It was a date that, as promised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), lives on in infamy. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service executed a pre-emptive military strike upon the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, located on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The Japanese killed 2,403 U.S. service members and injured 1,178, as well as sinking and destroying six battleships and 169 planes.
It was a strategic plan by the Japanese to eliminate any possible challenges to their domination in Asia, but it was also in violation of international law. It led the United States into World War II – a result the Japanese would dearly regret.
Tensions had escalated between Japan and the U.S. for nearly a decade, and relations worsened with America’s support of China. In the late 1930s, foreign policy and diplomacy in the Pacific was tied to support for China. Japan’s aggression against China was a sore spot with the U.S. and diplomatic relations were nearing an impasse. However, there was no indication by Japan that war was imminent.
After the sudden strike on Pearl Harbor, the president addressed the nation to explain the attack on U.S. soil and to call out in very strong words what the Japanese would soon face:
“The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.”
The Plan to Cripple America
The Imperial Navy, under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, plotted for a year how best to decimate the U.S. Navy. Yamamoto was a former Harvard University student and naval attaché in Washington. He understood the only way to decimate the military power was in a coordinated surprise attack. Within two days, the synchronized assault by Yamamoto left Pearl Harbor, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island, and the storied Midway Island in ruins.
The attack resulted in the U.S. formally joining World War II, where it largely fought the Japanese forces across the Pacific region, as well as entering the conflict in Europe. The president addressed Americans with a radio address, to explain the nation’s entry into war:
“Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”
What the world – and FDR – did not know was that the events of the day were the catalyst to the U.S. becoming a global superpower.