When I was a child (I was born in 1955) the Japanese attack on U.S. military facilities at Pearl Harbor loomed large in my limited view of history. In addition to being of international historic importance, it was of great personal interest to my family.
My father was already in the Marine Corps on December 7, 1941. He had enlisted in Chicago in 1940 and was serving state side at the 2nd Marine Division headquarters. He would later serve in the Signal Corps at Guadalcanal and other Pacific Island battles, where he contracted both malaria and amoebic dysentery. Recovered he met my mother at Pearl Harbor. She had escaped tenant farming by first working in a factory manufacturing military uniforms and then joining the Women Marines. They did not get married until after Mother left the Corps at the end of he war and my father was stationed in California.
Of course I loved the Marine Corps when I was five years old. My father was a Captain, which seemed a grand thing. He had been stationed in Japan when I was younger and had made his own peace with the Japanese. We had a few Japanese art objects in the house, and my prized possessions were the postcards he had sent from Japan. 1960 was a slow year for the Marine Corps. My father had no college education, he did not qualify to move up in the ranks, so they forced him to retire.
How dare the Japanese attack us at Pearl Harbor? Well we showed them, didn't we? That was my childish attitude. To the extent that anyone in America cares about World War II anymore, that is the common attitude. Yet in exploring the history leading up to the Battle of Pearl Harbor, I found that in fact, it's complicated.
The Hawaiian islands had been a bone of contention among the Great Powers since not long after they were discovered by a British Empire naval officer. When the United States finally overthrew the sovereign, native-led government of Hawaii in a complex series of events in the 1890's, it violated a set of treaties solemnly sworn with other great powers, including Japan. The Japanese had been thrown on the world stage by U.S. military aggression in the 1850's, and had quickly emerged as a Pacific, if not global power.
The largest ethnic group in Hawaii when the U.S. grabbed it were the Japanese, with Chinese second, Hawaiian natives third, and American-Hawaiians a distant fourth. By treaty [Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1871 between the Kingdom of Hawaii and Japan] right the Japanese (or France, Germany, or Great Britain) could have fought to throw out the Americans and restore the native Hawaiian government. The Japanese did send one of their modern military vessels there in the hope that the U.S. would honor its treaty obligations. When the U.S. made it clear Japan would have to fight a war to keep Hawaii free, the Japanese backed off. As a result a relatively large number of ethnic Japanese became U.S. subjects. Because of race laws, they were not allowed to travel to California or elsewhere in the U.S. Which is a crime against humanity and another pretext for just war.
U.S.-Japanese relations were not always bad. Both nations joined together to destroy Chinese independence during the Boxer Rebellion. The U.S. allowed Japan to grab Korea in return for not helping the Philippines in their fight for independence against U.S. aggression.
By the 1930s the rivalry was outpacing occasional attempts at friendship. The Japanese realized that after America, France and the British Empire finished digesting China they would come at Japan. They decided if China was to be ruled by warlords and puppet governments, they might as well be Japanese-owned warlords and puppet governments. The U.S. devised a plan for the conquest of China, Korea and Japan called War Plan Orange. The Japanese made their own plans. They studied the successful aggressions of the United States and the British Empire with keen, inquiring minds.
In 1932 the U.S. Navy held war games off Hawaii, simulating a Japanese attack. In the Japanese role "an American aircraft carrier, slipping past picket destroyers northeast of Oahu, attacked Pearl Harbor in a dawn raid and 'sank' the warships anchored there." [William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream, page 81]. The Japanese learned the lesson, the U.S. Navy forgot it.
By 1940 the U.S. and other colonial European powers were crippling the Japanese economy with an embargo. Both the U.S. (or at least President Roosevelt) and Japan wanted a triumphant peace and threatened war if they did not get their way.
In 1941 the U.S. was at war with Japan. The fighting took place in China, where U.S. airmen volunteered to fly in an all-American air force nominally under the control of Chiang Kai-shek, whose coalition of war lords was kept loyal with U.S. aid.
Cordell Hull, who was Secretary of State to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, throughout the year warned that State Department sources in Japan confirmed an attack on Pearl Harbor was planned if peace talks failed. Roosevelt and Hull were as determined on war as were the war faction in the Japanese government.
In what can only be described as The Cable, the War Department (now the Department of Defense) wrote to Douglas MacArthur, war lord of the Philippines: "NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE JAPANESE APPEAR TO BE TERMINATED TO ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES ... THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT PERIOD THIS POLICY SHOULD NOT, REPEAT NOT, BE CONSTRUED AS RESTRICTING YOU TO A COURSE OF ACTION THAT MIGHT JEOPADIZE YOUR DEFENSE PERIOD"
A reasonable interpretation of The Cable, given the situation, was that MacArthur was being encouraged to attack the Japanese Navy and possibly even its air bases in Formosa (now called Taiwan). In other words, no declaration of war needed if the U.S. started the fighting. MacArthur decided that since Roosevelt and Hull were his political enemies, and he hoped to become President of the United States, this might be a trap and he would wait for a direct order to attack.
He also thought the Japanese were military incompetents who he could easily beat once the war began. He had already been reinforced by the 4th Marines who had retreated from Shanghai. A earlier in December a huge invasion fleet had set out on its way across the Pacific to reinforce MacArthur and join the attack force from Pearl Harbor. With that force the conquest of Formosa, China and even Japan would have been much easier, but the fleet turned back mid-ocean. Roosevelt decided to use it against the German Navy first.
And so brave little Japan took on an industrial giant ten times her size. From a purely military perspective the attack on Pearl Harbor was brilliant. It should also be noted that the attack was purely military, with no bombing of civilian areas. To claim that it was a war crime because a glitch prevented the U.S. from being officially informed in advance would make all kinds of U.S. military attacks on other nations into war crimes, because we have bothered to declare war in only a few instances.
Were the Japanese militarists and capitalists a nasty lot? Certainly, they learned from the best, our American militarists and capitalists. Still, given the desire of U.S. capitalists to take over Asia, I don't see any real choice for the Japanese. They were slated to become part of the U.S. empire, and would have capitulated earlier if they had not adopted a strong warlike stance.
In the end, the blood of the Japanese was spilled so that the Chinese could be free of U.S. and British dominion. The Japanese committed war crimes in China, but they were mainly at the expense of Chiang Kai-shek. When World War II ended it was the Communist regime that finally liberated China from foreign interference. U.S. aid to Chiang just poured into a black hole of corruption, like U.S. aid to Afghanistan today.
It was foreseen. In arguing that Japan should be allowed to "restore order" in China, the Japanese had invoked the threat of a Communist takeover if they failed.
Pearl Harbor galvanized the American people, but only because they had not been paying attention and FDR had no interest in helping them to understand what had happened. Did FDR know about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance? His own Secretary of State said he did. What FDR did not know was how successful the attack would be.