Attack on Pearl Harbor: The Worst Military Decision in History?

Pearl Harbor. Rescuing survivors from USS Virginia

Japan predicted that invading British territories would likely draw the United States into the war, so a preemptive attack on America would be a logical strategy.

The morning of December 7th, 1941 is a date well remembered by American citizens. On that infamous morning, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service caught the United States off guard by launching a surprise attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day. But was this surprise attack a wise decision? The attack not only ensured war between Japan and the United States, but it also expedited the United States’ declaration of war with Germany.

Japan joined the Axis powers in 1940 when it signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Japan was already at war with China after the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese in 1937. Yet Imperial Japan was power and land hungry in Southeast Asia and focused on British territories to aid the other Axis powers.

Japan predicted that invading British territories would likely draw the United States into the war, so a preemptive attack on America would be a logical strategy.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack.

In 1941 the United States and Japan entered negotiations in attempts to improve their diplomatic relations. Japan submitted its first proposal on November 20th, stating that it would withdraw from China and Indochina in return for the United States removing economic sanctions and end sending aid to China.

The proposal was unsuccessful and the United States made a counteroffer stating that Japan must withdraw from China without any conditions. Meanwhile, Japanese forces were already under way towards Pearl Harbor.

A6M2 Zero fighters prepare to launch from Akagi as part of the second wave during the attack on Pearl Harbor
A6M2 Zero fighters prepare to launch from Akagi as part of the second wave during the attack on Pearl Harbor

The first two waves of the Pearl Harbor attack included some 350 to 450 aircraft to destroy moored American warships. During the attack, four American battleships were destroyed with a further four damaged, while three cruisers and three destroyers were also damaged.

The attack resulted in the loss of 2,403 American lives and a further 1,178 were injured. But was the attack the best possible strategy for Japan?

USS Arizona during the attack
USS Arizona during the attack

The United States lost 188 aircraft during the attack while Japan also suffered losses in the form of 29 aircraft, five midget submarines, and 64 servicemen. Nonetheless, the Japanese were unable to destroy the US Navy’s aircraft carriers since they were not in port during the attack.

Furthermore, the Japanese failed to inflict sufficient damage to guarantee that the United States would be unable to recover militarily. 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 USS Shaw Exploding During the Pearl Harbor Attacks
The USS Shaw Exploding During the Pearl Harbor Attacks

First, the Japanese had hoped to destroy the United States Pacific fleet to ensure they would be unable to interfere with Japan’s planned Southeast Asian invasions. Secondly, they hoped to buy time to enhance the strength of the Imperial Japanese Navy and improve their military position. Thirdly, Japan sought to erase the United States’ capability of mobilizing in the Pacific Ocean.

Finally, they hoped to damage American morale to the extent that President Roosevelt would seek a compromise. Nonetheless, the attack proved that Japan was diplomatically unreliable and made a diplomatic resolution impossible.

This submarine had been sunk by USS Monaghan (DD-354) in Pearl Harbor during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack and was subsequently recovered and buried in a landfill.
This submarine had been sunk by USS Monaghan (DD-354) in Pearl Harbor during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack and was subsequently recovered and buried in a landfill.

Read another story from us: Operation K, the Second Attack on Pearl Harbor Kept Secret for Decades

Japan came to regret the attack soon after, as confirmed by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s diary which was filled with anxiety before and after the strike. The United States didn’t suffer much lasting damage from the attack, and it instead served to abruptly wake a slumbering economic and military giant.