Pearl Harbor: The Worst Military Decision In History?

Photo Credit: Imperial Japanese Navy / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized & Enhanced by DeepAI)
Photo Credit: Imperial Japanese Navy / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized & Enhanced by DeepAI)

The morning of December 7, 1941, is a date remembered across the world, particularly by American citizens. That morning, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) caught the United States off guard by launching a surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare war the following day. The infamous incident has been analyzed over the decades, leading to one question: was the attack on Pearl Harbor the worst military decision in history?

Precursor to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Japanese troops marching into Mukden
Japanese marching into Mukden at the beginning of the invasion of Manchuria, 1931. (Photo Credit: Osaka Mainichi, War Cameraman / Word War II Database / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Japan aligned itself with the Axis powers when the government signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940. The nation was already at war with China following the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, yet it wanted more land in Southeast Asia, with a focus on British territories to aid the other Axis countries.

This desire was the result of decades of growth, both economically and on the global stage, that began following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 19th century. Aggressive expansion began and continued into the interwar period, causing a number of countries – in particular, the United States – to place sanctions on the country.

Things only grew worse with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Nanjing Massacre, and Japan signing additional treaties with the likes of the Soviet Union and Vichy France. By the time the country’s forces invaded Indochina in 1941, the US was concerned enough to completely freeze Japanese assets, along with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, directly impacting the nation’s economy.

This prompted Japan to begin planning an attack on the US. Going back to its desire to gain more land in Southeast Asia, officials predicted that invading British territories would likely draw the US into the Second World War, as it was a British ally and had its own territories in the Pacific. Thus, it was decided a pre-emptive strike against the country was the logical solution.

Attempting to negotiate with the United States

Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944. (Photo Credit: Leon Perskie / FDR Presidential Library & Museum / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

In February 1941, the United States and Japan entered into negotiations to try and improve diplomatic relations. To say things weren’t going well would be an understatement, with the latter submitting its final proposal on November 20, which stated that military troops would be withdrawn from China and Indochina in return for a number of conditions:

  • The US would stop providing aid to China.
  • An agreement would be put in place to provide Japan with “a required quantity of oil.”
  • All military deployments to Southeast Asia would be ceased.
  • The US would help Japan acquire assets from the Dutch East Indies.

As could be expected, this proposal was unsuccessful, largely because Franklin D. Roosevelt caught wind of Japan’s war plan and the country’s continued actions in Indochina. At a stalemate, Japan deployed its military forces in the Pacific, with the aim being to attack Pearl Harbor.

Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

USS Shaw (DD-373) exploding at Pearl Harbor
USS Shaw (DD-373) exploding during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941. (Photo Credit: National Archive / Getty Images)

The Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor at just before 8:00 AM on December 7, 1941.  The first two waves involved 353 Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft attacking the American vessels moored at the naval base. Four battleships were destroyed and four others were damaged. On top of this, the US Navy lost an additional two vessels and saw nine others impaired.

Along with the ships, the Japanese also targeted aircraft that were still on the ground. They hit Wheeler Airfield hard, taking out 188 aircraft and damaging another 159. However, the worst losses were personnel and American citizens, with 2,403 lives being lost, the majority of them sailors. Another 1,178 individuals were injured.

While there’s speculation that a third wave was suggested by junior Japanese officials, it hasn’t been concretely confirmed that one was in the works.

Was the attack on Pearl Harbor a good military decision?

Destroyed aircraft and debris in front of an airport hangar
Wreckage at Wheeler Airfield following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

In the United States, the attack on Pearl Harbor is considered a national tragedy, but it was only a partial success for the Japanese military. The US lost 188 aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor, while the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered losses in the form of 29 aircraft, five mini-submarines and 64 servicemen. An additional sailor was captured.

This begs the question: how sound a military decision was the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The Japanese had hoped to destroy the US Pacific Fleet to ensure they’d be unable to interfere with the nation’s planned invasions of  Southeast Asia. This was in the hope of buying some time to enhance the overall strength of the IJN and improve their military position while the US Navy rebuilt. They also hoped to hurt American morale to the extent that Franklin D. Roosevelt would seek a compromise.

Nonetheless, the attack proved that Japan was diplomatically unreliable and made a diplomatic resolution impossible. As well, the IJN had been unable to destroy any of the US Navy’s aircraft carriers, since they weren’t docked there on December 7, 1941, meaning some of the strongest vessels in the Pacific Fleet were still operational.

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Japan came to regret the attack on Pearl Harbor soon after, as confirmed by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s diary, which was filled with anxiety before and after the strike. The US didn’t suffer much lasting damage, and the assault, instead, served to abruptly wake a slumbering economic and military giant.

Jurgen Shperdhea

Jurgen Shperdhea is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE