World War II: Attack on Pearl Harbor - History

This event single-handedly spurred the United States into joining the conflict in World War II. The Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor was meant to crush American morale, as well as immobilize the Americans so Japan could continue its conquests around the world unimpeded. The attack was the culmination of decades of tension that existed between the U.S. and Japan, and was the breaking point needed to force the Americans from their stance of neutrality and into the war. In Part 4 of our series on WWII, learns more about the years leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and about the results of this historic event.

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Rising Tensions Between Japan and the U.S.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the culmination of two decades of friction that existed between those countries. Japan’s increased efforts at expanding its territory created even more tension with major Western countries like the U.S., France and Britain. An attack on China by Japan in 1937 was criticized many members of the League of Nations, and illustrated the Asian country’s military might and readiness to use it. After World War II had started, efforts to deter Japan proved ineffective, and on September 27th, 1940, the country signed the Tripartite Act to form the Axis Powers with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and gained even more power.

The U.S. Threatened on Both Coasts

This proved a direct threat to the United States, as the country was now in danger of attack on both its coasts, with Hitler and Mussolini on the Atlantic Ocean, and Japan on the Pacific. The U.S. made steps to prepare for war, but remained neutral.

Japan Continues Its Expansion

Japan continued their invasion through Indochina in 1940-41. Meanwhile, the United States tried to halt their progress by banning exports to the country, most importantly oil and raw materials, closing shipping lanes to their use, and other such tactics. Japan desperately needed U.S. oil, but the Americans demanded they leave China. Japan refused and decided swift military action was the only option.

Negotiations Stalled

Negotiations finally stalled, and on December 1st, 1941 Japan officially approved war against the U.S., Great Britain and Holland. It was to begin with an attack to neutralize the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on Hawaii’s Oahu Island.

Goals of the Attack

Japan hoped to take control of Southeast Asia without being impeded, and the attack was meant to accomplish this while also crushing American morale, and neutralizing the U.S. so Japan could expand their conquests elsewhere.

Without Warning

Battle began before Japan had formally declared war on the United States, making it a surprise attack. This left the Americans unprepared and scrambling to defend themselves.

Attack in Two Waves

The attack took place in two waves, coming from both the air and the water. A third wave was almost ordered, which would have severely hurt the U.S. and extended the war, but this idea was withdrawn.

Two Hours of Destruction

The first wave began just before 8am on December 7th, with the second coming an hour later. Though the attack only lasted two hours, by the time it was over almost every American plane had been damaged, as had a number of other military crafts. Two battleships, the USS Oklahoma and the USS Arizona, were completely destroyed. In fact, the Arizona remains underwater in Pearl Harbor as a memorial to honor those lost in the battle.

U.S. Enters the War

The death toll of this attack reached over two thousand three hundred, including military personnel and civilians. Just one day later, the United States officially entered World War II, marking a turning point in this historic conflict.

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