The Japanese attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor 80 years ago — the date which will live in infamy, in the stirring oratory of President Franklin Roosevelt — brought the United States into a world war from which it would emerge four years later as an unrivaled economic and military power.
This new global status achieved in 1945 stood in stark contrast to the state of the nation in the pre-war years. In 1940, Americans were still in the throes of the Great Depression, having suffered through a decade of economic and social paralysis. Europe was at war, tensions in Asia were rising, but many Americans wanted no part of another global conflict.
In this episode of History As It Happens, military historian Ron Milam discusses the events that placed Japan and the U.S. on the road to war.
Conflict was not inevitable, and it would have seemed unnecessary that a dispute over China, where the U.S. had no vital strategic or material interest, should culminate in the events of Dec. 7, 1941.
In the 1930s, U.S. policy toward Japanese aggression in Manchuria was embodied in the Stimson Doctrine, named after Henry Stimson, Mr. Milam said.
“The Stimson Doctrine essentially said the United States would not respect any country that had become a country as a result of aggression,” Mr. Milam said. In this case, the country was Manchukuo, created by the Japanese imperialists as a puppet state in what had been Manchuria, China.
“When Japan invaded Manchuria, the idea was we would not recognize the treaty Japan signed with China, because it was signed under duress,” Mr. Milam said.
As Japan escalated its assault on China throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. would continue to demand a Japanese withdrawal. As a form of pressure, Roosevelt announced an embargo on scrap iron and steel and aviation fuel in mid-1940. The following year it became a full embargo on American oil exports to Japan, cutting off a resource of vital importance to the empire’s expansionist war aims.
For these and other reasons, Japanese military leaders made the fateful miscalculation to attack the exposed U.S. fleet on Oahu, a tactical victory that proved to be a colossal strategic blunder.
But in December 1941, Japan’s leaders hoped the stunning success at Pearl Harbor would buy time to complete their sweep across Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, forming an impregnable barrier that would convince Roosevelt to sue for peace.
For more of historian Ron Milam’s observations about the road to war in 1941, download this episode of History As It Happens.