Seventy years ago, the Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Soon after, President Franklin Roosevelt declared December 7th a date which would live in infamy. The attacked pulled the U.S. into World War II and put to test Roosevelt’s character and judgment.
Americans Bitterly Divided Over War
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, most Americans supported Roosevelt’s policy of providing munitions and material support to the allies. But right up until the attack, the country was bitterly divided over actually entering the war. That changed overnight after the Japanese attack.
Roosevelt once described himself as a juggler. “He never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing,” Gillon said. By the time the war in Europe broke out, Roosevelt realized the U.S. had a vested interest there and that he needed to do everything he could to support the war. But he also watched the polls closely, and he was aware that large numbers of Americans opposed the war – which is one reason why he had not committed troops there before Pearl Harbor.
How Much of a Surprise was the Pearl Harbor Attack?
Although the U.S. had already broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, and Roosevelt knew from the messages they intercepted between Tokyo and the Japanese ambassador in Washington that Japan was ready to strike somewhere, the target of Pearl Harbor was apparently a complete surprise.
Roosevelt’s greatest fear at the time, according to Gillon, was that the Japanese would bypass American installations in the Pacific, attack British and Dutch installations, and force Churchill to send resources and soldiers away from the Atlantic and into the Pacific. But an attack on American soil seemed unthinkable.
Pearl Harbor “Defining Moment of 20th Century”
The attack on Pearl Harbor was tactically brilliant, but Gillon said he looks at it as “strategically perhaps the biggest military blunder of the 20th century.” Japan underestimated America’s ability to do what President Roosevelt had said the nation would do, which was become the arsenal democracy, Gillon said. It also ended the myth of American isolationism and the idea that the U.S. was protected by the oceans on either side of it.
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