War and Conflict

World War II

Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor?

There is still disagreement among historians, military scholars, and investigators about why the island nation of Japan issued this surprise attack on the U.S. military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Some believe that Japan had been baited into making the attack in order to marshal public opinion behind U.S. entry into World War II (1939–45); others maintain that the United States was unprepared for such an assault, or at least, the Japanese believed Americans to be in a state of unreadiness; and still others theorize that Pearl Harbor was an all-or-nothing gamble on the part of Japan to knock America’s navy out of the war before it had even entered into the fray.

These are the facts: In 1941 Japanese troops had moved into the southern part of Indochina, prompting the United States to cut off its exports to Japan. In fall of that year, as General Hideki Tojo (1884–1948) became prime minister of Japan, the country’s military leaders were laying plans to wage war on the United States. On December 7 Pearl Harbor, the hub of U.S. naval power in the Pacific, became the target of Japanese attacks, as did the American military bases at Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines. But it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor that became the rallying cry for Americans during the long days of World War II—since it was at this strategic naval station, which had been occupied under treaty by the U.S. military since 1908, that Americans had felt the impact of the conflict.


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