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World War II and the Attack on Pearl Harbor

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This is part two of a sample history research paper on the consequences of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor

There was a further element of Japanese strategic miscalculation. Their basic war strategy was to occupy the islands of the Western Pacific and fortify them, creating a fortified perimeter through which the American armed forces would have to penetrate. Japanese fortified island positions indeed proved tough to assault and capture, but U.S. forces only needed to pierce the perimeter, not reduce it. John D. Chappell notes how as the war dragged on and the battle came closer and closer to the U.S. home islands, victories for the U.S. became more and more costly:

“As U.S. forces drove closer to Japan, casualties rose. […] Although obviously defeated, the Japanese persisted with suicidal defense at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and in the Philippines” (Chappell 2).

The Japanese had hoped that this would be the norm from the beginning of the inevitable American counteroffensive and that fighting its way west from island to fortified island would ultimately prove too costly for the U.S. However, American strategic doctrine was to pierce the island perimeter and head straight for Japan via “island hopping,” bypassing most fortified Japanese outposts and leaving their garrisons to wither on the vine. This would not have been a viable strategy if the Japanese had had superior airpower (due to the exposed flanks of the advance), but they had lost their air superiority at Midway and were never able to catch up to America’s industrial might after that.  

Impact on American democracy 

The attack on Pearl Harbor had many consequences, and, while having little to do with the outcome of the war, it did have an effect on the values of American democracy. In the wave of hysteria that followed the Pearl Harbor attack, ethnic Japanese were rounded up and confined to internment camps for the duration of the war. They were only allowed to take with them what they could pack in suitcases, and lived in isolated, miserable enclaves that were little better than concentration camps. Manzanar, in the high deserts of eastern California, was one example. Jerry Stanley reported that

“Manzanar was modeled after an army base designed to house single men. It was one mile square and divided into thirty-six blocks with four barracks to a block” (Stanley 41).

This camp designed to be a barracks for single men was used to house entire families. It contained no recreational or educational facilities, and communal laundry, water, and dining facilities were inadequate. This was despite the fact that many of these people were U.S. citizens and very, very few of them had committed any covert or overt acts against the United States. Americans were understandably angry about Pearl Harbor, but their anger against their countrymen was misplaced. Notably, no such backlash was ever directed against Americans of German or Italian ancestry; the Japanese were just a bit more “alien” and therefore, it was proper in the eyes of the public to mistreat them.

Americans angered at Japanese citizens

The anger that the American public felt at the Japanese had another unforeseen consequence. The Manhattan project, initiated in 1942, was to develop and use an atomic weapon. As per the “Germany first” doctrine, it was meant to be used if necessary on Germany. However, Germany’s collapse in early 1945 meant that by the time the bomb was ready, only Japan remained to use it on. Yet, by 1945, Japan was prostrate and militarily no longer a threat. The Potsdam declaration made by the allies shortly after the German surrender threatened Japan with “total annihilation” if it didn’t surrender. Yet, only the Americans knew that the atomic bomb was almost ready to go.

It was nonetheless anticipated that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be necessary to end the war. Estimates of the cost of that campaign were from 250,000 to 750,000 Allied and up to 20,000,000 Japanese casualties, given the fanatical defense put up by Japanese forces so far, making the war a tragedy of American foreign policy. It is interesting to speculate whether this attack would actually have taken place, given its horrific anticipated cost, had the atomic bomb not offered an additional option. However, most historians present this decision as an either-or. The fact remains that the Allies could have simply isolated Japan and slowly destroyed its remaining military capacity through conventional air and submarine warfare, thus compelling its eventual surrender without the need for invasion or atomic attack.

Atomic Bomb

The question, then of why the atomic bomb was used against Japan suggests itself. One possibility is the racial hatred that was a feature of American home front propaganda ever since the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese were depicted as hateful, devious, lying savages. Their armed forces’ actual conduct during the war only served to reinforce that perception. And of course, that the Pearl Harbor attack was a sneak attack without a declaration of war had reinforced that perception further still. The Japanese had actually intended to make a formal declaration of war one hour before the attack, but a diplomatic mix-up had delayed that announcement until well after the attack. This was another miscalculation on the part of the Japanese, in that they underestimated the Americans’ fury and hatred toward then that the sneak attack would generate. In this writer’s opinion, that hatred manifested itself in the unjust treatment of the interned Japanese-Americans and culminated in President Truman’s lack of compunction in ordering the incineration of two Japanese cities in atomic fireballs.

The Pearl Harbor attack still lingers in the American consciousness. Some authors, like Phillip K. Dick who wrote The Man in the High Castle, questioned what the world would have been like if America wasn't victorious. It was a long time after the war’s end before Americans viewed the Japanese as a trustworthy people (the impression of them being “sneaky” lingers to this day, in fact). And of course, the military disaster that followed Japan’s brief string of triumphs devastated the nation and was the cause of the death of much of an entire generation of Japan’s young men. In light of Japan’s prosperity and stability in the postwar period, one wonders just what the county could have accomplished had it not gone down that suicidal path.

Looking back at Pearl Harbor

Of course, one could take the very long view that Japan’s military dictatorship of 1941 would never have, under its own power, changed into today's peaceful, prosperous democracy. When considering what Japan has done since the war, it could be said that they lost the war but won the peace. Japanese autos, electronics, and other consumer goods have dominated American markets for decades. Its business models have inspired other countries worldwide. It has been remarked, facetiously but not without an element of truth, that the best thing that could happen to a country is to lose a war to the United States. Pearl Harbor all but guaranteed that that very thing would happen. So in an ironic way, the Pearl Harbor attack created the future prosperous, world-beating Japan we see today, with its stable, democratic government and robust economy.

Works Cited

Chappell, John David. Before the bomb: How America approached the end of the Pacific war. University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Stanley, Jerry. I am an American: A true story of Japanese internment. Crown Publishers, 1994.

Whitman, Sylvia. V is for victory: The American Home Front During World War II. Twenty-First Century Books, 1993.

Wohlstetter, Roberta. "Cuba and Pearl Harbor: Hindsight and Foresight." Foreign Affairs 43.4 (1965): 691-707.

Wohlstetter, Roberta. Pearl Harbor: warning and decision. Stanford University Press, 1962.

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