World War II: Japan Attacks and America Goes to War

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

The war in Europe soon affected Asia. Although it was not part of the European war, Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany and Italy. The three countries had signed an agreement in 1936, called the Anti-Comintern Treaty. (The “Comintern” was the “Communist International,” the organization of world Communist parties run by the Soviet Union. Germany, Japan, and Italy used this name to make their alliance sound like a defensive agreement against communism.) The governments of the three countries were similar in many ways. Each was antidemocratic, each glorified military strength, and each wanted to conquer new territory.

By 1940, the Japanese government was largely dominated by militarists, extremists in the army and navy and their supporters who wanted the armed forces to control Japan and organize Japanese society along military principles. They believed Japan had a sacred mission to conquer new territory to provide the natural resources that Japan lacked.

Japan had been expanding its empire in Asia throughout the 1930s. It had been brutally fighting a war against China since 1937. The Japanese had conquered the great cities on China’s coast as well as other areas, but a complete victory proved more difficult than Japan had expected. Although Japan had one million soldiers in China, the Chinese armies were protected by the mountainous geography of China’s interior. For several years the war was deadlocked.

The Japanese government believed it could finally defeat China by preventing the Chinese from receiving military supplies from the rest of the world, including France, Britain, and especially the United States. The Chinese armies, cut off from ports, had only a few supply routes. One was the Burma Road, a motorway that cut through the high mountains of Burma (present-day Myanmar), a British colony. But the most important was a railroad that ran to China from northern Vietnam, which was then a part of the French colony of Indochina. (French Indochina also included what are now the smaller countries of Laos and Cambodia.)

The events in Europe in the spring of 1940 gave Japan a chance to close these routes. After France surrendered to Germany in June, the Germans allowed a French government to remain in power in the southern part of the country. This government, known as Vichy (the town where the government was based), still controlled most French colonies overseas. Japan demanded the right to station troops and establish airfields in northern Vietnam. After Japanese troops in the area briefly attacked the French in September 1940, Vichy agreed to the Japanese demands.

Japan also demanded that Britain close the Burma Road. At that time, Britain was threatened by a German invasion and could not risk another war with Japan. In July 1940, Britain agreed to close the Burma Road for three months.

Japan’s New Goals

The German victories in Europe may have aided Japan’s attempts to conquer China, but they also opened much greater opportunities for Japan: it was now impossible for France and very difficult for Britain to defend their vast colonial empires in Asia.

Germany had also conquered and occupied the Netherlands (often called Holland; in English the people are usually called Dutch). The Dutch government had fled to Britain, where it established a government-in-exile, considered the rightful government of the Netherlands by the Allies, the countries fighting Germany. This government controlled the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), a large group of islands between Southeast Asia and Australia. Indonesia had oil—the most important resource for a modern war, and one that Japan lacked entirely. The Dutch and Indonesian troops stationed in the Dutch East Indies could not expect help from the Dutch government-in-exile if Japan attacked the islands.

Taking over the British, French, and Dutch colonies in Asia would give Japan a huge new empire with large quantities of oil, rubber, and important metals such as tin. And Japanese companies could sell their products in this empire without competition from other countries. By the fall of 1940, the Japanese government had decided to invade these areas. Japanese military leaders were confident they could defeat the British and Dutch colonial armies and navies. France was not even a threat because of Germany’s domination of the Vichy government.

The only other major power in the Pacific was the United States. American aid to China was already a major concern to Japan, and Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies would threaten the Philippines. The Philippines were controlled by the United States, which had seized the islands from Spain during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The islands were scheduled to become independent in 1944, and the last American troops were supposed to leave two years later, but in the meantime the Philippines were like an American colony. Even apart from the issue of the Philippines, Japan knew that the United States would not accept total Japanese control of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. That would shut the United States out of economically important areas and might lead to even more Japanese expansion in the future.

By the summer of 1940, some Japanese leaders were convinced that their plan of conquest would require war with the United States. And they believed that the sooner the war began, the more likely Japan was to win. The United States had begun a major program of building warships. The longer Japan waited, the stronger the American navy would become. And there would never be a better time to fight against preoccupied Britain and the occupied Netherlands.

In September 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed a new agreement, known as the Tripartite Pact, which means “three-party treaty.” From Japan’s point of view, the treaty guaranteed German support for its plans in Asia and the Pacific. In this sense, the treaty was really aimed at the American government. It was a warning that if the United States tried to stop Japan, it might have to go to war against Germany and Italy too.

A few months later, Japan took another important step in preparing for war. Japanese conquests in northern China had brought them into conflict with the Soviet Union. In 1939, Soviet and Japanese troops had fought vicious border battles there, and the Soviet army had inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese, much to Japan’s surprise. (The unexpected strength of the Soviet army was another reason for Japan to attack in the Pacific—away from Russia.) In April 1941, Japan signed a treaty with the Soviets, in which each country promised that it would remain neutral if the other went to war. Japan would be able to expand southward without worrying about the Soviet Union to the north. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, the danger that the Soviet army might interfere with the Japanese in China became even less likely.

Tensions Between Japan and the United States

In May 1941, the United States extended its “Lend-Lease” program to China. In effect, this meant that China could buy arms and supplies from the United States on long-term credit. By doing this, the United States was confirming that it would continue to support China in its war against Japan.

At the same time, talks between Japan and the United States began in Washington, D.C.; they continued for months. Most historians agree that the negotiations never had any chance of success because each side insisted on points to which the other would never agree. The Americans wanted to prevent Japan from controlling China and Southeast Asia. To the Japanese, that meant remaining at the economic mercy of other countries. The United States, Britain, and the other Western powers would never accept such a situation for themselves. The Japanese felt insulted and threatened by what they viewed as an American attempt to treat Japan as a second-rate power.

While the negotiations continued, the situation in Asia worsened. On July 24, Vichy France agreed to allow Japanese troops into southern Indochina. Unlike Japan’s earlier demands, this didn’t seem to have anything to do with the war with China. Instead, it seemed to the United States—and to Britain and the Netherlands, too—that Japan was planning to move against Indonesia, British Malaya, and perhaps the Philippines.

The United States demanded that Japan withdraw from Indochina and two days later froze all Japanese assets in the United States. In effect, this meant that Japan could not buy any goods from the United States. Most important, America cut off all oil shipments. Britain and the Dutch government-in-exile also banned the export of oil to Japan, which now had almost no sources of petroleum. It also faced serious shortages of other products. Japan had expected the American petroleum embargo (a government ban on trade) and had stockpiled large quantities of oil. It had enough to last three years in normal circumstances, or about eighteen months in wartime, when tanks, trucks, and planes use immense amounts of fuel. But the Japanese army estimated that it would take three years to win the war in China. This was another reason for Japan to either settle its differences with the United States or go to war—soon. In October 1941, the Japanese government finally decided to go to war with the United States.

Pearl Harbor

On November 26, 1941, a great Japanese fleet began a 2,800-mile voyage across the Pacific. It included four battleships, two heavy cruisers, ten destroyers, and two dozen long-range submarines. All of these warships had a single purpose: to protect the six large aircraft carriers in the fleet. On the carriers were 360 planes, including dive-bombers and planes that were equipped to drop torpedoes designed to operate in shallow water.

A courier had delivered the orders for the operation so that no one could intercept radio messages from naval headquarters to the various officers. The Japanese fleet kept absolute radio silence throughout its long voyage at sea. The ships started in the northern Pacific, far from the usual routes of commercial ships or air patrols, to avoid being seen. The extra length of the trip meant tankers accompanying the warships had to refuel the ships at sea.

Their target was Pearl Harbor, the base for the American Pacific Fleet, a few miles from Honolulu on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The Japanese pilots had practiced their attack on a carefully designed model of Pearl Harbor. Japanese spies had told them where every American ship was supposed to be anchored. Each group of pilots had targeted a specific ship. From their spies they knew that most of the antiaircraft guns on the ships and nearby shore installations would not be manned on a Sunday morning, that most of the ships’ officers would have spent the night onshore, that the crews would have slept late. Although the threat of war was growing, the United States was still at peace, and security around the base was very careless. Anyone could climb the hills above the harbor and watch with binoculars. All it took was patience and careful observation to learn the American navy’s routine.

The fleet stopped about 200 miles from Hawaii and launched its planes on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.

Just before eight in the morning Hawaii time, the first wave of Japanese planes attacked the anchored American fleet and nearby military barracks and airfields. They dropped their torpedoes and dive-bombed their main targets, the eight battleships in the harbor. A second wave of Japanese planes attacked at around 9:00 A.M. and continued the destruction. By the end of the attack, the battleships Arizona, Oklahoma, California, and West Virginia had sunk, and three others were heavily damaged. Another dozen warships were also hit. Of the nearly 400 American planes based on Oahu, almost 200 were destroyed and less than 50 survived undamaged. Two thousand four hundred one American sailors and soldiers were killed, and more than 1,100 others were injured.

The Impact of Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack seemed to have accomplished its purpose. The American Pacific Fleet, the only naval force that could interfere with Japan’s plans, was destroyed. In reality, although Pearl Harbor was a military disaster for the United States, it was not the great success for Japan as it first appeared.

First, because the water in Pearl Harbor is so shallow, the Americans could raise all the sunken battleships except the Arizona from the bottom and eventually repaired and modernized them. The American battleships were back in service much earlier than anyone expected.

Even more important, the aircraft carriers of the American Pacific Fleet were not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Two were at sea and one was in California; three other American carriers were in the Atlantic. Within a few months, the aircraft carriers would inflict a major defeat on the Japanese navy.

Finally, the attack on Pearl Harbor had the opposite long-term effect from what Japan wanted. Japanese strategy for winning the war depended on eventually reaching a compromise peace with the United States, and Pearl Harbor made that impossible.

Japan’s Strategy for the War

Japan’s plan was to conquer new territory in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and a string of small islands and island groups, some uninhabited, in the Pacific. Japan already controlled some of these islands and could use them as bases from which to attack the others. Japan wanted to conquer most of these small islands not because they contained valuable natural resources or because they were places where Japanese products could be sold. Instead, they were valuable only as military, naval, and air bases.

According to the Japanese strategy, the United States would have to rebuild its navy after Pearl Harbor and then attack these islands one by one. The Japanese believed that the American people would not support a war in which thousands of Americans died to conquer islands that no one had ever heard of. And Americans would oppose sending soldiers to return conquered British and Dutch colonies to the colonial powers when the people of those colonies probably did not want to remain under British or Dutch control.

Instead, the Japanese thought that they could resist the Americans on the Pacific islands long enough to make the United States see that defeating Japan would cost too many lives. Then they would be able to make peace. By then, Japan would have completed its conquest of Southeast Asia and China and could bargain from a position of great strength. The United States would be forced to accept Japan as the dominant power in eastern Asia.

But the Pearl Harbor attack ensured that this would never happen. Americans were furious at the “sneak attack,” delivered while America was at peace. A whole generation of Americans could say for the rest of their lives where they were when they heard the news of the bombing. They agreed with President Roosevelt when he told Congress that December 7, 1941, was a date that would “live in infamy,” meaning that the Japanese attack would always be remembered as a symbol of evil.

It would have been very difficult for the American government—even if it had wanted to—to accept a compromise peace with Japan. Pearl Harbor made most Americans demand the total defeat of Japan. Japanese military and civilian leaders never believed they could defeat the United States in a long, all-out war. They knew American industrial strength was much greater than their own.

Japan Sweeps Forward

But thoughts of Japan’s eventual defeat did not seem very realistic in December 1941. The stunning destruction of the Pacific Fleet was followed by an even more impressive series of Japanese victories. Many of these victories followed a pattern. The Japanese used surprise, great skill, and command of air power to ensure that their forces outnumbered the defenders in a particular area—even if the defenders had more troops altogether. The Japanese troops were well trained and fought with bravery. Their opponents regularly underestimated both the Japanese generals and soldiers. They were constantly amazed by the daring of the Japanese attacks, by their speed, by how carefully planned they were. They were surprised that Japanese military equipment was so advanced, that their planes were better than those of the Western powers, that their pilots flew them so skillfully.

In the western Pacific, Japan moved against two islands belonging to the United States. The day after Pearl Harbor, they attacked the 500 American troops on Guam, who surrendered the following day. The Japanese took the British-held Gilbert Islands on December 9. On tiny Wake Island, a small detachment of U.S. Marines held out until December 23, when their food and water were gone.

Thousands of miles farther west, using troops based in China, the Japanese also attacked the British colony of Hong Kong on December 8. Soon the defenders, including many Canadians, retreated to Hong Kong Island. On December 18, Japanese troops landed on the island, and the 12,000 remaining Allied troops surrendered on Christmas Day.

The Philippines

The Japanese attacked the Philippines ten hours after Pearl Harbor (although it was December 8, local time). In that attack, Japanese planes again caught nearly the entire American air force on the ground and destroyed it. American warships, lacking planes to protect them from air attack, were ordered to leave the Philippines to help defend the Dutch East Indies.

After several Japanese troop landings on the main Philippine island of Luzon, the American and Filipino troops abandoned the capital city of Manila and retreated to the nearby Bataan Peninsula. The peninsula, less than 30 miles long and perhaps 20 miles wide, was now crowded with American and Filipino soldiers and civilians escaping from Manila. There was a serious shortage of food, and many soldiers became sick. They held off the Japanese for three months. Finally, the Japanese attacked in strength on April 4, 1942, and Bataan surrendered on April 19.

The last major resistance was now on the rocky island of Corregidor. There, 15,000 troops continued to hold out against constant air attacks and massive artillery shelling from Bataan, 2 miles away. On May 5, Japanese troops with tanks landed on the island against strong American resistance, which caused heavy Japanese casualties. The next day, Corregidor surrendered. In all, the Japanese took 95,000 American and Filipino troops prisoner on Bataan and Corregidor.

Many of these prisoners were forced on a long, brutal march to prison camps. Twenty-five thousand—almost a third of those who started—died from disease, wounds, and mistreatment by their Japanese guards. The “Bataan Death March,” as it came to be called, became for many Americans another symbol of Japanese cruelty.

Malaya and Singapore

Japan landed troops in the north of the British colony of Malaya (now part of the country of Malaysia) early on the morning of December 8 local time—which was actually an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the Japanese were outnumbered, their troops were better trained and had 200 tanks and 560 planes. The British, Australian, Indian, and Malay defenders had no tanks and about 160 mostly outdated planes.

On December 10, the battleship Prince of Wales, one of the newest and best ships in the British navy, along with the powerful cruiser Repulse tried to intercept Japanese troop transports. Attacked by eighty-five Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo planes, the two ships sank. Despite the ships’ powerful antiaircraft guns, the Japanese lost only three planes.

The Allied forces began a general retreat southward down the long Malay peninsula. The Japanese pursued advancing 400 miles through mountains and jungles in only five weeks. By the end of January, they were at the southern end of the peninsula, and the Allied troops were evacuated across the mile-wide strait to the island of Singapore.

Crossing the strait in small boats, the Japanese landed troops on the island on February 8. Although they still outnumbered the Japanese, the Allied troops were demoralized by the long retreat and could not stop them. Fearing for the safety of the 1 million civilians crowded into the city of Singapore, the British commander surrendered on February 15.

Burma and the Dutch East Indies

The Japanese invasion of the British colony of Burma (present-day Myanmar) began in mid-December. Although China sent troops into northern Burma to aid the British, the Japanese continued to advance. By late April, 1942, the Chinese had retreated north back into China, and the British, chased by the Japanese, had crossed into India, the largest and most important British colony.

The Japanese began their invasion of the Dutch East Indies with troop landings on some of the outlying islands, capturing or building airfields to use as bases to continue their advance. As they threatened the most important island, Java, an Allied naval force tried to stop them. Commanded by a Dutch admiral, it included American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships. Beginning on February 27, this fleet engaged a Japanese force of about equal size in the Battle of the Java Sea. The result was another decisive victory for the Japanese navy. The last important Allied naval force for thousands of miles was almost destroyed.

The Japanese could now land forces on Java, and the Dutch and East Indian troops there could not stop them. On March 12, faced with a Japanese threat to bomb the main cities, the Dutch surrendered. In addition to taking military prisoners, the Japanese placed much of the Dutch civilian population, including women and children, in guarded detention camps for the remainder of the war.

Japan now controlled Southeast Asia and all the islands of the western Pacific north of the equator. They had lost only about 15,000 men in all these conquests. The entire Japanese fleet was still afloat; the Allied navies had lost most of their ships. Between Hawaii and Australia, the Japanese controlled the ocean—with one exception. The United States still held the small island of Midway, 1,100 miles west of Hawaii.

The Doolittle Raid

Sailing past Midway in April 1942, the American aircraft carrier Hornet reached a point about 650 miles from Japan before Japanese boats spotted it and turned it back. But before it did, it launched sixteen B-25 bombers from its decks. The B-25 was a land-based plane. It was really too big and heavy to take off from an aircraft carrier—and impossible to land on one. But it could fly much farther than normal carrier-based bombers.

The commander of the sixteen planes was Colonel James Doolittle, and their mission was to bomb Japan. The B-25s would not have enough fuel to return to the Hornet, even if they could find it. The plan was for them to fly to Tokyo and other Japanese cities, drop their bombs, and land in China if they could. On April 18, a dozen of Doolittle’s planes bombed three Japanese cities. Four of the planes landed in China; most of the others crashed when they ran out of fuel, but their crews usually parachuted to safety.

The Doolittle raid caused little damage and had no military importance. But Roosevelt wanted some symbolic action to show the American people that the United States was striking back. And it had a great effect on the Japanese military leaders. (Most ordinary people in Japan did not know it had happened.) They were determined to prevent any further strike against the Japanese homeland by destroying the American aircraft carriers that they had failed to find at Pearl Harbor.

The Battle of the Coral Sea

Their first chance came soon. The Japanese planned to land troops in the southern part of the huge island of New Guinea, near Australia, further threatening Australia. The Americans learned of these plans by decoding secret Japanese messages and sent the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to intercept the invasion, which was protected by three Japanese carriers. On May 7 and 8, planes from the carriers attacked each other’s ships. The ships themselves were nearly 200 miles apart. This fight, called the Battle of the Coral Sea, was the first time a naval battle had been fought with the ships apart and not even in one another’s sights. When it was over, the Lexington had been set on fire and destroyed, one Japanese carrier had been sunk, and another had been heavily damaged. Although neither side won a clear-cut victory, the Japanese threat against northern Australia was greatly reduced.

The Battle of Midway: Luck Changes the War

The Japanese navy was now more determined than ever to force an all-out battle with the remaining American carriers. On June 4, 1942, a Japanese invasion fleet approached the island of Midway. It included four large carriers as well as battleships and cruisers. Against them stood the last three American carriers in the Pacific, the Yorktown, Hornet, and Enterprise. The Americans also had planes based on Midway. For several hours, the planes dueled, trying to attack the enemy’s carriers. Eventually, partly by luck, a group of American dive-bombers caught the Japanese carriers while their decks were full of planes being refueled and rearmed, with fuel hoses and bombs lying everywhere. The American bombs started devastating fires. Two Japanese carriers burned and sank. A third was left helpless with no power; an American submarine sank it a short while later. The fourth Japanese carrier tried to escape, but American planes found and destroyed it several hours later.

Military historians consider the Battle of Midway one of the most important naval battles in history and one of the turning points of World War II. Japan had conquered a great empire and could still defend it. But it could no longer expand it, except on land. It could not invade Australia or threaten Hawaii or North America. It would be difficult for Japan to protect the ships that brought oil and other resources from its new empire. After Midway, the United States government could safely use American resources to defeat Germany before turning its attention to Japan.

American Strategy

That is exactly what the American government planned to do. Four days after Pearl Harbor, on December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Germany, Italy, and Japan, known as the Axis Powers, signed a treaty in which each promised not to make peace with Britain or the United States without the others.

The United States was now fully in the war, which had truly become a world war. The most important issue facing the American government was whether it should concentrate on the Pacific against Japan or on Europe against Germany. As early as November 1940, American and British military officials had agreed that in a war against the Axis, they would try to defeat “Germany first.” In August 1941, Roosevelt had met with Winston Churchill, the British prime minister (head of the government), aboard a warship in the North Atlantic. Privately, Roosevelt confirmed the “Germany first” decision.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Churchill and top British military leaders flew to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings from December 22 to January 14. The “Germany first” policy became official. The two countries agreed that they would make decisions together on how to use all economic and military resources. They created a joint top command, where the heads of the army, navy, and air force of each country were represented. They set up methods to ensure that they would do all war planning in common.

The two countries made all these decisions while the Japanese army was conquering the Philippines and American public opinion was directed against Japan, only weeks after Pearl Harbor. The “Germany first” strategy made sense for the United States, but it involved some serious military risks in the Pacific, at least until the American victory at Midway. It also involved political risks at home for Roosevelt. Part of the reason he was willing to run those risks was because of the needs of his major allies, Britain and the Soviet Union. The complicated relations between the three countries are described in Chapter 7.