by Dafydd Townley
It is not an overstatement to say that the events of December 7th, 1941, changed not just the world of the time, but also shaped the world in which we live today. The attack by Imperial Japanese aircraft on the United States Navy in Pearl Harbor shocked the entire world. The attack would spur the United States into declaring war on Japan, and eventually joining the conflict in Europe that had been raging since September 1939. Just as significantly, the attack was a turning point in American foreign policy, as the US moved from an isolationist perspective to one of intervention, and contributed to the development of modern geopolitics.
The first wave of attacks hit the US Pacific Fleet that was stationed in the docks and harbour of Pearl Harbor navy base in Hawaii at 7:48am local time. With no prior warning or declaration of war, 183 planes attacked the air base in Hickam Field and targeted the eight American battleships and various other ships that were in the harbour. The second wave, which consisted of another 171 planes, set course for the remaining planes at Ford Field and Hickam Field airbases, and the aircraft carriers and cruisers of the US Navy.
The results were devastating – in just ninety minutes over 2,300 US sailors, marines and soldiers had been killed, and another 1,100 injured; four of the battleships were sunk and the other four were damaged along with 11 other ships that were put out of action. In addition, out of the 402 aircraft in the area, 347 were destroyed by the Japanese assault. Japanese losses stood at 55 casualties, and 103 damaged or destroyed planes. Further military assaults were made by Japan on US bases in Guam and the Philippines, but the attack on Pearl Harbor was by far the most destructive.
The following day, before a joint session of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for Congress to declare war on Japan after ‘the unprovoked and dastardly attack.’ December 7th, 1941, Roosevelt said, would be ‘a date which will live in infamy.’ Congress responded by unanimously voting in favour of declaring war on Japan.
The only dissenting voice of the 470 Representatives and Senators was the first female to be elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin. Rankin, a pacifist and one of ten women to hold office at the time, refused to change her objection to an abstention and stayed true to her own ideology, famously declaring ‘as a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.’
A transcript of the speech can be found here.
Four days after the attack on Pearl harbour, at the insistence of Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. Germany was not obliged to do so despite its mutual defence agreement with the Japanese Empire. The United States responded immediately in kind, and entered the European theatre of the Second World War. Had the US not made such a declaration then it would have been prevented from helping the allied forces in Europe.
From isolationism to interventionism
The objective of the Japanese attack was to ensure that the US would not counter the Japanese expansion throughout the pacific region. US territorial interests in the Philippines and Guam would have forced the US to intervene. In that respect, the attack was a complete failure as it dramatically altered the course of US foreign policy. America had been isolationist since the end of the First World War, that is to say, it followed a strategy that avoided involvement in international issues. Congress’ refusal to ratify the Versailles Treaty in 1919 was an illustration of the policy that was dictated by the Monroe Doctrine.
James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, had declared that the United States would not involve itself in European diplomatic affairs, as long as Europe did not attempt to expand into North or South America, in his seventh annual message to Congress (2nd December 1823). This doctrine had guided US foreign policy since it was declared and remained the driving tenet of US isolationism.
The Japanese offensive and the declaration of war against Germany allowed Roosevelt to change the direction of US foreign policy. He had aided the allies as much as he could prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, through various schemes such as the Lend-Lease program which loaned the allies such as the UK and Soviet Union warships, planes, weapons and other essential supplies. But public opinion and the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s prevented him from giving greater help and becoming involved in the conflict in Europe. But public opinion shifted dramatically after the attack on Pearl Harbor and favoured American involvement in the conflict. Over the next four years, the US would become the leading military and economic world power. The move away from isolationism led to a post-war policy of containing communism around the globe which would develop into the Cold War and shape the world as we know it today.