Europe had been overrun by Hitler’s war machine; Hideki Tōjō’s Japan was like a wild bull running over Asia while the American economy remain mired in recession. The year was 1941 and the only two men able to stop the Nazi advance in Europe were Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Together, they would not have been able to get anywhere near Berlin, however.
In Asia, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong reconciled to fight the Japanese while Mahatma Gandhi in India supported the British colonial government morally but not with arms. The Axis powers, in short, were on the march and we would be living in a very different world today if it weren’t for one Japanese admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto.
Yamamoto was a first-class naval commander. He was one of several Japanese military leaders to devise a strategy to get hold of the natural resources of present-day Indonesia. Oil was the prime requirement and since the United States had imposed an embargo on Japan, it had to look elsewhere. To get to Indonesia and also acquire the rubber resources of Thailand, Japan had to invade the Philippines, which were then under the control of the United States.
The original plan called for an attack against the American Marines stationed in the Philippines under the generalship of Douglas MacArthur. The Japanese would then invade the rest of Southeast Asia and India next where, to the west, its forces could link up with those of Hitler’s Germany, having defeated Stalin’s Red Army.
An attack on the Philippines could very well involve the United States into the world war, however, so Yamamoto intended to cripple both the US Navy’s forces and its morale as Japan did to Russia at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1904. He expected America, once humiliated, to reach some sort of understanding with Japan. According to the plan, Japan launched an attack against the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
On that day, Imperial Japan’s full might was on display. Four US Navy battleships were sunk and four others severely damaged. Japanese aircraft also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training vessel and one minelayer. Nearly two hundred American aircraft were destroyed, 2,459 people were killed and 1,282 were wounded. The power station, shipyard, maintenance and fuel and torpedo storage facilities as well as the submarine piers and headquarters building were not attacked. Japanese losses were minimal, with 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost and 65 servicemen killed or injured.
The attack was carried out without a formal declaration of war on the part of the Japanese. As the whole of Japan was celebrating the occasion, the person who actually framed the plan was sad and that man was Yamamoto.
Yamamoto had a good understanding of the United States as he had served as a military attaché for the Japanese embassy to Washington as a young man. He had traveled throughout the country and experienced firsthand the fierce patriotism and independent spirit of the American people.
As the whole of Japan was celebrating, he is supposed to have said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Yamamoto was right and the American public rose in anger. American soldiers, many still boys, enlisted for service. Even African Americans, fighting a war at home against segregation, took up arms to fight overseas. Women went to work in the factories to sustain the war effort.
Even if President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the day as one of infamy, his counterparts in Britain and Russia did not complain. They could use the support of American men and arms. As a result of Yamamoto’s fateful decision, the war quickly turned in the Allies’ favor. Pearl Harbor changed the course of World War II — and that of world history as a consequence.