Levy Lecture: Pearl Harbor 80 years later

On Dec. 7, the Levy Lecture Series featured a comprehensive Zoom webinar presentation by historian Robert Watson, who has a doctorate in public policy, which discussed the prelude, buildup, motivations, execution, aftermath and impact of Japan’s surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base 80 years to the day since it occurred. Watson, a Distinguished Professor of American History in the College of Arts and Sciences at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, described the attack as “a tactically brilliant victory for Japan, but strategically a devastating loss.”

Watson is a passionate speaker and student of history. He titled the 10-year period leading up to Pearl Harbor as “Japanese belligerence.”


International tensions had been building since 1931 when Japan seized the province of Manchuria in China. In 1936 Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, declaring both nations’ opposition to communism. At its nadir, the Nanking Massacre, a horrific and systemic attack on thousands of Chinese civilians, started Dec. 13, 1937 and lasted until the end of January 1938.


The Tripartite Pact in 1940 established the Axis between Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan, and by 1941 Japan had invaded Indochina, an escalation of territorial aggression.


Watson said Japan’s lust for power and geographic territory stemmed from imperialism, a need to acquire the natural resources in the countries they invaded, and a belief in their pre-ordained racial superiority, much in the same way Nazi ideology idolized Aryan genetic and racial superiority.


Starting in 1938, after the Nanking Massacre, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to stem Japanese expansion through economic sanctions, embargoes, freezing Japanese assets and providing loans to China. In 1940 he moved the Pacific Fleet, approximately 100 ships, to Hawaii and sent U.S. troops to the Philippines. But these efforts were for naught; Japanese plans to bomb the base in Honolulu, on the U.S. territory of Hawaii, were already being developed.


The Japanese attack was planned by Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, a sadistic warmonger whose dream was to attack the United States, Watston said. For more than a year, he and his top advisers gathered intelligence by studying other successful attacks of naval ports (notably Britain’s successful attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940), photographing where supplies, fuel, ships and barracks were located in Honolulu and observing the routines of the U.S. sailors based there. The Japanese troops trained and refined their plans. Emperor Hirohito approved the plan on Nov. 5 and authorized it on December 1, 1941.


The attack was planned and led by the brilliant tactician Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet during World War II. He gathered an enormous fleet (414 planes, six aircraft carriers, 16 warships and 23 submarines) in the Karil Islands in mid-November. This remote outpost, known for its fishing, was overlooked by the U.S. as a possible threat.


Watson enumerated Japan’s objectives for attacking the Territory of Hawaii. Tojo was determined to destroy the U.S. fleet stationed there and thereby destroy U.S. morale. The assumption was that once the U.S. was no longer a threat, Japan would have unfettered access to conquer all the countries in Asia and the Pacific. Under this scenario, Nazi Germany would control Europe and Japan would control Asia.


The fleet began traveling toward Hawaii and planned to invade from the north. A total failure of imagination and planning by the U.S. forces tasked with protecting the country allowed the attack to take place, and the top two military leaders, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short, lost their commands as a result of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe.


Watson described in detail numerous bureaucratic mistakes, such as messages delayed or not delivered, reports from the field ignored, orders from General George Marshall that were disregarded. Congressional investigations later found that in addition to Kimmel and Short, the War Department was also responsible for contributing to many of the errors.


The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor – planned as three waves – was successful. In the first wave, 173 planes unleashed a merciless attack on the unsuspecting base below. Fighter planes attacked Wheeler Airfield with orders to “strafe the airfield” with their machine guns. U.S. planes were parked wing-to-wing, making the task relatively easy for the Japanese pilots and machine gunners. Within minutes, 42 planes were destroyed and 41 planes were damaged, leaving only 43 planes unscathed.


At Pearl Harbor, torpedo dive bombers successfully destroyed or incapacitated five of the eight battleships lined up on “Battleship Row. “ A 1,000-pound bomb exploded on the U.S.S. Arizona, sinking it and killing more than 1,000 men on board. The U.S.S. Oklahoma was torpedoed and rolled over within five minutes of being attacked, taking 400 men to their deaths.


The second wave came an hour later, bombing airfields and other ships, and still the U.S. forces were unable to muster any counterattack beyond five or six planes that got off the ground. All told, the initial Japanese attack damaged 164 planes and 18 ships, killed 2,390 men, and injured many hundreds of soldiers and sailors.


Fortunately for the U.S., Japan decided that the third wave was unnecessary and ended the attack prematurely. The third wave was scheduled to attack U.S. fuel tanks and supplies, which if executed, would have made a military response all but impossible. This strategic error by Japan was instrumental in allowing the U.S. forces to recover and begin repairing damaged planes and ships and manufacturing supplies for the war effort.


FDR declared war the next day and thousands of American men enlisted. U.S. morale was high because of the attack, and there was broad support across the country for the U.S. to enter the war. Tojo completely underestimated the power of U.S. resolve; this miscalculation would later be recognized as a precursor to Japan’s defeat.


The United States was also very lucky that three aircraft carriers, the planes assigned to them and the fleets of ships that accompany the carriers for protection were not in the harbor at the time of the attack. They were out being resupplied and did not suffer any damage.


U.S. manufacturing plants like General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Steel, Boeing, Lockheed, Goodyear and others joined in the war effort. Each converted their processes to manufacture goods and materials needed for the war. This so-called Arsenal of Democracy produced 27 aircraft carriers, 200 submarines and many thousands of planes, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and rounds of ammunition. As men joined the battles overseas, women successfully entered the workforce in record numbers as paid employees, no longer confined to “pink-collar” jobs.


The war continued for four years until August 1945. During that time, FDR passed away and was replaced by Harry S Truman. Truman knew from intelligence reports that the Japanese were preparing a final push to attack U.S. forces using kamikaze pilots armed with bombs. To prevent this bloodbath, Truman authorized the U.S. to drop two atomic bombs, one each on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war. Truman also desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces and supported the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe and Japan.


Watson delighted the audience after the lecture by responding to numerous questions submitted online. Afterward, one attendee remarked, “A fascinating presentation. I never knew that the U.S. had been so woefully unprepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It puts our relentless security consciousness and preparedness since WWII into perspective.” Watson spoke movingly about the need to understand history, especially in light of recent current events.


Another viewer observed, “Professor Watson is an excellent speaker. I enjoy every program I have heard him do. Today’s program was especially engaging because he just kept talking, was not in a hurry to finish, and revealed much about himself. While Pearl Harbor was interesting, his views about teaching history and critical thinking was fascinating. Thank you for one of your best programs!”


Readers interested in watching the webinar may find it on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.