Pearl Harbor Drew the US Not Just Into a War, But Into All of Asia

December 6, 2021 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

“Pearl Harbor, when they passed it, was a shambles. Wheeler Field had been bad, but Pearl Harbor numbed the brain.”

– Eyewitness James Jones, “From Here to Eternity”

The Japanese attack on the United States military facility at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii 80 years ago pulled the U.S. into World War II. It also drew the U.S. more deeply into Asia.

For the United States, the war started at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, when waves of carrier-launched Japanese fighter planes strafed, bombed and torpedoed U.S. military facilities at Pearl Harbor.

U.S. military airplanes on Ford Island and Wheeler and Hickam airfields – tightly packed together to prevent sabotage – were heavily damaged. Of 126 planes, 42 were destroyed and 41 damaged. Six airplanes were able to get airborne.

As to the fleet, the first 30 minutes of the attack were devastating. The battleship USS Arizona exploded; bombs and torpedoes sent the USS West Virginia to the bottom; the USS Oklahoma rolled completely over; and the flagship USS California was torpedoed and abandoned to sink in shallow water.

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In a second wave of the attack, battleship USS Nevada was struck by several bombs and the USS Pennsylvania was set ablaze. The destroyer USS Shaw exploded.

In little more than an hour, the Japanese had inflicted about 3,400 casualties to military personnel, including more than 2,300 dead. They devastated the battleship fleet and the flying assets of the Army and Navy, at a cost to the Japanese Empire of fewer than 100 men, five midget submarines, fewer than 60 airplanes and one fleet submarine.

The start of the war was less distinct for others.

Origins of the Pacific War

“From the Chinese perspective, before Pearl Harbor, China had fought a war [against Japan] in isolation,” said Xiaoyuan Liu, David Dean 21st Century Professor of Asian Studies and professor of history at the University of Virginia. “China was waiting for the international community or the Western powers to join the fight against Japan. But Pearl Harbor invited America to participate in this war that had been limited to the Asian continent, and it became an Asian-Pacific conflict.”

How long the Chinese had been fighting in isolation is open to interpretation. The conventional, and still generally accepted date for the start of China’s war with Japan is July 7, 1937, but recently China has set the date at 1931, when Japanese soldiers took over Manchuria (modern-day Northeast China).

“Sept. 18, 1931 was the day that some low-ranking Japanese officers engineered the so-called ‘Mukden incident,’ so the Japanese used this as an excuse to start occupation of Manchuria,” Liu said. “The Chinese government at the time thought it was not yet the time to fight the Japanese and they wanted international intervention to push Japan out, but the League of Nations did not do much.

“The Chinese Communist Party now claims that right after this incident, a local spontaneous resistance began under the Chinese Communist leadership. This way the Chinese Communist Party claims a historical legitimacy, saying China’s war of resistance against Japan started under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership.”

Xiaoyuan Liu headshot
History professor Xiaoyuan Liu said Japan took a major gamble in attacking Pearl Harbor, hoping it would lead to negotiations. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The Koreans trace their battle with the Japanese back to near the turn of the last century.

“From the perspective of Korean anti-colonial nationalists, they had been fighting against Japan since the early 1900s,” said Joseph Seeley, an assistant professor in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History specializing in the Japanese Empire and Korea. “In 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan, and then in 1910, Japan annexed Korea as a colony. So from the perspective of the Korean nationalists, this was a battle against imperialist Japan that they had been fighting for decades.

“And for decades the United States and the Western powers had basically ignored Korea’s plight.”

Seeley said there were moments when things looked hopeful for the Koreans, such as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 speech on the self-determination of nations after World War I. The Koreans soon realized he was not talking about them.

“But then in 1941, everything changes,” Seeley said. “Suddenly U.S. interests are aligned for the first time in decades with those of the Korean nationalists who had been fighting against Japan. Pearl Harbor was a major event for Korean nationalists, most of whom by 1941 are in exile, no longer in Korea.

An aerial photo of the destruction of Pearl Harbor
An aerial photo of the destruction of Pearl Harbor taken by a Japanese pilot. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

“For Koreans on the peninsula, Pearl Harbor actually means an intensification of what was already going on, which was Japanese efforts to exploit Korean resources and Korean bodies for the war effort.”

Seeley said Japan had already mobilized the Korean population to service its war in China.

“There is the infamous case of the ‘comfort women,’ who were sexual slaves for the Japanese military – almost 200,000 in number, who were mostly Korean,” he said. “Koreans were conscripted to work in Japanese mines and factories because Japanese men were fighting on the battle front. Eventually Korean men were conscripted into the Japanese military.”

In attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese high command took a huge gamble. The Americans had supplied oil and scrap metal to Japan while it was fighting against China, but American moral support was for China. When the U.S. stopped supplying oil to Japan, there was hope that its military machinery would halt.

“This Pearl Harbor decision was a very carefully calculated gamble,” Liu said. “The Japanese military policymakers and strategists were not so delusional as to seek a victory over the United States. They realized that the United States was a big power and there was no way Japan could defeat this power, but they hoped by attacking Pearl Harbor the American Navy in the Pacific could be paralyzed for awhile.”

Joseph Seeley  headshot
History professor Joseph Seeley said the Japanese previously had used the surprise attack tactic against Russia. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The Japanese thought they had a winning strategy with a surprise attack, because it had worked before. 

“This wasn’t the first time Japan had used this strategy,” Seeley said. “During the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904, the Japanese military had actually launched a surprise attack right on the eve of an official war declaration against a Russian naval base in Port Arthur, Manchuria, and the Russo-Japanese War, although incredibly bloody and high-cost to both sides, was eventually a Japanese victory.”

The Japanese launched the Pearl Harbor attack riding a wave of superiority and hubris buoyed by Western-style modernization and technological achievement.

“This fed into a sense of ethnic superiority,” Seeley said. “It wasn’t just because of certain contingencies or circumstances that Japan had launched on this path of Westernization earlier than China or Korea. They believed their success was because of something innate to the Japanese spirit, and you see this in the expansion into places like Korea and China. On the one hand, there is this careful calculation and the understanding of different factors, but there is also a sense of ethnic superiority that is informing Japan’s attitudes toward the Chinese and Koreans.”

The Japanese miscalculation was that despite its losses at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was not paralyzed. Its aircraft carriers were not in the harbor – carriers that turned the tide of the Battle of Midway six months later, dealing a crippling blow to the Japanese fleet and morale.

Atomic Bombs and Aftermath

Their miscalculation ended with two atomic bombs in 1945, the possible result of a 1943 agreement among China, Great Britain and the United States that Japan would have to surrender unconditionally.

“In the field, in the literature, this is something of a debate,” Liu said. “Among scholars there is a belief this unconditional surrender principle forced Japan to fight to the bitter end, because they wanted to preserve the emperor. Eventually the American government agreed to let the emperor stay, but did not officially abolish this unconditional surrender principle. All of these things got mixed together, whether or not two atomic bombs were really necessary if the unconditional surrender principles were not there and whether or not the bombs were to force Japan to surrender or to show the Russians that we have this weapon. There are all kinds of debates among scholars.”

Reaction to the use of atomic bombs on Japan was mixed among the Asian countries.

“In North and South Korea, the atomic bombs are seen as tools of liberation,” Seeley said. “It was because the nuclear bombs were dropped that Japanese colonial rule in North and South Korea ended. And it was something to be celebrated.

“What gets lost in that narrative is that there were many ethnic Korean victims of the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki” – those who had been forcibly conscripted to go to Japan and work in factories and mines.

atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima, left, and Nagasaki, right
The United States detonated two atomic bombs over Hiroshima, left, and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively. (Photos courtesy Library of Congress)

“You had thousands of Koreans in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs dropped, dying or getting disease by radiation,” Seeley said. “The stories of these Korean victims fall into this really messy place, because on the Japanese side, the narrative is Japanese victimization at the hand of the U.S. and that the nuclear bombs are these terrible tragedies. Japan is now the harbinger of this new pacifist order. The Korean victims get obscured in that narrative.

“And at the same time in Korea, no one is telling the stories of the Korean victims, because the narrative is all about the liberation the nuclear bombings brought, how they inflicted this pain on Japan and the horrible empire that had colonized Korea for decades. The stories of these Korean bombing victims don’t get told until decades later.”

Liu said the Chinese, after the years of war, were just glad that Japan had been defeated.

“As far as the Chinese government was concerned, or the Chinese Communist Party, when they realized what happened, they did not know in fact of the atomic bomb, they just welcomed the newspaper reports that some very powerful bombs were used to defeat Japan,” Liu said.

“Chiang Kai-shek wanted to show some Confucian spirit, saying Japan should be treated mercifully,” Liu said. “At the end of the war, he issued a statement of how Japan should be treated mercifully, and now that the war was past we should work together to rebuild Asia.”

Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu signs the Instrument of Surrender on the USS Missouri with UN commanders
Gen. Yoshijiro Umezu, chief of the Japanese army’s general staff, signs the Instrument of Surrender on the battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. (Photo courtesy National Archives)

But while Chiang Kai-shek was willing to be merciful, the factions in China returned to their civil war. While China was supposed to participate in the occupation of Japan, it sent no troops, though it did send some into French Indochina.

“Nationalist China did not really have a substantial influence in post-war development in either Korea or Japan,” Liu said. “Although in the war years a ‘provisional Korean government’ was under the protection of Chiang Kai-shek, whose original idea was to transplant this government back to Korea and then China could play a role of big brother there, but the post-war development in Korea was decided by the Americans and the Russians. The Chinese Civil War was already big enough.”

After the war, U.S. forces occupied Japan, under the direction of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “He replaced the Japanese emperor in Japan,” Liu said. “He was the emperor above the emperor.”

MacArthur, who had been the governor general of the Philippines before the war, was the supreme allied commander during the war and oversaw the occupation of Japan.

U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur  (left) and Japanese Emperor Hirohito (right)

U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

“There is almost a gratitude, in a strange way, that the U.S. occupation was not as punitive as it could have been,” Seeley said. “And for some of the liberalizing reforms that took place, especially in the early stages of the occupation. In all of this, MacArthur is treated sympathetically.”

Unlike Germany, Japan remained intact after the war.

“The Russians demanded to have an occupation zone, but that idea was easily dismissed by the Americans,” Liu said. “Without military personnel in Japan, Russia couldn’t use diplomacy to demand a division of Japan – not like in Germany and in Korea.”

Now the United States was involved with Asia, its role vastly different from what it would have been without World War II.

The Emerging Global Cold War

“The fact is the U.S. occupies Japan, occupies South Korea, it fights a war in Korea to prevent the annihilation of an anti-communist regime in South Korea and at one point attempts to unite all of Korea under anti-communist rule, but then the People’s Republic of China intervenes,” Seeley said. “And then the U.S. is intervening in Southeast Asia after the French leave in South Vietnam. This would have been inconceivable pre-World War II. This was a reflection of the rise of the U.S. as a superpower. And the other empires were in decline since World War II, former empires like Britain and France. Here was the U.S. that hadn’t been invaded, hadn’t been bombed, apart from Pearl Harbor, and it appears as a new superpower.

“World War II is this massive pivot point in the U.S. role in the Pacific.”

The war, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, convinced U.S. policymakers that the Pacific region must be managed for American interests and security.

“Wherever American policymakers believed the situation was manageable, the United States would become deeply, deeply involved in Korea and Japan and Indochina,” Liu said. “But China was an exception. China was too big for the Americans to manage. Although American involvement in China in the war years was a big factor in helping China win the war against Japan, Washington’s China policy in the post-war years did not decide the direction of China’s civil war.”

While the U.S. stayed out of China, it was drawn into a war in Korea. After Japan was defeated, the U.S. and the Soviet Union decided that Korea, which had been a Japanese colony since 1910, was not ready for self-government.

Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur looking at the bombing of Incheon, south Korea from his warship
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.N. forces, observes the naval shelling of Incheon, South Korea, from the amphibious force command ship USS Mount McKinley on Sept. 15, 1950. (U.S. Army photo)

“The Soviet Union and United States agreed to engage in joint ‘trusteeship’ of the Korean Peninsula for a short time until a unified government could be established,” Seeley said. “But after Japan surrenders and U.S. and Soviet troops arrive in Korea to establish their separate zones of occupation, they immediately set to work creating competing Korean regimes that hew closely to their own ideological objectives in the emerging global Cold War. In the North, a pro-Communist regime is established with former anti-Japanese guerrilla Kim Il-sung as leader, whereas in the South, the U.S. supports staunch anti-Communist Syngman Rhee instead.” 

The two Korea sectors pulled further apart ideologically, with each side wanting to control the entire country.

“No one in Korea was happy with this state of affairs,” Seeley said. “Unification of Korea, by military invasion if necessary, remained the goal for both Kim Il-sung’s government in the North and the Syngman Rhee’s regime in the South. The difference was that Kim Il-sung was able to eventually gain the backing of Stalin and Mao Zedong in his plans to invade the South, whereas the U.S. repeatedly discouraged Rhee from trying to take the North by force. It was not until after the South Korean government was nearly obliterated by North Korean troops in summer 1950 that the U.S., under the aegis of the UN, finally intervenes. The People’s Republic of China would intervene later in a really critical way once the war reached their border with Korea.”

After a stalemate in Korea, which left the country bitterly divided to this day, the U.S. was drawn into fighting in Indochina.  

American Soldiers in the demolished streets of Seoul, South Korea
U.S. Marines engage in urban warfare during the liberation of Seoul, South Korea, sometime in late September 1950. (U.S. Army photo)

“They regarded Indochina, after Korea, as the next target of international communist expansion,” Liu said. “That was a matter to contend. Vietnam itself was not important to America at all. The original idea was to establish an international trusteeship for both Korea and Vietnam, and this was U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s idea to remove these places from great power competition. FDR’s idea was that as long as these big powers could cooperate, international peace could be maintained.

“The Truman administration and later the Eisenhower administration were very critical of the French approach, trying to restore their colonies in that area,” Liu said. “So the intention was to step in and contain international communism in Asia, with Japan, South Korea, and some other states on the American side.  In the eyes of U.S. policymakers at the time, Chinese communism, Korean communism, Vietnamese communism were all in one. That was, all communists were international, and they were all under Soviet direction.  So this was not really an American effort to deal with China, or Korea or Vietnam – this was an effort to deal with Moscow.”

Looking Ahead

The next Pacific flashpoint could be Taiwan, to which the Chinese Nationalists fled after losing their civil war to the communists.

Eighty years after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. is still involved with Asia, with troops in Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Guam, extended out well past Hawaii.

“American presence was created by World War II and the Cold War made the U.S. establish security arrangements in that part of the world – allies, partnerships, treaty systems. Some of them are still in existence and some of them have already collapsed since the Cold War,” Liu said. “But American concern, American presence, still continues from the end of World War II.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications