This Saturday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II. I will give an analysis of the attack and its aftermath.
For many years, there has been a conspiracy theory regarding Pearl Harbor, in which some people say Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) knew that an attack was coming, but did nothing in order to draw America into the war. This conspiracy was based mostly on 1) American (and Allied) intelligence intercepting Japanese messages, 2) the actions of American (and Allied) officials before and after the attack, and 3) the aircraft carriers not being at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.
Intelligence failures regarding Pearl Harbor were the result of the inter-service rivalry between Army and Navy Intelligence (in which both branches competed for better funding, equipment, personnel, etc.) but also because gathered intelligence was naturally intended to be shared only under certain circumstances, not to mention needing approval. The latter reason also extended to the sharing of intelligence with the British and the Dutch (who were intercepting Japanese messages).
But perhaps the biggest factor concerning intelligence was that American cryptanalysts had intercepted and broken the Japanese code, but it was the diplomatic code that had been completely deciphered. The Japanese naval code was only 10% deciphered at the time of Pearl Harbor (and not fully deciphered until 1942), and its messages did not indicate an attack on Pearl Harbor (although some messages hinted at it). Since the Japanese were flooding the Pacific with messages, it seems likely they were trying to deceive the Americans of their intentions. Some American officials believed that the Japanese planned to launch an attack in Southeast Asia (which of course, they did) and not at Pearl Harbor.
In regards to the actions of American (and Allied) officials before the attack, there seemed to be a combination of naiveté and be-careful-what-you-wish-for. For instance, some American officials hoped the Japanese would attack, thus bringing American into the war. Thus, they got what they wished for. This also might explain how some individuals (e.g. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) seemed “relieved” when learning of the attack.
It is likely many officials were naïve about the Japanese launching an attack against Pearl Harbor, due to its distance. In addition, keeping Pearl Harbor on a constant state of alert would be like the boy who cried wolf, and possibly tip off any Japanese spies.
Air patrols were sent to the west, southwest, and even north of Hawaii (the west and southwest were presumed to be the likely directions of an attack). But the Japanese moved in from the north, and no air patrols were sent in that direction on December 7 (due to the inability to carry out reconnaissance on a daily basis). Japanese aircraft were detected by radar as they approached Oahu, but they were mistaken for a flight of B-17s scheduled to arrive from the mainland. And the spotting and sinking of a Japanese submarine by the Ward was not reported in time, as were warnings from Washington of an imminent attack due to slow relay via telegraph.
Then there is the absence of the aircraft carriers. The Saratoga was undergoing repairs on the West Coast, while the Lexington and the Enterprise were delivering airplanes at other destinations. Meanwhile, seven heavy cruisers were out at sea. Some people might think FDR was willing to sacrifice the battleships but wanted to spare the aircraft carriers. However, there is no evidence to support such a claim.
In regards to such a conspiracy theory, I must ask this: do you really think American officials were willing to sacrifice over 2,000 lives at Pearl Harbor just to enter the war? And if they did know of it in advance, wouldn’t it be more practical to have a surprise party for the Japanese? American fighter planes could have been in the air ready to intercept the Japanese planes, and possibly gone after the Japanese fleet (in fact, the B-17s could have been sent after the fleet, but they were probably low on fuel). Plus, the ships would have been ready to combat any Japanese planes that survived the aerial battle.
Despite the destruction at Pearl Harbor, it could have been worse. Only the Arizona and the Oklahoma were behind any hopes of salvage. Over a hundred planes were destroyed, but they would be replaced. In addition, due to the Japanese being unaware of the aircraft carriers’ locations, they did not launch a second strike. Doing so spared the dockyards and fuel storage tanks from destruction, which in turn led to a resurgence of the Pacific Fleet.
The Japanese had also decided not to invade Hawaii (doing so would have deprived America of a vital location in the Pacific) although Yamamato advocated doing so after Pearl Harbor. He also wished to lure the Pacific Fleet out in order to destroy it. Japanese officials were opposed to such an idea, but opted with the latter goal after the Doolittle raid convinced them that America’s aircraft carriers had to be destroyed. And thus the stage was set for the Battle of Midway.
There are those who believe Pearl Harbor marked the end of the battleship era, but that is not true. Battleships proved their worthiness during World War II (even the Japanese knew this, hence the emergence of the Yamato and the Musashi) and continue to be a formidable naval presence to this day (they can take out anti-aircraft sites and provide support for amphibious assaults). Plus, a fully-manned (and prepared) battleship on the move can be difficult to sink from the air (which was not the case at Pearl Harbor, otherwise the outcome would have been different).
As for the sleeping giant quote, it was not Yamamoto who said it. Instead, it’s possible Nagumo (the commander of the fleet) might have uttered that infamous phrase.
Image: Courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/publicresourceorg/494026181/