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Posted on Jul 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Pearl Harbor – History’s Most Costly Hit-and-Run

By Jay Kimmel

The meticulous planning and “successful” execution of the surprise attack on U.S. naval and army forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, produced the worst, or one of the worst, consequences in the military history of the world. Millions of people, both military and civilian, either died or were permanently injured as a result of the war in the Pacific.

The reluctant principal designer of the attack upon America’s Central Pacific forces, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, expressed his own great reservations when he said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The admiral had been an exchange student at Harvard University as a language officer from 1919-1921. He was keenly aware of the industrial capacity of U.S. companies, such as Ford Motor Company. He was also aware of the potential resources of the United States. Yamamoto clearly did not underestimate the Depression-era military of the U.S. that was ranked behind the nation of Portugal. Nor was he fooled by anti-war pacifists who literally dominated the politics of the post-World War decades. Admiral Yamamoto was one of the few to recognize that the American will to fight back with an overwhelming vengeance would follow the day that would become known as the “…a day that will live in infamy.” As a senior military officer, he did what his country ordered him to do.


Major provocative elements motivated the militant new government of Imperial Japan to expand by conquest. The “imperialist strategy” brewed intently along with Japan’s technological advances, their critical need for raw materials, and aggression toward Manchuria, China, and by July, 1941, the conquest of Indochina. Hostilities intensified toward “ABCD Encirclement” (i.e., American, British, Chinese, and Dutch strangleholds on the Pacific). Expansionist plans were also fueled by the lust to become a great colonial power like their ABCD counterparts. The militant new government of Japan, aligned with Axis Germany (Tripartite Pact, September, 1940), was quick to interpret U.S. embargos of oil and scrap metal as “acts of war.” Well before December 7, 1941, Japan informed the U.S. that such embargos would be considered acts of war. Tremendous pressure was also placed on Japan’s militant government by the ultra-nationalist, secret, Black Dragon Society of Japan. It was the specific fear of that ruthless group that lead FDR to set up Japanese internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor for all persons of Japanese descent living near the West Coast of the United States.


The “Bushido Code,” which traces its origins to the warrior code of the Samurai, directly contributed to the desire to challenge the weakened ABCD nations with a “fight to the death” confrontation for regional supremacy. Western European nations with colonies throughout the Western Pacific (Britain, France, and the Netherlands) faced domination by Japan’s military ally, Nazi Germany. China was weakened by centuries of poverty and constant warlord strife. The Chinese lacked an effective military force to resist Japan’s aggressiveness. The United States, the remaining opposition, likewise had a ridiculously small military force (except for aircraft carriers and B-17’s), an image of “softness and unwillingness to fight,” and little more than an antiquated naval force concentrated at Pearl Harbor.

Battleship technology was fast becoming obsolete by the end of the World War in 1918. On July 21, 1921, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell had proved that a plane can bomb and sink any ship from the air in minutes. General Mitchell, in fact, testified before a Congressional House subcommittee in February, 1921. He stated that, “… 1,000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of one dreadnaught….” It was obvious to all who would listen that aircraft bombs, submarine torpedoes, or mines could sink a ship for pennies compared to the horrendous cost of a battleship. The proof was not well received by navy traditionalists, but was an established fact decades before the assault on Pearl Harbor. The exception tends to be the aircraft carrier. America’s three carriers in the Pacific (Lexington, Saratoga and Enterprise) were outnumbered and protected by aircraft that were inferior to Japan’s Mitsubishi fighter aircraft and experienced pilots.

One of America’s best long-range weapons at the time, B-17 bombers, were attempting a landing in the midst of the Pearl Harbor attack. All were unarmed and either damaged or destroyed. The B-17’s on the ground on the following day at U.S. bases in the Philippines experienced the same fate. Foggy weather conditions south of Formosa (Taiwan) prevented a simultaneous assault on American bases in the Philippines. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked multiple Oahu targets, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, Hong Kong, Malaya, and assorted islands in the Pacific.

Failure to respond to “appropriate war warnings” fell exclusively on the two commanders at Pearl Harbor, not General Douglas MacArthur, or to those higher up the chain of command. In this writer’s opinion, however, President Roosevelt was morally obligated to maneuver and to interpret “world incidents” in a manner that contributed to the preservation of western civilization in war-torn Europe. The president’s motives can be imputed to be noble, far-reaching, and intended to preserve democracy, not fascism and slavery for much of the world. Every U.S. president has had to make decisions that could result in the loss of some lives. Pearl Harbor was one of those crushing decisions. No one, apparently, had any idea just how hard Japan could hit. In FDR’s “Infamy” speech he stated, “…the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago.” Obviously, as a former Undersecretary of the Navy, FDR was fully aware that the most far-reaching attack in world history was not planned and executed in merely a couple of days or even a couple of weeks. Above all, FDR could not be held personally accountable and function as the president.

USS Arizona burns during the attack

The U.S. political environment following the disastrous and pointless loss of life in the Great War or World War of 1914-1918 dictated that no politician would drag young American men and women into another dirty war of attrition on European soil. Therefore, an “incident” had to be extremely provocative to alter the prevailing antiwar mindset. At the presidential level, something very significant had to be done before the British Isles were lost to Nazi Germany. Sinking the U.S. river gunboat, Panay, in the Yangtze River of China was insufficient. Sinking of American merchant marine ships in the Atlantic was insufficient. Nazi atrocities against all persons of Jewish descent were insufficient. Atrocities against Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally retarded, mentally ill, physically imperfect, or even those opposing National Socialism were insufficient. The rape of Nanking, China, was insufficient. The impending loss of the British Isles was insufficient. America needed an incident of great national humiliation and tragedy that each American could feel in their gut to change the anti-war stance. The vicious ferocity of the Japanese attack and reported lack of provocation on a Sunday morning, and the disastrous sinking of the USS Arizona was sufficient.

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