It is 11 years, this year, since the terror attacks on New York. And today it is 71 years since Japanese air strikes on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War.
We need to remember Pearl Harbor. Although war clouds had been looming, the attack came by surprise and was a shock to the United States people – 7 December became a day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted, that would live forever in infamy. The parallels with the 2001 terror attacks on New York are clear, even down to post-fact conspiracy theories.In these respects, Pearl Harbor was the ‘911 attack’ of the Second World War.
The road to it began in Europe with the fall of France in May 1940. That created a power vacuum in former French colonies in modern Vietnam, which the Japanese exploited as a way of encircling China.
That was a concern to the US, but the spectre of a Nazi-dominated Europe was more worrisome and gave Roosevelt opportunity to have acts passed authorising the largest military build-up in the history of the world. New legislation authorised everything from ultra-long range bombers able to hit Europe from US airbases (these became the B-29 Superfortress) to new army divisions, tanks, aircraft – and a massive naval programme.
A few weeks later, planners had a second bite at the naval cherry with the ‘Two Ocean Navy Act’, sometimes also called the ‘Vinson-Walsh Act’. This bumped the US navy up a notch on top of earlier legislation, adding a further 18 new aircraft carriers, 7 more battleships, 6 additional battlecruisers, 27 further cruisers, 115 additional destroyers, 43 more submarines and a whopping 15,000 aircraft. This was on top of existing extra expenditure and programmes, yet debate on 18 June lasted less than an hour and the new Act passed by 316 votes to nil.
Can you imagine that happening today?
The gargantuan naval programme worried Japanese planners, because the Pacific theatre pivoted on naval strength; and Japan – with only around 14 percent of the world’s industrial capacity and reliance on imported raw materials – could not match it. Although US planners had concerns about the capability of American industry to meet new construction, the 1943-44 completion date for these ships became the deadline against which Japanese planning was set.
When that was mixed with US and British concern during 1941 over Japanese conduct in South East Asia, and of their war in China, the results were a rise in tensions – all against the ticking time-bomb of battleships and aircraft carriers taking shape in US yards. In the end, the military junta running Tokyo at the time decided the answer was to hit the US such a blow, pre-emptively, as to let Japan establish dominance over the Pacific islands and then get a negotiated peace on Japanese terms.
So went thinking in Tokyo. It was quite wrong, and voices such as that of Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, who knew how Americans thought, were lost. From the historical perspective these decisions became pivotal to the shape of world history.
Does anybody remember Pearl Harbor today? Does it still live forever in infamy? Or has it been eclipsed by the “911” terror attacks on New York? What do you figure?
Next post: New Zealand’s Pearl Harbor.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012