A Brief History
On December 7, 1941, a date that US President Franklin Roosevelt said “would live in infamy,” the Japanese navy attacked the naval and air bases on Oahu, Hawaii, most notably at Pearl Harbor, in a surprise attack (or sneak attack in the vernacular of the time) that devastated the American Pacific Fleet. While the Pearl Harbor raid captures most of our historical attention, the Empire of Japan was up to plenty of other shenanigans on that same day (also December 8, 1941 for those areas West of the International Date Line), kicking off a wider war intended to bring stability and wealth to the people of Japan in the face of European hegemony and colonialism. (Subjugating and oppressing fellow Asians was just part of the price to pay for supposed “relief” from European overlords.)
The Japanese master plan for World War II in the Pacific was to create an empire called “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” their idea for a Pacific world they referred to as “Asia for Asians.” Not only did Japan resent European hegemony over much of Asia, the Japanese also wanted to be the rulers of Asia and have unlimited access to the natural resources found in other Asian countries that Japan lacked, notably Iron Ore, Coal, Rubber, and Oil. The “Asians” referred to in their slogan meant “Japanese.” Make no mistake, there was little racial solidarity with other Asian nationalities and ethnicities, as the Imperial Japanese were quite nationalistic and ethnocentric, considering basically the rest of the world and humanity as inferior to Japan and the Japanese people.
In order to facilitate the rapid seizing and consolidation of their proposed empire and de facto defensive perimeter that would protect Japan from any direct attack by the United States or any European power, Japan planned to conquer far flung islands and lands that would preclude air, naval or amphibious attacks against their homeland. For an island nation of less than 100 million people, the most prudent way to achieve this goal was to attack first and without warning, catching the enemy off guard and unprepared.
Japanese surprise attacks on December 7, 1941 (December 8th, depending on which side of the International Date Line) included assaults against the American held Philippine Islands, the Dutch controlled Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today), Thailand, Malaya, Hong Kong and the Shanghai International Settlement in China.
In the Philippines, American General Douglas MacArthur was working for the Philippine government as a military advisor and commander, though retaining his American military credentials. (Being paid by both nations was a form of double-dipping, that though allowed, was distasteful and of questionable ethics and morality.) Despite the warning provided by the attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur and his American/Filipino forces were caught flat footed by Japanese air raids and the American air forces in the Philippines were devastated when the expected Japanese aerial assault came. The lack of appropriate reaction by MacArthur has never been satisfactorily explained and the success of those initial Japanese air raids had a lot to do with the ultimate loss of the Philippines by the Americans and their Filipino allies.
The Dutch East Indies provided rich natural resources coveted by Japan, especially oil and rubber. The Dutch, already conquered and occupied by the Germans in their own homeland, had set up a government in exile and still presumed to rule over their colonial possessions in Asia and elsewhere. Fully aware of the dire need for oil the Japanese were experiencing in the face of American and Dutch embargoes of oil to Japan, the Dutch were better prepared for war than the Americans, even to the point of declaring war against Japan on December 8, 1941 before the attack on the Dutch East Indies came. Unfortunately for Dutch, their readiness did not help all that much, as the Japanese managed to conquer the islands by March of 1942 and continued to hold the Dutch East Indies throughout all of the rest of World War II.
The Japanese attack on Thailand is perhaps the most stunning of all the attacks by the Japanese on December 7/8, 1941. After only 5 hours of fighting, a ceasefire was arranged and Thailand became an ally of Japan! Thailand remained a member of the Axis powers all the way through World War II.
Malaya was also invaded by Japanese forces on December 8, 1941, resulting in a quick Japanese victory. The defending forces of the British, Australian, Indian and New Zealand (all British Commonwealth forces) were joined by Dutch and Dutch East Indies units, while Japan was aided by air raids against the defenders by the Royal Thai air forces. By January 31, 1942, the Japanese had conquered the Malayan peninsula and the British along with their allies were forced to retreat to the island fortress of Singapore.
Shanghai and other “international settlements” were spheres of influence set up by European and American powers in China that were nominally Chinese, though heavily influenced by the quasi-occupying countries. Along with Shanghai, other such cities and areas were attacked by the Japanese on “Pearl Harbor Day,” places that had been designated as “neutral” to avoid conflict between Japan and China.
Other targets of the Japanese at the very outset of hostilities included preemptive strikes against the major British island/port/fortress of Hong Kong and the American island outpost, Wake Island. Both islands eventually fell to Japanese invaders, Hong Kong on December 25, 1941, and Wake Island on December 23, 1941.
The 24 hours that started with the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor were far from just that single battle, as you can see by the above accounts of what other operations the Japanese were engaged in on that same day. Pearl Harbor was not an all or nothing haymaker thrown in an effort to knock out the United States but was only one part of a much larger and intricate war plan by the Japanese to wage war on many fronts against many enemies. The audacity and boldness of their plan, enormous in scope and ambition, can be considered extremely overly optimistic, or even foolish or delusional, or brave and daring, depending on how one chooses to view those events. Today, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can easily see how the Japanese effort was doomed, but at the time the prospect of success seemed all too real to Japan and her enemies.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other military operations were the Japanese up to on December 7/8, 1941? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Galley, Harry. War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay. Presidio Press, 1996.
Toll, Ian. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Yellen, Jeremy. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: When Total Empire Met Total War. Cornell University Press, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a map by Dead Mary of the Japanese advance from 1937 to 1942, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.