were at least as good in general as the U.S. when it came to strategy, tactics, and execution. They lost the war because of the overwhelming industrial capacity of the U.S. Every time they sank a U.S. war ship, we built three more. But they were not able to replace their own losses. And because the leader of the Democratic Party, President Harry Truman, was willing to commit horrendous war crimes, most notably the atomic demolition of the civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine how you would feel about an argument about war crimes if the Japanese had nuked Oakland or San Francisco and argued that the large number of civilian casualties were justified by the effect on local military bases, and by saving the lives of the Japanese soldiers who would have been needed to invade the U.S.
In contrast (and also in contrast to Japanese war crimes in China and elsewhere), the battle of Pearl Harbor had few if any civilian casualties caused by the Japanese. The Japanese carefully targetted U.S. war material and military personnel.
Looking forward, you can see why most people believe that China will eventually surpass the United States as a military power, just as in the 20th century the U.S. surpassed Great Britain. Our government has spent so much money on the military that it has crippled the economy, while China has been basically at peace with the world since the imperial powers and their puppet Chiang Kai-shek were tossed out in the late 1940s.
More: Wikipedia on the Battle of Pearl Harbor