Donald Elder-Great Events in American History – the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Dec 7, 2015 by


An Interview with professor Donald Elder-Great Events in American History – the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

1) Professor Elder- a singular event, which basically drew America into World War II was the Bombing of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific. Can you give our readers an overall feel as to what was transpiring at that time both in America, and in Europe and in that Pacific theatre?

While the United States was at peace the morning of December 7, 1941, much of the rest of the world was involved in an armed conflict. Many European nations, for example, had gone to war in September of 1939 as a result of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In Asia, hostilities had commenced in 1931, when Japan had invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. These wars attracted the interest of the American public, but a majority of the nation’s citizens wanted the United States to avoid involvement in them. This anti-war sentiment had a number of causes, but largely stemmed from a widely held view that the United States should not have gotten involved in the First World War. Inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s assertion that the conflict would “make the world safe for democracy,” the American people had patriotically supported the war effort, but after hostilities ended in 1918 the nation became disillusioned by the actions of our allies.

Rather than seek a just peace, these nations chose instead to rearrange the map of the world to suit their own national interests. It also became apparent that certain industrialists and financiers had benefited greatly from America’s involvement in the conflict, prompting many citizens to further doubt that Wilson’s lofty idealism had been the true reason for going to war. Thus many Americans were wary of becoming involved in the hostilities in Europe.

President Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, felt that the Second World War was a much different type of conflict than its predecessor. Believing that Hitler and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini were bent on world domination, he thought that the United States needed to help countries opposed to the spread of Fascism. Accordingly, he provided military aid to Hitler’s enemies, and used the American Navy to help escort war materiel across the Atlantic. It seems likely that these actions would have eventually provoked war with Germany and Italy, but as it turned out we became combatants because of an event that took place on the other side of the world.

2) Let’s set the stage—what was the basic function of Pearl Harbor- offensive, defensive, supply site? Way station? And who was the ultimate commander of that site?

As previously noted, the Japanese had embarked on an expansionist course of action in 1931, when they invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. Eager to exploit the resources of China, the Japanese went back on the offensive in 1937. Because he was not the president in 1931, there was nothing that Franklin Roosevelt could do about the first act of Japanese aggression, but in 1937 he took steps to demonstrate his opposition to the new campaign. But because most of the American people did not consider the Japanese actions to be a sufficient reason to go to war (even after Japanese warplanes sank an American naval vessel patrolling a Chinese river and then strafed the survivors), Roosevelt’s options for aiding the Chinese were largely limited to economic aid. Roosevelt’s anger towards the Japanese grew even stronger in September of 1940, when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, becoming an ally of Germany and Italy. This happened only weeks after the Japanese had demanded territorial concessions from France, a country that Germany had defeated earlier that year.

Roosevelt saw this as unbridled aggression on the part of the Japanese, and began to impose economic sanctions on that nation. To further demonstrate his resolve, Roosevelt transferred the vast majority of the American Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor.

In addition, Roosevelt increased the size of the US Army garrison in Hawaii, and began to deploy more US Army Air Force airplanes there. Admiral Husband Kimmel commanded naval forces based at Pearl Harbor, while General Walter Short was in charge of both US Army and US Army Air Force personnel in Hawaii. Blamed for how unprepared American forces were when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, both would be relieved of command.

3) There is always some rumors about great events – that some anticipated an attack – Did military intelligence have any real data or evidence that an attack was imminent?

Since the days after Pearl Harbor, there has been a suspicion that Franklin Roosevelt knew of the imminent Japanese attack and chose not to issue a warning to his commanders in Hawaii. This school of thought maintains that Roosevelt desperately sought American involvement in the Second World War, and saw an attack on Pearl Harbor as being an event that would cause the American people to cast aside their neutral sentiments. Once war with Japan came, it would then only be a matter of time before Germany came to the aid of its ally. Supporters of this theory often point to the fact that the most valuable ships in the American Pacific Fleet—the aircraft carriers Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise—were not at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, indicating that a forewarned Roosevelt had ordered them to put to sea beforehand. It is also suggested that radio transmissions between Japanese ships on their way to Pearl Harbor were intercepted, indicating the Japanese intent to attack Hawaii. Finally, it is clear that American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic code during the fall of 1941, and it is suggested that Japanese messages at the time indicated that diplomatic initiatives were to be ended in early December if unsuccessful at that point. Some have suggested that Roosevelt would have learned from these intercepts that the Japanese were planning to strike the American fleet a crippling blow at Pearl Harbor, anticipating that this would force the United States to recognize the legitimacy of the Japanese conquests in Asia.

Today, however, most historians flatly reject the conspiracy theory. Primarily, it is argued that no one in December of 1941 could have foreseen the decisive role that aircraft carriers would play in the war against Japan. Battleships had been the dominant force at sea since the invention of the cannon, and it seems ludicrous to suggest that Franklin Roosevelt (a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy) would have deliberately sacrificed these valuable commodities. Rather than know too much, it appears that Roosevelt in fact knew too little. Indeed, while we can piece together the evidence today and see the implications, Franklin Roosevelt was reacting in real time to fragmentary and conflicting bits of evidence. Intelligence mistakes were made by the experts, and the result was a devastating surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet.

4) Professor Elder, I know that you will join with me in recognizing and acknowledging the many brave men and women who gave their lives on that day, which will forever, live in infamy, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said. Is there a monument that lists these individuals? And is there a place that lists all of these individuals who gave so much?

Over 2,400 Americans lost their lives on the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. Others would later succumb to wounds suffered during the attack. Most of the fatalities were US Navy personnel, and the majority of them served on the battleship Arizona. Most of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor were raised and eventually saw service again, but the damage done to the Arizona was so catastrophic that it was left where it sank. In the years after the end of the Second World War, a number of people suggested that there should be a memorial built at the site. In 1962, work on the monument was completed. It is anchored on either side of the submerged hull of the Arizona, and the actual memorial is situated above the water so that it does not touch the vessel. On the memorial are inscribed the names of the sailors and Marines who died there. The memorial is operated by the US Navy, while the submerged hull of the Arizona is operated by both the US Navy and the National Park Service.

5) Implications of Pearl Harbor—in the short term? And in the long term?

Japan had planned the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the assumption that severe losses could force the United States to back away from its confrontational policies regarding the Japanese incursions in Asia, and to inflict the maximum amount of damage the Japanese sent 350 aircraft to attack Hawaii. The attack itself succeeded beyond even the most optimistic hopes of the Japanese planners. Every battleship stationed at Pearl Harbor was sunk, and 13 other vessels were either sunk or damaged. 188 aircraft were destroyed, and almost as many were damaged.

Almost 2400 military personnel were killed during the attack. But in the long run, the attack did not succeed in forcing the United States to condone Japan’s expansionist policy. Rather, the attack enraged the American people, especially because no declaration of war had been issued by Japan prior to the bombings. Ironically, the person who best understood the ramifications of the attack was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the individual who had commanded the Japanese assault forces.

Immediately after the attack had ended, he said “I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” This statement proved quite prescient, as the motto “remember Pearl Harbor” inspired the American people to overcome the blow and see the war through to victory in 1945.

6) While we all recognize Dec 7th as Pearl Harbor Day, what events currently transpire at the actual site?

After the Arizona Memorial was commissioned in 1962, a move was initiated to create a more over-arching method for remembering the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. Accordingly, the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument was created in 2008 by the National park Service. It encompasses five sites in Hawaii, three in Alaska, and one in California. Tours are available at all times of the year, but a special observance is reserved every year for December 7. It is a fitting way for Americans to remember what, in Franklin Roosevelt’s words, was “a date which will live in infamy.”

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