It’s been 76 years since the Empire of Japan struck Pearl Harbor in a surprise Sunday morning attack that devastated the American Pacific Fleet, killed 2,403 service members, and launched the United States into World War II.
Historians still contemplate the conditions that led to the violent confrontation.
Ron Milam, professor of military history at Texas Tech and executive director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict, refers to sanctions that were tried by the United States as a means of curbing Japanese aggression in the Asian region.
“We had put an embargo on Japan — an oil embargo. We felt that some of the oil-producing areas down in the Dutch East Indies were vulnerable to Japan, and we controlled many of those,” he said.
“We actually put in an embargo, and we were threatening an even bigger embargo that would have shut off oil to Japan to feed their military machine.
“We call that sanctions, today.”
There already had been serious discussion about the wisdom of keeping the Pacific Fleet at San Diego or positioning it halfway across the Pacific Ocean at Hawaii where it wouldn’t have the benefit of support forces.
“We had watched Japan invade China, which at the time was having its own civil wars between the Communists and the Nationalists,” Milam said. “So, we were concerned about Southeast Asia.”
Milam said, “In those days there was no Central Intelligence Agency. Every branch of the government had its own intelligence … and none of them talked to each other.”
There was this threat from Japan, also:
“We had pretty good intelligence that their aircraft carriers made them incredibly mobile. And their attitudes toward this embargo that was going on — we should have known that something bad was going to happen somewhere.”
He said, “They went after the fleet, and 90 percent of the men on the Arizona were killed. The reason for that was that one of their aerial torpedoes hit the ammunition hold in the Arizona, and it blew up. That’s what killed everybody on the Arizona. But their targets were the fleet and also the airports that had our aircraft that they knew could take them on. They did a pretty good job of taking out the air assets also.
“They hit the hospital, and a lot of people were killed in the hospital. They didn’t target civilian targets just to be targeting them — they really were after the military assets because they knew if they could destroy the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, that gave them the opportunity to have enough time to build up their assets in the South Pacific.
“They knew it would be a long time before America could make it there, and it would give them time to take over all those islands in the Dutch East Indies.”
Even the organizers of the carrier-based attack, including Isoroku Yamamoto, had argued against it to the militarists of Japan:
“Yamamoto was a student at Harvard back in the 1920s, and he knew Americans. He knew what our response would be,” Milam said.
The American response to the attack was a battle to the total surrender of Japan, along with devastation of that country’s forces and much of its country along the way.
The war, begun as an attack on the American Pacific Fleet, ended in August 1945 with atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.