Thursday, December 08, 2005
127. Pearl Harbour - 64 Years On
Battleship Row under attack
This attack was the 9/11 of our grandparents' generation - it came as just as much a shock to an inward-looking America in 1941 as the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was to do sixty years later.
The main difference between the two events was that the attack on Pearl Harbour was an act of war by a hostile sovereign state, whereas the 9/11 attack was the brainchild of a shadowy group of international Islamist ideologues. Afghanistan and then Iraq took the brunt of America's outraged response to 9/11, although it would seem that the real perpetrators of the airliner assaults were citizens of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Islamist Al Quaida group and one of the presumed planners of the attack, had taken refuge with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This helps to explain why America decided to attack that country, but it does not clarify why the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq before the campaign in Afghanistan was completed and before bin Laden was apprehended. He is still at large. He sends out provocative videos and audio tapes from time to time, and this enhances his stature as a rebel hero among young and gullible elements in the Arabic and wider Muslim world: in this way he is actually winning the propaganda war in the Middle East and South Central Asia.
USS Shaw explodes
In December 1941, however, the enemy was clearly identified as the government of Japan and America declared war on that country without delay. Nazi Germany obliged President Roosevelt by declaring war on America (as did Mussolini's Italy) shortly afterward, thus solving Roosevelt's problem of how to involve his reluctant and previously isolationist countrymen in the war against the Axis Powers in Europe. In fact, most US resources were directed toward the war in Europe; until late 1944 the war against Japan was largely conducted by the Navy and Marine Corps.
Life Magazine - 15 Dec 1941
The attack on Pearl Harbour was a brilliant tactical success for the Japanese - even though they missed the aircraft carriers which happened to be out at sea - since it effectively knocked the US Navy out of the Pacific for a period of about six months. Having secured nearly total surprise,their losses in planes and pilots were negligible. At the same time, and rather typical of Japanese military thinking, the detailed tactical planning was faultless but the overall strategic concept was based on false assumptions about America, a terrible blunder, in fact, which was to lead to the near-destruction of the Japanese home islands and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japanese Combined Fleet Staff (Admiral Yamamoto is 2nd from left)
Why did they do it? What did they hope to accomplish by rousing the sleeping giant of the United States?
The view from Japan
Every country has a tendency to view the rest of the world through the prism of its own self-image (tainted history) and self-interest. Japan in the 1930s was a particularly self-absorbed and intensely patriotic society bent on extending its reach overseas to create a Greater Japanese Empire following the model of the 19th century European powers, but this at a time when the idea of empire had lost any former support in the home countries and had passed into rapid decline, particularly in the aftermath of the First World War. Japan had come late to the game of industrial power and military might, but it was eager to catch up with a world which had moved on in the meantime.
Since the 1870s Japan had transformed itself from an exotic feudal backwater to become the leading military and industrial power in Asia. It had waged successful wars against China and Russia and had annexed, along the way, both Taiwan and Korea. Its armies had recently taken over Manchuria which it was busily exploiting for its natural resources. Japan was eager to assert its newly created power, no matter how late it had come to the imperial table.
Creating an empire at the expense of its neighbours went deeper than a simple display of national pride and martial vigour. Japan held a population in excess of 100 million in a narrow, mountainous, archipelago smaller in area than the state of California. It had no natural resources to speak of and its fledgling export market had been cruelly hit by the Great Depression. The political unrest which brought the militarists to power in the mid-1930s had in part been driven by appalling conditions of near starvation in the countryside (from which the Army drew most of its recruits).
Japan was hungry for land, fuel and resources - first in Manchuria and then in China, which it attacked in 1937. The war in China went well at first with Japanese forces seizing Shanghai and all of the Chinese coastal provinces. It was only when the Army moved inland that the vastness of the land engulfed them. They had superior firepower, better equipment, air support, and well-trained troops: they never actually lost any battle or failed in any siege of a city (Nanking is one telling example) but they were unable to secure the lands they overran and came under constant attack from both the Communists under Mao-tse-tung and the American-backed Nationalists (Kuomintang) under Chiang-kai-shek. (More of the former than of the latter, it should be remarked). Casualties mounted on the Japanese side -- the Chinese suffered far worse -- and the war became increasingly brutal.
To Be Continued ... if time permits. December is always a crazily busy month!
Posted by dedalus at 10:52 AM