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1941 Pearl Harbor: Japan's surprise attack on an American naval base in Hawaii 70 years ago forced the U.S. into World War II.

For William Czako, a 28-year-old from Fremont, Ohio, the naval assignment must have felt like a gift: sunny skies, palm trees, and white-sand beaches.

But on the sleepy Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the tropical paradise of Pearl Harbor, a naval base in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, suffered what was then the largest attack on American soil in the nation's history.

"We've been bombed now for an hour," Czako began writing in a letter to his sister at 9:05 a.m. that morning. "They really caught us in our sleep this time."

Dropping hundreds of bombs and new shallow-water torpedoes, Japanese fighter planes sank or destroyed a dozen ships, from battleships to cruisers, and damaged or demolished hundreds of planes, killing or wounding thousands of Americans in a surprise attack.

Overnight, the United States was forced to enter World War II, changing the course of the war and reshaping the world in ways that are still felt today.

"It's hard to think of an event that had more profound changes for the world and certainly equally profound changes for the country," says James Gormly, a professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania.

'None of Our Business'

Before that fateful day, sentiment about the war then ravaging Europe fell largely into two camps. Isolationists believed the security of the U.S. was best served by staying out of a war that England, France, and the Soviet Union--U.S. allies--were fighting against Nazi Germany and its ally fascist Italy (see map, facing page). Isolationist sentiment ran especially high during the Great Depression: In a 1935 poll, 39 percent of college students said they would refuse to fight in a war, even if the U.S. was invaded.

But on the other side of the spectrum, a growing number of Americans began to realize the grave threat posed by Germany and its anti-Semitic dictator, Adolf Hitler.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was caught in the middle. In his State of the Union address in January 1940, Roosevelt said he understood those wanting to stay out of the war. But he insisted that "there is a vast difference between keeping out of war and pretending that this war is none of our business."

Realizing that war was a real possibility, Roosevelt instituted a number of measures in the next year, including doubling the size of the U.S. Navy, pushing Congress to pass the first peacetime military draft, and supplying weapons and military hardware for ships and planes to the Soviet Union, England, and France through the "Lend-Lease" program.

In the Pacific, Japan had imperial intentions of its own: Resource-poor, it craved control over East and Southeast Asia and their raw materials to feed its growing manufacturing economy.

Japan joined forces with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy in 1936. A year later, it declared war on China, prompting the U.S. to cut off sales of iron, steel, fuel, and other materials Japan desperately needed to keep its war machine going.

Japan decided it needed to weaken the U.S., or at least keep it out of the Pacific. There were signs that Japan might launch an attack, but in the days before satellites and superpowerful radar could detect foreign troop movements, long-range intelligence was hard to come by. So it was relatively easy for Japan to discreetly send its fleet thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.

The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted only 90 minutes, but it left nearly 2,500 Americans dead and 1,200 wounded. Caught by surprise, America and its opinions about the war were transformed overnight.

Calling December 7th "a date which will live in infamy," President Roosevelt persuaded Congress to declare war on Japan the very next day, with only one dissenter: Jeannette Rankin, a congresswoman from Montana.

"She was literally shouted at and booed on the floor of Congress as she cast her vote," says Gormly. Three days later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and Italy.

A Different Kind of War

The American public also got fully behind the war in a way that hasn't happened since. Factories began turning out armaments at a record rate, and Americans willingly rationed sugar, butter, meat, and other materials so that soldiers could have more. The whole nation rallied around the cry "Remember Pearl Harbor!"

At the same time, some of that national pride was directed against Japanese-Americans, who in the wake of the attacks were suspected of being potential spies or saboteurs. By the end of 1942, an estimated 120,000 Japanese, many of them U.S. citizens, had been relocated to "internment camps"--in effect, prisons for thousands of Japanese families, complete with barracks and barbed wire.

The war dragged on for three more years in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. But the tide began to turn in the allies' favor when the U.S. landed troops on the beaches of Normandy in France, on June 6, 1944--known as D-Day. A year later, the Soviets entered from the east to meet U.S. troops in Germany, at the Elbe River. The two armies advanced on Berlin, dealing the final blow to Hitler's army.

In the Pacific theater, the Japanese scored a series of victories. But after the U.S. managed to intercept Japanese messages and break their secret codes, the U.S. gradually gained the upper hand. In June 1942, at the Battle of Midway, Japan's loss of four aircraft carriers, three destroyers, and a heavy cruiser crippled its navy.

Still, Japan stubbornly refused to concede defeat in the spring of 1945, even after Germany surrendered. Harry S. Truman, who had become president in April 1945 when Roosevelt died, decided to do something drastic to end the war.

Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on Japan--one on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945, the other on Nagasaki, three days later. The U.S. had secretly developed nuclear weapons, but it was the first time--and, to this day, the only time--the weapons were used in warfare.

Those two explosions killed more than 200,000 people, either from the tremendous force of the blast, the fires that resulted, or the radiation the bombs released.

Six days later, Japan surrendered.

U.S. Role in the World

For Japan, the end of the war was not just a mark of defeat and destruction but also the start of a new relationship with the U.S. Rather than remain enemies, the nations collaborated on rebuilding Japan, and within 20 years, Japan transformed itself into a manufacturing giant with one of the strongest economies in the world (though its economy has suffered a major slump during the past two decades). It has also become one of Washington's staunchest allies.

For the United States, the war meant the end of the country's isolationism. As a world leader since World War II, the U.S. has intervened in a series of foreign conflicts it deemed threatening to U.S. or world security, from the Korean War in the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s to the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. It would be another 60 years after Pearl Harbor before the U.S. would experience a comparable attack on its soil, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Like Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks (which killed nearly 3,000 people) caught America off guard and precipitated its involvement in war--in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But lacking as clear a goal and sense of purpose as in World War II, those conflicts, according to Professor Gormly, have in some ways revived old questions about intervention in foreign affairs.

"As we run up to the 2012 elections," he says, "there's going to again be a debate about the United States' role in the world: Who should we help, who should we protect, should we protect people at all?"


Major Events of WWII



Hitler's Rise

Adolf Hitler-who promises to save Germany from runaway inflation and the humiliation of forced disarmament after WWI-is named chancellor. By 1935, his Nazi Party controls all aspects of German life.



Japanese Aggression

Japan allies itself with Germany and Italy in 1936. A year later, it attacks China, killing hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war, including women and young girls.



Hitler's Blitzkrieg

Germany annexes Austria in 1938 and seizes Czechoslovakia in '39. When it invades Poland the same year (above), Britain and France declare war. By July 1940, Germany has invaded several Western European countries and begun bombing Britain.



War Expanding

Germany invades the Soviet Union in June, violating the nonaggression pact it had signed two years earlier and creating an Eastern front to the war in Europe. On December 7, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, forcing the U.S. into World War II. (Above, FDR signs war declaration.)



'The Final Solution'

Germany implements its plan for the mass extermination of Jews in Europe. By the war's end, 6 million Jews (and millions of other "undesirables," like homosexuals and the disabled) have been systematically murdered.



Japanese in U.S.

President Roosevelt authorizes the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, worried that they might act as spies or saboteurs for Japan. The camps are dismantled in 1944.




On June 6, 1944, Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandy in France to invade German-occupied Europe. Two months later, Paris is liberated.



German Surrender & the Cold War

After Soviet and allied forces capture Berlin, Germany surrenders on May 7, ending World War II in Europe. The Soviet Union and the U.S. and its allies divide Berlin, setting the stage for the 45-year Cold War between the Communist Soviet Union and the U.S.-led West.



The Atom Bomb

In early August, the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the end of WWII in the Pacific. More than 200,000 Japanese die from the bombs and their effects. Japan surrenders on August 15.



Locate Hawaii and Pearl Harbor on the world map that accompanies the article.

* The U.S. first constructed a naval base at Pearl Harbor at the beginning of the 20th century. Does the selection of this site make sense to you? Explain.

* In February 1941, the U.S. greatly increased the number of warships stationed at Pearl Harbor. What do you think precipitated this decision?

* Why do you think Japan targeted Pearl Harbor in 1741? What might it have hoped to accomplish by attacking this base?


Write an essay comparing and contrasting the bombing of Pearl Harbor with the 9/11 attacks. Be sure to address the immediate consequences of each attack, America's responses, and the impacts on the rest of the world.


Support or refute: The U.S. should have entered World War II in the late 1930s, when Hitler-led Germany began invading its European neighbors.


Do you think the U.S. should have been better prepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor? Explain.

Why were many Americans resistant to entering World War II before the Japanese attack?

After the Pearl Harbor attack, was distrust of Japanese-Americans inevitable? Could the U.S. have addressed its fears without mistreating Japanese-Americans? Explain.

What, in your view, are Legitimate reasons for a nation to go to war?


About half of the servicemen who died at Pearl Harbor were on the same ship--the USS Arizona. A memorial. now stands at the site of the sunken ship.


The Library of Congress American Memory page includes telegrams, interviews, news reports, and other primary sources about Pearl Harbor.


(1) At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was

a the newest U.S. state to join the Union,

b a U.S. territory.

c claimed by both the U.S. and imperial Japan.

d home to little more than a small naval base.

(2) Isolationism is the belief that security is best served by

a placing troops in remote locations far from populated areas.

b severing trade with all but a few nations.

c focusing on only one major political challenge at a time.

d avoiding conflicts in which one's nation is not directly involved.

(3) By 1941, the U.S. had established a "Lend-Lease" program to supply weapons and military hardware to art of the following countries except

a England.

b Italy.

c the Soviet Union.

d France.

(4) Which of these major World War II milestones occurred last?

a Internment camps for Japanese-Americans were dismantled.

b The U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on two cities.

c Japan surrendered.

d The Allies landed in France on D-Day.

(5) After World War II, the relationship between the U.S. and Japan

a improved as the U.S. helped Japan rebuild.

b virtually ceased as the U.S. focused its energies on domestic problems.

c remained overtly hostile as a result of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

d transformed into an alliance against Germany.


(1) What measures did Roosevelt take to prepare the U.S. for the possibility of war? Do you think Americans approved of these measures? Explain.

(2) How did World War II change America's rote in the world? Was this change for the better? Explain.

(3) Compare and contrast the treatment of American Muslims after 9/11 to that of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

(1) This idea-that the U.S. What is' isolationism?
 should stay out of a
 European conflict--
 delayed the U.S. entry
 into World War II.

(2) This leader famously Who is President Franklin
 called the day of the D. Roosevelt?
 Japanese attack on Pearl
 Harbor "a date which will
 live in infamy."

(3) In 1936, Germany, Italy, What are the Axis powers?
 and Japan formed an
 alliance, becoming these.

(4) During World War II, many What are internment camps?
 Japanese-Americans were
 forced into these
 prison-like places.

(5) In 1945, the U.S. dropped What are Hiroshima
 atomic bombs on these two and Nagasaki?
 Japanese cities.


(1) [b] a U.S. territory.

(2) [d] avoiding conflicts in which one's nation is not directly involved.

(3) [b] Italy.

(4) [c] Japan surrendered.

(5) [a] improved as the U.S. helped Japan rebuild.

Merrill Perlman is a former editor at The New York Times; additional reporting by Veronica Majerol.
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Title Annotation:TIMES PAST
Author:Perlman, Merrill
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 24, 2011
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