Title banner: Pearl Harbor * Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal

Final Appraisal of the Pearl Harbor Attack


In retrospect, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a blessing for both nations, if not for the world. The "Day of Infamy" will long be remembered, because at the time it seemed real and portentous. Since that time, a quarter century ago, the results of that attack appear insignificant compared to the events which have since transpired. What seemed a great disaster at the time of Pearl Harbor has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Tragically, it was the cheapest way in which a nation such as the United States could become unified and could thereafter go forth as the champion of liberty throughout the world. The results of the war put an end to many of the non-democratic governments in the world and at the same time led the United States to take decisive action and world leadership.

True enough, General Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto were bad news for a peace-loving nation like the United States. The Japanese people became willing victims of a despotic militaristic regime which had never known defeat, and which had attacked without warning in the Chinese War of 1895 and the Russian War of 1905. In later years they signed an agreement at The Hague which prohibited such uncivilized practice. Yet in 1941 they attacked Pearl Harbor in peacetime without warning. Through a miscalculation by their diplomats in Washington, the half-hour's interval between the attack and the final note ending further negotiations turned out to be a warning which was received more than an hour after the event.

The militaristic faction in Japan had been successful in their program of territorial and economic expansion. They had occupied a portion of Manchuria, Hankow, Shanghai, the island of Hainan, and Indo-China, and they had driven many foreigners out of China. Their expressed concern for international amity and goodwill was not sincere. They yearned for the riches


of Southeast Asia and their golden opportunity for further expansion arrived in 1941 when the Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, were apparently successful in their programs of expansion. It was Tojo who declared to a willing people that "Japan's destiny is to return Asia to Asians." Though certain elements in Japan, including the Emperor, cautioned peace, the country had gone so far that it could not draw back without a loss of face. This was impossible, especially when Japan's military power was fully poised, trained, and ready.

The Japanese Fleet attacked Pearl Harbor in force, and the results seemed calamitous then. The military purpose was to immobilize the American Fleet so that the American forces could not interfere with depredations in China or in Southeast Asia. The Japanese leaders accomplished their purpose, but the purpose was wholly illusory when viewed in the context of later events. The question now arises: What mistakes did Japan make in the attack on Pearl Harbor?

In the first place, the Japanese Commander of the attacking force felt that his mission was completed, and that he should return to Japan as ordered. It apparently did not occur to him that his planes could have destroyed the thirty-eight cruisers and destroyers that remained afloat at Pearl Harbor, or the reserve fuel oil supply of the fleet that would have immobilized the fleet for months or even years. His planes could have destroyed the mechanical shops and drydocks which were indispensable to a fleet at war. These important adjuncts of military power were left intact. Possibly they were left to serve Japan at a later date in case they occupied Pearl Harbor.

In the second place, the American Fleet was inferior to the Fleet of Japan, especially in aircraft carriers and aviators. If the Americans did intervene, where could they strike without undue risk from submarines and land-based aircraft? The Rainbow Plan called for the fleet to attack the Marshall and Caroline Islands and to establish a fleet base there. Could this be done without great risk to the American Fleet? Even if successful, what impact would it have had upon the Japanese in their invasion of China, Indo-China, Malaya, or Indonesia?

If the Japanese had warned the Americans of the intended attack even a. few days in advance, would the situation have been any better? Perhaps our land-based Army planes could have given a good account of themselves. The losses to the Japanese would undoubtedly have increased, but the losses of our side in terms of ships and aviation manpower could have


iMAGE: USN NR&L (MOD) 39779 Ships of the Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor near the end of the war.
USN NR&L (MOD) 39779
Ships of the Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor near the end of the war.


been much greater. A fleet action would hardly have been in our favor, for we would have only two carriers in the Central Pacific against six Japanese carriers. Some of our battleships and cruisers would certainly have been deep water victims. The losses could easily have exceeded those suffered at Pearl Harbor, and would have been final in most cases.

On 3 April 1965 Fleet Admiral Nimitz wrote to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral David L. McDonald, as follows:

Several times in recent weeks I have been quoted -- correctly -- that "as bad as our losses were at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 -- they could have been devastatingly worse" -- had the Japanese returned for more strikes against our naval installations, surface oil storage and our submarine base installations. Such attacks could have been made with impunity as we had little left to oppose them. Furthermore -- I have been correctly quoted in saying that it was God's divine will that Kimmel did not have his fleet at sea to intercept the Japanese Carrier Task Force that attacked P. H. on 7 Dec 1941. That task force had a fleet speed at least 2 knots superior to our speed -- and Kimmel could not have brought the Japanese to a gun action unless they wanted it. We might have had one carrier but I doubt if the Lexington could have joined in time. Picture if you can -- Japanese carriers working on our old ships which would be without air cover -- or -- had the Japanese wanted to avoid American air attacks from shore -- they could have delayed the action until out of range of shore based air. Instead of having our ships sunk in the shallow protected waters of P .H. they could have been sunk in deep water -- and we could have lost all of our trained men instead of the 3800-approx. lost at P. H. There would have been few trained men to form the nucleus of the crews for the new ships nearing completion. Not only were the ships of the enemy task force faster -- they were more modern -- and the Japanese main fleet under Yamamoto was in the rear -- in support -- if needed. Nagumo -- the Commander of the P. H. Attack Force -- missed a great chance by not following up his attack.

The greatest mistake was purely psychological. The attack on Pearl Harbor solidified a people against Japan and her allies and brought about the greatest miracle of production that the world has seen. Before that happened, the people were divided in their feelings toward Japan and toward the Axis Powers. There was some sympathy for Japan. Going to war to interfere with her exploits in China and Southeast Asia would have failed to arouse a patriotic spirit among Americans. But the unprincipled attack on Pearl Harbor changed the people entirely; they were now committed to an all-out war with "unconditional surrender" as the objective.



For a military government to make the mistakes made by Japan is almost inconceivable. In addition, Japan did not use well the superiority which she possessed. Besides underestimating the power of an aroused America, the military leaders of the Japanese failed to gauge the potential of a great country at war. They assumed that the Americans would grow tired of the struggle and be content to let Japan keep her ill-gotten gains. No greater mistake could be conceived with regard to the true character of the American people, in that age or any age.

Over-expansion was without doubt the greatest error of Japan. The first steps of the war were so easy that the leaders departed from the original plan and included parts of Alaska, Midway, and Australia in their projected empire. The result was that when the real tests came they were unable to defend the expanded perimeter against their newly-made enemy.

They assumed that they had insured security of their codes. Yet before Pearl Harbor we had broken the diplomatic code, which was of inestimable value to Americans and their allies.

The military leaders of Japan failed to protect their shipping adequately. Our submarines were able to make intolerable inroads on Japanese merchant ships. In contrast, we lost very few ships to Japanese submarines in the Eastern Pacific or elsewhere. This all points to the fact that they failed to use properly their large fleet of submarines.

We give the Japanese credit for the early-day efficiency which they displayed. At Guadalcanal their destroyers were adept in the use of the "Long Tom" torpedo which had a far greater explosive force than our weapons. They also excelled at first in night action. True, the Japanese were on the offensive and could select the time and place for the sea battles which ensued.

Yet, at Guadalcanal the real caliber of American sea power and American character were shown. As we see it now, the Japanese were eventually turned back at Guadalcanal, as they were at Midway. The turning point of that great war occurred at Midway in June 1942 and at Guadalcanal after August 1942. They retreated from Alaska in the fall of 1942.

The Japanese were not lacking in patriotism or willingness to die for their Emperor. If the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is possible that millions of Americans would have been lost in their effort to take the homeland from a relentless and fanatical foe.


An amphibious assault on the Japanese homeland would have been very costly to the Japanese as well as to the Americans.

In retrospect, we are thankful that America was with God during the ordeal which tried men's souls. In many ways, He showed that the right prevails over the wrong, provided that the right side perseveres. Truly it has been said that right motives give pinions to thought, and strength and freedom to speech and action. This is especially true of those who strive to perform the right. The final surrender of the hordes represented by Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese militarists, proved unmistakably that the power of God is on the side which is nearest right.


Through the years of 1920-1940 the people of the United States were strongly opposed to war. Isolationism was rampant. World War I was a great victory for America and the western democracies as a whole, but at a fearful cost. It was only when England was near collapse and Japan was taking over China and Southeast Asia that the people of America awoke to the real facts of international life. The American people gradually came to the realization that it was impossible to withdraw from the world or avoid its problems. Such is the way of a leading democratic society. Such is an inherent responsibility of a great world power. Even with this realization there were divisive forces in the body politic.

In the 1920's and early 1930's the people had elected representatives in Congress who believed as they believed. The result was that disarmament was popular and preparedness was anathema. Consequently there was a minimum of money for the armed forces. The Army and Marine Corps were on a starvation diet and few new ships were ordered for the Navy prior to Roosevelt's Presidency. Even when the situation became ominous in 1940, and it was apparent that the world was about to be taken over by predatory forces, it was impossible to make up for the years of neglect. The forces of 'peace at any price' were still powerful in Congress, and the majority of people was adamant in their aversion to war.

That state of mind did not persist among our citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The isolationists in our populace became patriotic Americans. Even the Japanese who were American citizens gave an outstanding account of themselves. The sons and daughters of all Americans went to war in the


Image: 80-G-490436 "

USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender ceremonies on 2 September 1945."
USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender ceremonies on 2 September 1945.


global conflict which ensued. Those who remained at home put their shoulders to the wheel and the world witnessed the marvel of wartime productions.

A few years later, when approving the 1945 Navy Court of Inquiry on the Pearl Harbor attack, President Truman made the following statement:

I have read it very carefully, and I came to the conclusion that the whole thing is the result of the policy which the country itself pursued. The country was not ready for preparedness. Every time the President made an effort to get a preparedness program through the Congress, it was stifled. Whenever the President made a statement about the necessity of preparedness he was vilified for doing it. I think the country is as much to blame as any individual in this final situation that developed in Pearl Harbor.


Previous Chapter (14) * Appendies (APPENDIX A)

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Terry Welshans for the HyperWar Foundation