On December 7, 1941, the United States of America was drawn into war with Japan. 75 years ago, Japan bombed the military installations at Pearl Harbor taking the lives of thousands of Americans.
Pre-Pearl Harbor Economic Situation
After World War I, the United States and its allies entered into the Washington Naval Treaty. This Treaty was to ensure that an arms race was curtailed. The treaty limited the size of each nation’s navy. While Japan was permitted to have a Navy significantly larger than either France or Italy, Japan felt snubbed because their Navy was not permitted to be as large as either the United States or Great Britain.
It did not matter that the United States had two different oceans to defend, the national pride of Japan was hurt. This resentment grew, and as time passed the young men who saw their country snubbed by the Washington Naval Treaty became senior officers in the military. Rather than seeing the United States as the partner that they fought beside in World War I, they now saw the United States as the great enemy that was preventing Japan from becoming a world power. Japan saw the United States as the big bully that was preventing them from growing.
For years Japan resented the United States. Japan’s military strategist contemplated ways that they could position themselves as equals with the United States. While Japan’s political leaders negotiated with Washington to obtain their rightful place in the world, Japan’s military leaders devised ways to attack the United States.
Japan had been fighting a long protracted war in China. Japan felt that they would have completely defeated China except for the economic support that China received from both the United States and the Soviet Union. This further enraged the nation of Japan as it felt that the United States was preventing them from building its empire. Japan believe it was their rightful place in the world to be the dominant power in Eastern Asia.
As a result of Japan’s war crimes in China (Rape of Nanking), the United States created a trade embargo with Japan, preventing the nation from buying petroleum. At the time of the oil embargo, Japan had enough petroleum in reserves to last one year. Japan knew that they had to act very soon or their ability to expand their empire would be extinguished by the embargo.
Japan’s leaders understood that they needed to take over the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The Dutch East Indies had significant petroleum and rubber resources that Japan could use to prosecute their war with China and not be depended upon foreign trade. However, they also understood that there was no way that the United States would allow them to just walk into the Dutch East Indies and take it as a territory.
Japan’s military leaders estimated that they would need six months to completely subdue the Dutch East Indies. Japan believed that once they held the Dutch East Indies, these natural resources would give them the ability to fight toe to toe with the United States. They felt that faced with a well-equipped opponent, the United States would leave Japan alone and allow Japan to be the major world power in Eastern Asia.
Japan needed to ensure that they had six months where the United States was unable to hinder their efforts. The only way they figured that they could keep the United States out of their business in the Pacific was to inflict a significant blow to the United States military.
Japan needed to attack the United States so decisively that it would knock the United States out of the war. While the United States struggled to regain footing, Japan would lock up the resources that it needed around the Pacific and thus force the United States to sue for peace. Japan’s spies had informed them that most of the U.S. fleet would be in Pearl Harbor on the weekends. Japan devised a plan that would take out most of the battleships along with the air carriers in a surprise dawn attack.
Pearl Harbor Attacked
On December 7, 1941, Japan executed the perfect surprise attack and inflicted great casualties upon the United States military. On December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan and within hours, war was declared. While the United State’s Pacific fleet was greatly reduced, the three carriers of the Pacific fleet had not been in Pearl Harbor that day. Japan had failed to deliver the crippling blow that their military had so desired.
December 7, 1941, was a turning point in the United States. No longer were the people demanding that their politicians keep them out of the war. Instead, the national rallying cry became, “Remember Pearl Harbor”. The United States had been knocked down, but they had not been knocked out.
Japan’s master plan started out successfully in that they were able to conquer the Dutch East Indies. However, Japan failed to properly estimate the effect that Pearl Harbor would have on Americans. The United States had been attacked and they were not going to allow Japan to get away with it. The United States was going to take the fight to Japan.
Post Pearl Harbor War Production
Because of American capitalism, United States did not have to build production plants. American business simply retooled their plants and started producing the goods that the United States military needed to prosecute the war. Businesses no longer produced cars and trucks, instead, they built tanks and troop carriers. Instead of producing baby carriages, they would produce hospital food carts. Instead of producing lingerie, American business would produce camouflage netting.
Unlike Germany, which nationalized businesses in order to maintain its war production, the United States worked with its businesses. The United States paid businesses to retool so that they could produce the goods that it needed. Because of the private ownership interest by the owners of the manufacturing plants, there was a great incentive to streamline the process and produce more goods. One of the best examples of the benefits of capitalism and the war production effort can be seen in the liberty ships. By war’s end, the United States was able to produce a Liberty Ship in one day.
American businesses were not the only ones who benefited. During the course of World War II, the average wages of American Workers increased over 50%. These increased wages further stimulated the economy because Americans had more discretionary income. These Americans were also in a position to save and thus they bought War Bonds which helped the government fund the war.
War brought the nation together.
As the war progressed, the production of the United States continued to grow. The rate that the United States could produce ships, tanks, airplanes and other military weapons far exceeded the rest of the world.
Because of the United States superior production power, Japan was forced to start designing planes and submarines that would only be used once. The kamikaze plan was a plan of national survival. Japan did not have time to produce huge battleships and air carriers. Instead, they had to focus their energy on single use planes and submarines that could be quickly built.
It was the hope of the military leaders that the kamikaze could inflict major damage to large ships with the loss of just one or two Japanese soldiers. History teaches us that most kamikazes died long before they were able to deal their death blow. It was not long before Japan was forced to surrender. Japan could not keep up with the United States.
The Washington Naval Treaty was designed to prevent an arms race. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States formally entered the world arms race and ramped up production. Once the United States was in the war, Japan understood that the Treaty had more negative impact on the United States’ production then it ever had upon Japan. American capitalism was just too strong.
Today we honor those who gave their lives in protecting our freedom at Pearl Harbor. There are only a handful of individuals still alive who were in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. On this 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, please remember to thank a veteran for their service. Without them, your freedoms and liberties would not be the same.