Editor's note: Mark Albertson will be giving a presentation on Thursday, Dec. 6, at 10:30 a.m. at the Norwalk Senior Center, 11 Allen Road. The topic will be "Pearl Harbor: The Strategic Significance of the Japanese Attack." He is an historical research editor at Army Aviation magazine and has authored three books.
Pearl Harbor changed the course of history
Dec. 7 marks another anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Many see the Day of Infamy as America's official entry into the Second World War. However, the U.S. Navy had been at war months before the Japanese attack. Since the summer of 1941, American destroyers and German U-boats had been swapping depth charges and torpedoes in the battle of the Atlantic. But the importance of Dec. 7 goes much deeper than remembering a sneak attack against a sleeping Pacific Fleet that claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans.
The Japanese program of expansion was known as Hakku-Ichiu, or, "bringing the eight corners of the world under one roof" -- a Japanese roof. A program not too unlike the German excuse for conquest known as Lebensraum or "living space." And this formed the basis for the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere or Japanese Empire.
But on July 26, 1941, in the face of continuing Japanese depredations on the Asian mainland, President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets stateside and embargoed American oil exports. London and the Dutch Government-in-Exile followed suit. With the latter, Japan was cut off from the oil in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Dutch oil interests in the islands, though, agreed to supply Japan with crude, but on a cash-and-carry basis only. But with many of Japan's assets now inaccessible, cash was in short supply.
Like Britain, Japan was an island kingdom and relied on naval power to buttress its empire. Indeed, the Imperial Japanese Navy was the Sword of the Emperor. But on July 27, 1941, the Combined Fleet had just 18 months of fuel. Tokyo found itself in a dilemma: Like Britain, Japan had to import practically every drop of oil. And Japan sorely needed access to Western-controlled sources of crude. But this meant capitulating to Western demands to halt the agenda of conquest on the Asian mainland; a submission that would not only have resulted in a humiliating loss of face, but would have been tantamount to committing political suicide, something the Japanese militarists were not prepared to do. It is at this critical juncture that history comes to our aid as a guide in understanding Japanese intentions.
Tokyo embarked on the road to empire with the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War. The British-trained Imperial Navy easily defeated the outmoded Chinese fleet. German-trained Japanese troops pushed Chinese forces out of Korea, stormed Manchuria, took the Liaotung Peninsula, Port Arthur and threatened Peking. The Chinese sued for peace. With the Treaty of Shimoneseki, China lost Korea and turned over to Japan the Pescadore Islands and Formosa (Taiwan). But competing colonial powers France, Germany and Russia took exception to Japanese conquests. They forced Tokyo to renounce its claims to Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula and return them to China. The national indignation and public backlash at this loss of face among the Japanese was fierce. Starting in 1897, Japan began a six-year naval expansion program that saw four battleships, 16 cruisers and 23 destroyers added to the Japanese fleet. And in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, the Imperial Navy destroyed Russian naval power.
There would be no such loss of face in 1941. If the Imperial Navy needed oil, then Burma, Malaya and especially the Dutch East Indies were going to have to be absorbed into the Japanese Empire. And the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would have to be destroyed to prevent any interference with Tokyo's expansionist agenda.
But the strategic significance of Pearl Harbor goes beyond the crippling of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Japanese attempt to quench its thirst for crude. For Pearl Harbor joins with the battle of Moscow as the turning point of the war.
Starting on Nov. 27, 1941, General Georgi Zhukov threw fresh divisions into a huge counterattack against Fedor von Bock's Army Group Center, which was closing its pincers around Moscow. On a front 650 miles wide, the Red Army threw the Germans back upwards of 200 miles. Then on Dec. 7, the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor.
The war up to this point had been, for the most part, a European conflict. A European civil war fought predominately over European issues. It started in 1914, paused in 1918, only to resume in 1939. But it was at the gates of Moscow, where Hitler lost his bid to win the European civil war. And with the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the conflict became a global struggle. A titanic clash of arms that proved beyond the capabilities of Germany, Japan and Italy.
From 1942 on, the war became dominated, not by the European powers as in 1914-1918, but by outsiders that represented an irrevocable shift in the political, military and strategic realities of the 20th century. For out of the ashes of Pearl Harbor and the frozen hell of Moscow, the United States and the Soviet Union rallied to become the two big winners in mankind's greatest conflict; and in so doing, changed the course of history.