Why Was the Surprise Attack At Pearl Harbor Such a Surprise?

December 01, 1991|By NATHAN MILLER

Lt. Cmdr. Edwin T. Layton was a worrier. And as 1941 drew to a close, Layton, the U.S. Pacific Fleet's intelligence officer, had much to worry about.

War with Japan appeared imminent, and on Dec. 1, the Japanese navy suddenly changed the radio call signs of its ships. This shift was ominous because the Communications Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor plotted the position of the Japanese fleet by intercepting these signals. Traffic analysts quickly identified the most commonly used new calls but were unable to locate a single Japanese aircraft carrier. Worse, none had been picked up since Nov. 25.

On Dec. 2, Layton conducted a briefing for Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet commander, and presented him with a summary showing the approximate position of Japanese fleet units based on radio traffic. Kimmel noted that a large naval force accompanied by troopships was moving along the coast of Thailand, but there was no trace of either of the Imperial Navy's two carrier divisions.

"What!" he exclaimed. "You don't know where the carriers are?" "No, sir," replied Layton. "That's why I have 'Homeland waters' with a question mark. I don't know."

"You mean they could be coming around Diamond Head [in Hawaii], and you wouldn't know it?"

"I hope they would be sighted before now," the unhappy intelligence officer replied.

Five days later, a Japanese task forced approached undetected to within 230 miles of Hawaii and struck a devastating blow on the naval base at Pearl Harbor and nearby air bases. Surprise was complete. "Pearl Harbor was still asleep in the morning mist," one of the Japanese pilots later reported. "It was calm and serene inside the harbor, not even a trace of smoke arising from the ships . . ."

Nineteen vessels, including the entire battle line of the Pacific Fleet. were sunk or badly damaged in the worst disaster in American military history. More than 2,400 sailors, soldiers and Marines were killed -- nearly half in the explosion of the battleship Arizona. Neatly lined up as for inspection, an estimated 256 aircraft were destroyed.

The surprise at Pearl Harbor was echoed by shock and disbelief at home. Fifty years later, Americans still ask the same questions: Why wasn't Pearl Harbor on the alert? Who was responsible for failing to anticipate the attack? Was there a conspiracy to tumble the American people into a war which they did not want? Could war with Japan have been avoided?

War in the Pacific had been brewing for some time. Bogged down in a military adventure in China, the Japanese desperately needed the oil and other resources of Southeast Asia and had begun their march to the south with the seizure of French Indo-China in July 1941. American eyes were fixed, however, on the momentous events across the Atlantic, where Britain was under siege by a victorious Germany and the Soviet Union was reeling under a savage onslaught. In fact, the United States was already engaged in an undeclared war with the German U-boats which were ripping the heart of convoys carrying supplies to Britain.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt desperately wished to enter the conflict against Nazi Germany, but isolationist sentiment remained strong. And despite numerous provocations, Adolf Hitler refused to provide the incident that would unite the country in war.

In the meantime, the United States, long suspicious of what it regarded as Japan's aggressive ambitions in the Far East, froze Japanese assets and tightened an embargo on the shipment of oil and other material vital to the Japanese war machine. The Japanese military, which seized control of the government, resolved to answer the American threat with war.

War resulted from a miscalculation by Japan and the United States of the intentions of each other. Both wanted peace, but they had different definitions of what constituted peace. To the Americans, it meant a cessation of Japanese aggression in China and elsewhere; to the Japanese it meant an East Asia dominated by Japan. Surely, said the Japanese, the United State must understand that as a modern industrial nation Japan must have access to raw materials and markets. The control of Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia was absolutely essential to Japan's existence as a first-rate industrial power.

American policy, on the other hand, confused reality with morality. As a result of popular idealization of China, the United States allowed the keystone of its Far Eastern policy to be based upon a issue extraneous to its basic interests: the integrity of China. Never believing that Japan would commit national suicide by going to war with the Western powers, Roosevelt was convinced that through firmness he could force the Japanese to moderate their course. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether concessions would have placated Japan. Japanese policy had its own dynamic, and American concessions were regarded as weaknesses that invited further demands.

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