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Why Japan Attacked Pearl Harbor

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At the dawn of the 20th century, US Secretary of State John Hay announced what he called the “Open Door” order, declaring that the US would not permit any foreign power to colonize or monopolize trade with China.

For an industrializing, rapidly growing Japan, this declaration meant seemed grossly unfair. The Europeans powers had already had forced Japan to withdraw from territories it had won in defeating the Chinese in 1894–95 and now this.

To secure it’s influence over East Asia, Japan pushed China out of the island of Taiwan and occupied Korea, went to war with Russia and in 1931, Tokyo invaded the Chinese mainland, driving five hundred miles into the interior, leaving Japan in control of more than half the country.

By 1933, it declared that hereafter “Japan is responsible for the maintenance of peace and order in the Far East,

For the US, the self-proclaimed guardian of the Open Door, Japan’s ambitions and actions were unacceptable.

So in response, Washington had used economic instruments, such as financial and trade sanctions, to coerce Japan to stop regional aggression, including against China.

First it imposed an embargo on exports of high-grade scrap iron and aviation fuel to Japan.

Then, Washington ratcheted up its sanctions to include essential raw materials such as iron, brass, and copper—and, finally, oil.

The Japanese government saw these constraints as a stranglehold that threatened its survival

As sanctions tightened in 1941, American ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew insightfully noted in his diary, “The vicious circle of reprisals and counter reprisals is on . . . The obvious conclusion is eventual war.”

Five days before the “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s ambassador to the United States delivered a clear warning.

His government had concluded that Japan was “being placed under severe pressure by the United States to yield to the American position; and that it is preferable to fight rather than to yield to pressure.”

Washington ignored the warning, remaining complacent, confident that Japan would not dare to choose war against an unquestionably superior force.

But despite Japan’s protestations, the United States failed to understand the consequences of its sanctions or anticipate Japan’s response.

So in desperation, Japanese leaders approved a plan to deliver a preemptive “knockout blow” at Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked the US Pacific naval headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sinking most of the American fleet stationed there.

At the time, it seemed inconceivable that a small island nation with an economy and navy dwarfed in size by the United States would attack the most powerful country in the world. But from Japan’s perspective, the alternatives appeared even worse.

The designer of the attacks, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, told his government, “In the first six months to a year of war against the US and England I will run wild, and I will show you an uninterrupted succession of victories.” But he also warned them: “Should the war be prolonged for two or three years, I have no confidence in our ultimate victory.”

US policymakers reacted in shock over what they denounced as Japan’s unprovoked attack. For being so starkly surprised, however, they had no one to blame but themselves

“The attack came as a profound shock to the American people and led directly to the American entry into World War II in both the Pacific and European theatres.


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