On December 7, 1941, Japan unexpectedly attacked, without declaration of war, the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, in the archipelago of Hawaii, where the Pacific fleet was based, allowing the United States to overcome all internal resistance to the official entry into World War II. Eighty years have passed since that day and that event is still alive in the American consciousness, even after the attack on the Twin Towers.
The scenery before Pearl Harbor
The war had started two years ago. The year before, in 1940, Japan had signed a defensive alliance with Italy and Nazi Germany. At the end of 1941, while in Europe Nazi Germany carried out its offensive against the Soviet Union arriving at the gates of Moscow, Japan was continuing its aggressive policy of expansion in Southeast Asia, which had already begun in the 1930s. With the conquest of Manchuria, which had always been disputed with China, between 1931 and 1932, and which continued, between 1940 and 1941, with the threat to the main western colonies in the area (such as present-day Malaysia, then British, or the Dutch East Indies), having already occupied French Indochina.
After the invasion of China, considered by the Americans an attack on international law, the United States started a slow economic strangulation of Japan, with a gradual embargo and freezing of financial deposits, in front of which Japan found itself choosing whether to give up or to react.
The aggression therefore did not arise out of nowhere, but represented the breaking point of a tension that had lasted for years, with Japan cultivating an imperial design that contested the US primacy in the Pacific, but which, in order to be realized, required extensive territorial conquests to obtain those raw materials that Japan lacked. In the intentions of the Japanese, the operation therefore had the objective of rendering the United States unable to react to further Japanese expansionist intentions in the Pacific.
A military confrontation between Japan and the United States, two countries that had been allies during the First World War, was widely expected by many observers, but in December 1941, despite the tensions, the channels were still officially open between the two countries. diplomats and negotiations were underway. In addition to this, the United States did not expect an attack in Hawaii, relatively far from the theater of war, and where the Pacific Fleet had been moved a few months ago from its previous base in San Diego, California.
The “Operation Z”
On the Japanese side, the planning of the attack, which was headed by the commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, continued from the beginning of 1941, and had mobilized the military means involved (a team of six aircraft carriers and several support warships) as early as November, but the final authorization of Emperor Hirohito came only on December 1st.
Admiral Yamamoto’s plan, coded “Operation Z”, was to sink a large part of the American fleet in the Pacific, especially the two aircraft carriers that were at anchor, the Lexington and the Enterprise. Its twin Saratoga was at home and other major aircraft carriers and ships were in the Atlantic, where they had been transferred in preparation for a war against Germany and Italy: there had not yet been any declaration of war against Germany. Axis but the preparations were massive.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had to be carried out by keeping the aircraft carriers very far away in order to be out of the operational range of the American counter-offensive reaction, i.e. also out of the operational autonomy of its aircraft, which would have been sacrificed after the attack. But the plan that was actually implemented was perfected by two experienced air-naval combat officers, Takigiro Onishi and Minoru Genda, who instead thought of bringing the aircraft carriers very close to Pearl Harbor so that the aircraft could cover a relatively short distance to the targets. After the launch of the attack the aircraft carriers would immediately depart at maximum speed to reach a recovery point far away but still within range of their aircraft. The American counterattack would thus have to be brought to a limit distance and perhaps out of the range of its aircraft. It was essential not to be detected during the approach until the moment of launch from the aircraft carriers: the radars of the time were still quite primitive and ineffective at those distances.
The Japanese fleet performed a magnificent diversionary maneuver not aiming directly at Hawaii from the west but heading towards the Kuril Islands, far north of the target. From here the last phase of the attack was launched and the Japanese fleet headed for Hawaii from an unexpected direction. In addition to the Akagi flagship, the other 5 aircraft carriers were: Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku.
At 6:00 am on 7 December 1941 the first wave of Japanese aircraft took off: an American radar station identified them well in advance but the person in charge of the analysis of the radar images attributed the traces to a formation of B-17s whose arrival was expected to the same time. The first 183 aircraft were divided into three groups: the first (torpedo bombers and bombers) with naval targets, the second and third with land targets (airport infrastructures, ground aircraft, anti-aircraft positions, etc.). At the end of the attacks, the damage inflicted on the ground was devastating and the damage to the Pacific fleet was enormous, considering that it was effectively rendered inoperative for a long time. Believing that the first two waves had effectively beaten the intended objectives.
The most important aspect of the operation, perhaps one of the main reasons why the attack had such devastating results, is to be found in the high level of coordination of the Japanese fleet, which allowed to preserve the essential factor of surprise. For this reason the naval group was kept compact and the transfer of information took place only with visual signals, in addition to an iron radio silence of the aircraft in flight. Faced with all this, the Americans found themselves absolutely unprepared on that quiet and relaxed Sunday morning of rest.
“Tora! Tora! Tora! ». This was the message that the Commander of the Japanese Imperial Navy Mitsuo Fuchida, the only one authorized to use the radio, delivered to celebrate the success of the operation, carried out in the absence of a declaration of war. The war report was tragic: 2,403 Americans died, including civilians and soldiers, with 1,178 wounded, 19 ships and over 300 aircraft destroyed or damaged. The Japanese instead lost 29 planes and 64 men. In the following hours, Japan also invaded the Philippines and the island of Guam, then under US control, as well as the English colonies of Malaya, Hong Kong.
The consequences were direct and immediate. On December 8, the next day, the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the famous speech in which he asked Congress for authorization to declare war on Japan. December 7, Roosevelt said, would remain “a day that will live in infamy”: the US response was to be immediate and aim for an “absolute victory” against Japan. Congress approved the request less than 24 hours later.
Although the attack was an almost complete success in the immediate future, it did not deal the fatal blow to the US military apparatus in the Pacific, or rather it was not as permanently favorable, compared to what the Japanese command had foreseen. The US recovered quickly from the attack on Pearl Harbor: the three US aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet (the Lexington, the Saratoga and the Enterprise) were not destroyed in the attack because they were not at the base at the time. The United States then rushed to build more aircraft carriers at an accelerated pace, and in the war against Japan in the Pacific it countedmuch more their air superiority over naval battles.
The awakening of the Giant
In a strategic sense, “Operation Z” can be considered a substantial failure, not only because the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific fleet escaped the attack, but above all because Germany and Italy felt compelled to declare war on the United States in solidarity with the ally. This got Roosevelt out of the way, giving him the ability to go to war with his true enemy and achieve far wider political goals than those pertaining to the Pacific alone.
The term “infamy” used by Roosevelt had a profound resonance in the American public, whose doubts about the necessity of going to war with Japan were suddenly swept away. The isolationist United States became, according to Roosevelt’s definition, the “Arsenal of democracy” and the leader of the free world. That is, they assumed the military, political and symbolic direction of the whole world, coming to forge structural alliances that still last today, as with the United Kingdom, and alliances of purpose with totally different countries. Japan itself, defeated, was brought into the Western sphere.
But if it is reasonable to think that even without Pearl Harbor the role of the United States in the contemporary world would not have been different from what we know, it is also true that the Japanese attack contributed, as highlighted by Gregory Alegi, to creating the myth among the American people. of the “Day that will live in infamy”. In this sense we must see the memorial to the battleship USS Arizona, still lying on the bottom in Pearl Harbor, which after eighty years continues to live in the conscience of American citizens of all ages, social backgrounds, political positions and ethnic origins.
The crisis of the “spirit of Pearl Harbor”
But this anniversary, in the light of the contemporary international scenario, prompts us to make further reflections. In fact, if it is true that Pearl Harbor marked the entry of the United States into World War II and also the beginning of the so-called “American century”, during which the United States was somehow forced to field its power , with an unprecedented commitment on the international scene, as the only country engaged in a truly global war, both on the Pacific and on the Atlantic fronts, the paradox is that today that interventionist logic is being challenged as never before. : we are witnessing the “Spirit of Pearl Harbor” crisis.
To this crisis, which arises from the increasingly frequent disengagement of the United States from many international disputes, is added the new scenario that is taking shape in the Pacific, where today, 80 years later, the strategic opponent has taken on the appearance of China (see Taiwan crisis) rather than Japan.