At 7:55 am Honolulu time on December 7, 80 years ago today America learned a tragic lesson about the danger of hubris and false assumptions.
Of course, that was not the way the story was told at the time.
Two thousand four hundred and three U.S citizens lost their lives as a result of Japan's aggression and their own country's bigoted arrogance.
Surprise attack at sea was a tactic Japan had successfully deployed in two other wars within living memory of men then leading the U.S. navy: once with China in 1894 and once with Russia in 1905 - both wars Japan won. Why did the U.S. so thoroughly dismiss the possibility of Japan's turning this technique on U.S. naval and army forces in the Pacific?
The deterioration in US-Japan relations did not happen overnight. Tensions had been building for years over Japan's war in China. In the summer of 1941, Japan obtained agreement from Vichy France to place Japanese troops in Indochina so as to launch attacks into China and strangle Chinese resistance, In response, Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing all Japanese assets in the United States. The order was interpreted as putting an embargo on oil export licenses. Almost overnight, Japan lost access to seven million barrels of gasoline and 20 million barrels of crude oil - an amount estimated to supply its needs into 1943. Already tense Japan-American relations went into a tailspin.
However, for America, the threat of war in Europe with Germany was what loomed large, not Japan, and certainly not the possibility of a preemptive attack by Japan. By November, Japan sent a special ambassador to Washington.
Claude Pepper, a U.S. Senator from Florida and recognized Roosevelt Administration mouthpiece, gave a quote indicative the dismissive attitude America's leaders took toward Kurusu's mission and the possibility of a threat from Japan, “If Kurusu has come with a message of repentance, we’ll welcome him. If he’s come with a threat, we’ll throw him in the Pacific.”
Less than two weeks later, Japan’s devastating blow landed at Pearl Harbor with the U.S. Navy and Army caught entirely off-guard. Two thousand four hundred and three Americans died. The following day, Roosevelt declared war.
Within the same week, U.S. newspapers were carrying stories like this one:
Within two months thousands of Japanese American citizens on the U.S. West Coast would face removal from their homes and businesses and relocation to internment camps.
Next blog post: what were the military, technological and racial assumptions that underlay the United States' failure to realize the threat Japan posed in 1941.