Why Pearl Harbour ?

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The attack signalled the US's entry into World War II, having watched from the sidelines for over 2 years.

My question is why did the Japanese attack the US?

Consider the following:

By 1941 the Japanese plans for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were well advanced. Japan’s military achievements over a short period of time were extraordinary. It had made significant inroads into China. It had swept down eastern Asia and was poised to capture Singapore, Hong Kong and the Dutch East Indies. This had been achieved without any military response from the US, only trade sanctions.

Its conquests had provided Japan with iron, oil, rubber, rice and other raw materials.

Half the US was isolationist. There was no national momentum to join the war effort. Only an attack on US soil would galvanise the US into action.

Other than perhaps an incursion into the Philippines, the Japanese could have expanded their Co-Prosperity Sphere without involving the US. The US were not concerned with the annexation of Dutch, French and British territories.

Japanese commander-in-chief of the Navy, Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbour strike, knew that Japan could not win a war against the US. He told the Japanese Prime Minister Konoye at the time “I have utterly no confidence in the second or third year.” Yamamoto spoke with experience having attended Harvard and lived in US society for a number of years.

Why begin a war, you know you cannot win?

But on 7 December 1941, (Sunday) morning, while the islands of Hawaii were waking from their slumber, 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes attacked the US Naval Fleet moored at Pearl Harbour. The US early warning system did detect planes flying from the north but thinking it was friendly traffic, famously replied “Don’t worry.”

All eight US battleships were damaged. Four were sunk. All but the USS Arizona were later raised.

Prime Minister Churchill was overjoyed to hear news of the attack, and it is reported that he danced a jig around a table in the Parliament. The next day President Roosevelt addressed the nation and described the day as one of “infamy”. World War II had begun for the US. A war that was to conclude with the terrible devastation unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yamamoto was correct. Japan could not win a war against the US. So why the attack?

Some say that the Japanese miscalculated the US feeling towards the War. They feared that further advances, particularly into the Dutch East Indies, would most certainly tip the balance in favour of the US joining the War. As such it was better to strike first and strike hard.

Others say that Japanese hubris dictated their actions after 1940. You will recall that instead of consolidating their gains and securing their hold on new territories, the Japanese High command “flexed its muscle” with attacks on Hawaii (1941) the Philippines (1941), Dutch East Indies (1942), Burma (1942), North Borneo (1942), Singapore (1942), Australia (1942) and the list goes on.

As a sidenote the attack on Darwin, Australia on 19 February 1942, was the largest Japanese air raid since Pearl Harbour.

I suspect it was a case of going too far. The same could be said of the Germans, who became bogged down in their advance on Russia. Napoleon had the same difficulty. The US later became entrenched in Vietnam for 30 years because they thought they could win an unwinnable war. No one had the courage to withdraw.

How often do we go too far? How often do we need to pause and reflect in business and our personal lives?


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