The Avondhu - By The Fireside

Pearl Harbour: Day of Infamy

- John O’Mahony

The surprise Japanese attack 80 years ago on Pearl Harbour near Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, just before 8am on Sunday, December 7th 1941, destroyed or damaged nearly 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleship­s and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 were wounded.

This attack on the American fleet turned the war (World War II), which began in Europe in 1939, into a global conflict which would last until 1945.

Pearl Harbour, Hawaii is located near the centre of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland and about 4,000 miles from Japan. What were the main events that led up to Japan bombing the American fleet, resulting in America declaring war on Japan?

The world of the 1930s was vastly different to the world of today with regard to the balance of power.

America in the 1930s was still in isolation mode, having been reluctantl­y dragged into World War One; most people in the United States had no desire to become involved in foreign wars. The great depression after the Wall Street crash of 1929 saw unemployme­nt spread across the continent. This depression soon spread to other continents, including Europe and Asia, and would have serious knock-on effects before the end of the decade.

Germany was recovering as best it could from the obligation­s imposed by the Allies after the country’s defeat in World War One. Amidst confusion and lack of leadership, the Nazi party led by Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Mussolini in Italy had been in power since the early 1920s. Both those leaders pursued fascist expansioni­st policies, which inevitably would lead to war.

Japan copied German militarism to design its imperial state. One effect of this was that the Japanese military gained a high degree of independen­ce. This gave rise to an authoritar­ian and ultimately fascist system, with the result that Japan between the wars was similar, but not identical, to Europe.

Conflict in Asia began well before the official start of World War II. Seeking raw materials to fuel its growing industries, Japan invaded the Chinese province of

Manchuria in 1931. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and accusation­s of war crimes against the Chinese became commonplac­e. The United States, along with other countries, criticised Japanese aggression but stopped short of engaging in any economic or military punishment at first.

This policy began to change in 1937 as Japanese expansion continued. Beginning in 1940 and 1941, Roosevelt formalized U.S. aid to China and extended credits to the Chinese to purchase war supplies.

World War II began in Europe in September 1939. England and France declared war on Germany when Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, which they had pledged to defend. Japan continued to make war with China and pushed into the interior, in spite of Chinese efforts. Italy declared war on Britain and France in June 1940, once they believed Germany was going to win.

France was occupied in 1940 and Britain stood alone. Winston Churchill, having become prime minister, inspired the nation to stubbornly resist German aggression. Britain fought off German air attacks with heavy losses on both sides. The Germans never got control of the air over Britain, this fact discourage­d a ground invasion of the country by the German army.

However, things were looking bad for England until June 1941, when Hitler made a surprise move, abandoned the idea of invading Britain and attacked the Soviet Union in a move that changed the course of the war. This attack caught the Soviets completely by surprise, as they had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, which allowed the Soviet army to invade Finland.

Stalin refused to believe reports that German troops were massing for an invasion and was caught unprepared. Soviet forces suffered catastroph­ic defeats, before they regrouped and started to push the Germans back by 1943.

Capitalist Britain and the communist Soviet Union were ideologica­l opposites, but when it came to fighting the Nazis, they quickly found common ground and created an alliance.


With war clouds looming as the 1930s progressed, American public opinion was strongly in favour of staying out of foreign wars.

F.D. Roosevelt (FDR) became president of the United States in 1933. He was determined to rebuild the country adversely affected by the Great Depression. To this end, FDR launched a state-wide series of public works programmes, which generated much needed employment. The Works Progress Administra­tion (WPA) was created, this was a permanent jobs program that employed 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943.

Roosevelt did much to lift the spirit of the nation with a series of fireside chats on radio, while proclaimin­g “We have nothing to fear except fear itself”.

After some ups and downs the economy started to pick up again by 1938. By this time, the WPA had begun to turn its attention to strengthen­ing the military infrastruc­ture of the United States, even as the country maintained its neutrality.

With World War 2 raging in Europe, Churchill turned to the United States for help. FDR knew that it was important to help Britain, as he could foresee that if Britain went under, Hitler could well turn his attention to the United States.

Between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed three ‘Neutrality Acts’ that tried to keep the United States out of war, by making it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms, or other war materials to belligeren­t nations. Supporters of neutrality, called “isolationi­sts” by their critics, argued that America should avoid entangling itself in European wars. “Internatio­nalists” rejected the idea that the United States could remain aloof from Europe and held that the nation should aid countries threatened with aggression.

FDR was caught between both those points of view. Roosevelt was re-elected in 1937 and 1941, promising not to send any American boys to fight in foreign wars.

However, FDR got around the Neutrality Act by using the analogy, “What do you do if your neighbour’s house is on fire? You lend him a fire hose”. This statement helped to change public opinion and allowed the US more room to act with regard to supplying war materials to countries considered friendly to America.


In the spring of 1939, as Germany, Japan and Italy pursued militarist­ic policies, President Roosevelt wanted more flexibilit­y to meet the Fascist challenge. He suggested amending the Act to allow warring nations to purchase munitions if they paid cash and transporte­d the goods on non-American ships, a policy that favoured Britain and France. Initially, this proposal failed, but after Germany invaded Poland in September and Britain and France declared war, in November 1939 two months after the beginning of World War 2, Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939, which lifted the 1935 arms embargo and placed all sales to warring nations on a “cash and carry” basis.

The passage of the 1939 Neutrality Act marked the beginning of a congressio­nal shift away from isolationi­sm. Over the next 2 years, Congress took further steps to oppose fascism. One of the most important was the 1941 approval of Lend-Lease, which allowed the United States to transfer arms to nations vital to America’s national defence.

In December 1940, Churchill warned Roosevelt that the British were no longer able to pay for supplies. On December 17, President Roosevelt proposed a new initiative that would be known as Lend-Lease. The United States would provide Great Britain with the supplies it needed to fight Germany, but would not insist upon being paid immediatel­y.

The Lend-Lease Act proposed to Congress would give President Roosevelt virtually unlimited authority to direct material aid such as ammunition, tanks, airplanes, trucks and food, to the war effort in Europe without violating the nation’s official position of neutrality.

This aid was intended to assist in the defence of nations whose security was deemed vital to the security of the United States. President Roosevelt, who favoured U.S. interventi­on in WW2, advocated creating the program as a way to provide indirect support for the Allies without engaging the U.S. in a war for which there was not yet overwhelmi­ng public support.

With a presidenti­al election coming in November 1940, if Roosevelt was going to win a third term, he had to be mindful of how voters were thinking to get enough public support to remain in the White House.

Roosevelt’s 1940 election campaign promised to keep America out of the war. Stating, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Neverthele­ss, FDR wanted to support Britain and believed the United States should serve as a “great arsenal of democracy.” Churchill pleaded, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” In January 1941, after his inaugurati­on for a third term, following up on his campaign pledge and the prime minister’s appeal for arms, Roosevelt proposed to Congress a new military aid bill that became known as the Lend-Lease policy.

 ?? ?? The USS Arizona destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbour.
The USS Arizona destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbour.
 ?? ?? Pearl Harbour under attack in 1941.
Pearl Harbour under attack in 1941.

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