It’s 75 years since Japanese aircraft attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbor – triggering the Pacific war that finally ended in August 1945 after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where does the time go?
For all the infamy of the moment, it wasn’t quite a total surprise. Relations between Japan and the west – the US, particularly, but also Britain – had been strained for some time. The cause, largely, was the ongoing war in China which had been raging since 1931 but taken on a new life with the fall of France in May 1940. That opened up a power vacuum in the former French colonies of South East Asia, allowing the Japanese to move in with the aim of tackling the Chinese from the south. That was opposed by the US and Britain.
The fall of France also triggered several other responses in the US. The prospect of Britain also falling could not be ignored, and despite a policy of isolationism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to organise significant legislative steps authorising a massive military build-up. New aircraft, ships and ground forces were ordered – including a new type of aircraft able to fly to Europe and back from US soil, which eventually emerged as the Boeing B-29. The naval build-up was unprecedented: a two-ocean navy unfettered by earlier inter-war treaty restrictions, designed to deal with the European war and any problems in the Pacific simultaneously.
All of that took time to build, and in their game of brinksmanship with the US, the military junta that effectively ran Japan at the time realised the clock was ticking. Japan could muster about 14 percent of the world’s total industrial capacity. The US had about 48 percent. And so, if Japan was to deal with the confrontation militarily, they had to act before the new US forces came on line, and while Britain – who dominated the Malayan resources that Japan needed – was otherwise occupied.
The possibility of doing so by pre-emptive strike, in peacetime, wasn’t new. Britain did it to the Danes in August-September 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, and a surprise blow was also how Japan opened the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. In 1941, there was a belief in Japanese military circles that a heavy enough blow, followed by a ferocious enough push, would force the US to the negotiating table within a few months. They were, of course, dead wrong.
The other point we forget about that day is that the Japanese simultaneously attacked the British in Malayan waters, shortly sinking the only two heavy ships the British had in the area at the time. The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse was very much Britain’s equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
Today, 75 years on, we know how all this panned out. But at the time the immediate outcome was far from obvious, and for a few desperate months -until forces could be rallied – the Allies were vulnerable.
For the story of New Zealand’s part in that Pacific war, check out my book on that very calamity – available right now, on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016