Why the Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Strategic Failure


71 years ago today, America awoke to war. Japanese air and naval forces launched a surprise attack on the base of our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in a brazen attempt to cripple our ability to wage war in the Pacific and to force us to stay out of the war for good. However, despite the loss of thousands of lives, nearly two dozen warships, and hundreds of aircraft, America entered the war with furious resolve and forced a Japanese surrender within four years. So why was the attack on Pearl failure? Below are just of few of the many reasons, some of which were taken directly from the writings of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander of all American naval forces in the Pacific during WWII.

1. American aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the attacks.

The aircraft carrier is the ultimate weapon in naval warfare, representing the ability to project power and cause damage far beyond what any other naval vessel could achieve at the time. The Japanese knew that if they were going to control the Pacific, they needed to eliminate our ability to respond to their movements effectively by destroying our aircraft carriers. They were actually the main target of the attacks; unfortunately for the Japanese, they were not there. On the morning of December 7th, the carriers were out at sea. Only seven months later, these same carriers would help inflict a devastating blow to the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese carriers while losing only one of our own. This proved to be the decisive battle of the Pacific war and helped pave the way towards total victory for the United States.

2. The Japanese focused on our ships and missed the opportunity to cause more crippling damage.

According to Nimitz, the Japanese were so focused on sinking our ships that they failed to damage more important targets. The dry-docks were right next door, and had they been destroyed, our damaged ships would have had to been taken all the way back to the US mainland to be repaired. In addition, nearly the entire American fuel supply was stored in tanked about five miles over the hill from the harbor; had they been destroyed, our ability to do anything would have been crippled for weeks. Lastly, the Japanese attacked on a Sunday, which meant that only about 10% of sailors were aboard their ships. Had they attacked on any other day of the week, they could have killed thousands more experienced sailors (thank God they didn’t!)

All of these mistakes amounted to this: the ships that were damaged by the Japanese, not destroyed , were able to be repaired, manned, and fueled in a relatively short amount of time after the attacks.

3. The Japanese underestimated the resolve of the Americans

Strategically, the Japanese wanted to land a blow not just to American military power, but to the psychology and will of the American people. Their goal was to demoralize America so much that the voices in favor of neutrality would win out and the United States would stay out of the war for good.

Needless to say, they failed. The attacks on Pearl Harbor galvanized the nation and activated an industrial base that would soon overwhelm all the enemies of the free world, not only in the Pacific but also in Africa and Europe.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, one of the chief architects of the Pearl Harbor attack, is believed to have said the following after the conclusion of the battle: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

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