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75 years on from Pearl Harbor

6 December 2016

On December 7 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched an attack on a US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Now, 75 years on, University of Sydney experts reflect on the impact of this historical event.

US Shaw exploding at Pearl Harbor

USS Shaw exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941. Image: Wikimedia Commons

December 7, 2016 will mark 75 years since the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against a United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941. The following day, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt labelled it 'a date which will live in infamy' and the US declared war on Japan, formally entering World War II.

A failure of leadership

Dr Seiko Yasumoto, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Japanese Studies and a researcher in Japanese media and cultural studies, says the regrettable attack was minor from a military perspective in the context of World War II, but politically significant as it brought the US into the War.

“US economic historian Robert Higgs points out that the US was aware, having broken the Japanese code, Japan would retaliate against the US in a military way because of sanctions initiated by the US and the freezing of Japanese assets in the US to limit Japanese military expansion in Asia," Dr Yasumoto said.

“Isoroku Yamamoto, the planner of the attack on Pearl Harbor, knew well that Japan could not sustain a war against the US."

Dr Yasiumoto adds that personally knowing the devastation was disproportionately suffered by the Japanese people flowing on from Pearl Harbor, the pre-emptive attack was a mistake.

"A stain remains on the leaderships at the time, in Japan with focus on military expansion and the US with control of trade, that diplomacy did not prevail," Dr Yasumoto said. 

“We cannot rewrite history but hopefully we can learn from it. I am very pleased that post-World War II Japan has withdrawn from military expansionist policies and is moving forward to regional reconciliation.”

USS Arizona burning

USS Arizona burning during the Pear Harbor attacks. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s fear of invasion

Professor Richard Waterhouse, an historian specialising in Australia from the Department of History, says when the Japanese launched their series of attacks without warning on December 7, Australia’s prime concern was less with the events at Pearl Harbor, but more with the simultaneous Japanese landings in Malaya.

“Australians believed that 'fortress' Singapore (which was in fact merely an undermanned naval base) held the key to Australia’s defence. They also believed that Japan was a medieval society incapable of threatening Western power," said Professor Waterhouse.

“But as the Japanese won victory after victory in Malaya and the Philippines, as well as sinking British Royal Navy warships in the Indian Ocean, Australians became increasingly fearful that their country would also be invaded."

“As Australians also came to understand the extent of British military weakness in Asia and the Pacific, they turned increasingly to the US as their only hope."

US emerges as world power

Professor James Curran, a Professor in the Department of History specialising in America's relations with the world, says December 7 marked a significant day in US history.

“As US President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, the ‘day of infamy’ is the day that brought the US into World War II, a conflict out of which America emerged as a world power," Professor Curran said.

“Now the world watches and waits to see whether Donald Trump trashes the post-war liberal international order that the US played such a pivotal role in constructing.”

Annika Dean

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)