In the mid-19th Century, Japan responded to Western pressure by adopting some Western methods in order to preserve the rest of its society. China responded to Western pressure by going into a defensive crouch. Japan grew strong, while China grew weak. Eventually, Japan began to aspire to push out the “Gaijin” from Asia and to dominate China. The United States (and the other Western countries—Britain, France, Holland) did not want to be pushed out. So, that was a problem. In 1937 Japan invaded China. In 1939 the Second World War broke out in Europe (Germany and Italy versus France and Britain). Germany conquered Poland, France, Belgium, and Holland. Britain was left alone fighting Germany and Italy. Seeing Britain as vulnerable, Japan began to press on the British, French, and Dutch in the Far East. Fearing that a German defeat of Britain would put America next on Hitler’s To-Do list, the Americans aided Britain in both Europe and in the Far East. Economic sanctions were clamped on Japan. The American Pacific Fleet moved to its forward base in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. American troops and planes were rushed to the Philippines, then an American possession. Then, on 21 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Everyone assumed that the Russians would soon be defeated. Britain would surrender. The war would end. The Japanese decided that they had to attack NOW if they weren’t to be left out of the winners. On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the Americans in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and the British in Malaya.
Why were the Americans surprised at Pearl Harbor?
Was war with Japan likely? American-Japanese relations had been deteriorating since 1937 as the US supported China, and then Britain and Holland against Japan. In December 1937 Japanese planes had bombed a US gunboat on a Chinese river. In late 1940 the US had halted export of aircraft parts to Japan. In July 1941 the US halted exports of oil to Japan. In August 1941 the US warned Japan that it would “take steps” if Japan attacked a neighboring territory. In November 1941 a poll showed that 52 percent of Americans expected war with Japan soon.
If war came, how would it begin? In 1904 Japan began its war with Russia by a surprise naval attack on the Russian Far East fleet in its harbor. In 1940 British torpedo bombers flying from an air-craft carrier had launched a surprise attack on the Italian fleet in its harbor at Taranto.
If war came, where would it begin? The Americans believed that Japan lacked the resources to attack to two widely separated areas at the same time. They believed that the build-up of American forces in the Philippines posed an immediate danger to a Japanese attack on Malaya and Indonesia. Therefore, the Americans expected any attack to hit the Philippines.
In Spring 1941 the Japanese Navy began preparing a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This mean planning, but it also meant training. In November 1941 all six aircraft carriers of the Japanese fleet left their ports in the Home Islands and moved north to the remote Kurile Islands.
It was very difficult for an American to spy in Japan. Japan was at war with China, so security was tight. The physical differences between the Japanese and Gaijin made it impossible to just blend in with any crowd. Not many Japanese were willing to betray their country by spying for a foreign country. Unless American diplomats went and looked at Japanese naval bases, they wouldn’t see that the air craft carriers were missing. Even if they did, then they couldn’t know where they had gone. North, South, East, West?
The Japanese attack force sailed on 26 November 1941. Most of their course ran through the North Pacific above the normal most-direct-route shipping lanes between the West Coast of America and the Far East.
Radar has just been invented. Only one set operated in Hawaii and then for only part of the day. When an operator reported planes approaching from the north, it was assumed that these were American planes due to arrive from the US en route to the Philippines at that time.
The attack began at 7:00 AM on Sunday, 7 December 1941. Many officers and sailors had been ashore drinking the night before.