What Led to the Japanese Attack at Pearl Harbor? Part 1

This year is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor which occurred on December 7, 1941.

To commemorate that significant event in our nation’s history, each week leading up to that date I’ll post information about it.

As you’re reading through the posts, leave a comment to let me know how this event may have affected your family – did you have a family member who was there or was drafted shortly afterward? Have you visited the Pearl Harbor exhibit? One of my posts will be about our visit there a few years ago with photos.

The attack at Pearl Harbor in which 2,403 Americans died, according to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau, including 2,008 Navy personnel, 109 Marines, 218 Army service members and 68 civilians, was a pivotal event in world history that deserves our attention.

The USS ARIZONA burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941. National Archives

Thanks to our veterans for your service.


December 6, 1941.

America is at peace. American sailors stationed in the territory of Honolulu, Hawaii, are enjoying another   Saturday of sand and sun. For them Hawaii is the best of all possible assignments — a tropical paradise of endless beautiful women, beach parties, and dance clubs

But on the following day during a quiet Sunday morning, an aerial attack by the military forces of Japan arrive to unleash terror, horror, and tragedy. The American naval fleet is in ruins, racked by a hurricane of violence and death such as America has never seen.

Captured Japanese photograph taken aboard a Japanese carrier before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. National Archives

How did those two nations collide on that December morning?

In the 1930s, Japan suffered from a depressed economy. It turned to the military as a means of building itself up.

The Shinto became the official state religion. It said the Japanese Emperor Hirohito was descended from the Sun god and that the Japanese race was destined to conquest. This belief demanded total subservience from the Japanese people. Each citizen was pledged to serve the emperor until death.

In actuality, Hirohito remained aloof from politics and only became involved in times of crisis. His absence allowed the military to rise to power.

In the 1930s, when Japan realized it needed more raw materials than it could produce, it invaded and took over Manchuria. In 1933 the League of Nations condemned the Japanese imperialism. Washington decried the takeover, but as it imposed no economic sanctions against Japan, that country continued its rampage.

While American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was alarmed at the Japanese aggression, few Americans shared his concern. Many people didn’t care about international affairs and wanted to stay out of another war in Europe.

This isolationist impulse was based on disillusionment with World War I when 117,000 American soldiers had died on foreign fields.

Plus, like Japan, the American economy had also hit rock bottom. Many people struggled to put food on their tables and avoid bread lines.

People before and during WWII stand in lines for food distribution. National Archives

The election of FDR had brought aid with his development of public works programs, such as hydroelectric dams and national park facilities, giving people jobs and paychecks.

Still, Americans had all they could do to survive daily. Little thought was given to building up the military.

Few ships were built and a minimum of modern tanks existed. Pilots only averaged a few hours of flight time per week and combat techniques were limited to classroom discussions.

The Army practiced with old, outdated equipment. Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army with 180,000 soldiers ranked 19th in the world–smaller than that of Portugal.

Before, during and immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, few Americans would have believed that that single devastating event would transform the lives of each of its citizens.

Four years later, hardened by war, the United States would emerge as the greatest single power in the world, a power backed by the most dangerous weapons the world had ever known.


Next week: The Build-Up to December 7, 1941 — What happened in the last days of peace before the collision between the United States and Japan 80 years ago?

4 thoughts on “What Led to the Japanese Attack at Pearl Harbor? Part 1

Add yours

  1. My Aunt Lois’s birthday party came to a screeching halt on Dec 7. Even children knew there was something big happening. The party goers gathered round the radio to hear the news.

  2. I see. She would have been the same age as children in my book, ‘It Was Our War Too: Youth in the Shadows of WWII.’ Did she share other stories about the war? Mom would have been the same age, but she never shared 1 story about the war. She didn’t like history. 🙂

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