Japan was hit hard by the Great Depression
of the early 1930s. Japanese disappointment with the moderate
government gave way to a militant government. In 1931 Japan
occupied Manchuria in northern China. Over the next decade
conflicts broke out and war was declared on China in July
1937. As Japanese hostility increased, its relationship with
the United States declined. Occupied Manchuria was exploited
by Japan with the creation of heavy and light industries.
This was essential for Japan because it did not have the necessary
natural resources. Japan’s pursuit for other supplies
drove foreign and military policy throughout the decade and
eventually led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and war in the
Pacific during World War II.
Japan’s need for resources increased
as relations with the U.S. declined further. In the past,
Japan relied on the U.S. to supply many natural and industrial
resources. The United States was increasingly alarmed by Japanese
aggression and let a commercial treaty dating back to 1911
lapse in January of 1940. In July the U.S. started restricting
the sale of scrap iron and aviation fuel to Japan. In reaction,
the Japanese signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.
This made Japan an official member of the Axis alliance and
brought them into World War II. This created major problems
for the United States. Officially, the U.S. was neutral, but
there was no doubt where American sympathies rested. President
Franklin D. Roosevelt had already put his stance of neutrality
in jeopardy by supplying Britain with money and arms for the
war under the "lend-lease" agreement. The Tripartite
Pact meant that any supplies that might be delivered to Japan
would be indirectly helping Germany and Italy.
In response President Roosevelt froze all
Japanese assets in the U.S. and ended trade with Japan in
July 1941. For Japan, involved in a long war with China, this
was devastating. With its survival threatened, Japan widened
its search for an alternate supply of resources. Japan focused
on Southeast Asia because of its rich supply of minerals and
oil. German success in Europe in 1940 had left control of
previously French and Dutch colonies up for grabs in Southeast
Japan realized that a full-blown invasion
of Southeast Asia would almost certainly trigger war with
America. It needed to find a way to ensure that the United
States did not interfere with the invasion of key areas like
the Philippines, Burma, and Malaya. The Japanese government
decided to attack the American naval base Pearl Harbor on
the Hawaiian island of Oahu. By destroying the United States’
Pacific Fleet, Japan expected to eliminate the American military
presence from the Pacific for enough time to allow it to acquire
the resources it needed so urgently. Japan also hoped to crush
American morale with their attack. Little did they know that
they had awakened a “sleeping giant.”
In 1941 President Roosevelt stationed
fifty B17 bombers in the Philippines, standing between the
Japanese and Dutch East Indian oil fields they needed so badly.
Roosevelt also ordered the U.S. Fleet to the Pacific. On December
2, 1941, Hawaii received a message from Washington that began,
“This is a war warning.” After deciphering a Japanese
code message, the U.S. knew Admiral Yamamoto was preparing
for a Pacific attack, but not when or where. No one believed
it would be Pearl Harbor. A week later that belief would have
a dreadful cost.
Japanese Navy "Zero" fighter takes off from
the aircraft carrier Akagi, on its way to attack
Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.
forward magazine of USS Shaw explodes during
the second Japanese attack wave. Photographed from Ford
looking up "Battleship Row" on 7 December 1941,
after the Japanese attack.
The sunken and burning USS Arizona is in the
photo’s center. To the left of her are USS Tennessee
and the sunken USS West Virginia.
and hangars burning at Wheeler Army Air Field, Oahu, soon
after it was attacked, as seen from a Japanese Navy plane.