The Day That Sent Us to War

Last Sunday, the University of Arizona hosted a dedication ceremony to a new memorial on the campus Mall to the USS Arizona, one of 18 military vessels lost to an attack from the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941.

pearl-harbor-under-attackThis year marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on the Pearl Harbor and Hickam Bases in Hawaii, which was the catalyst for the United States to enter the second World War, both in Japan and in Europe.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the United States had a strictly isolationist policy when it came to getting involved in international conflict. If there was no threat to the US, there was no reason to get involved. It wasn’t until 1917, three years after war broke out in Europe, that President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and the other Central Powers when they began sinking American ships in the Atlantic Ocean, and also contacted Mexico about helping them reacquire lands lost in the Mexican-American War. So when Europe went to war again, the United States was determined to stay out of it.

While atrocities against Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people who were homosexual, people who were disabled, Romani, and political dissenters were happening across Europe, the Empire of Japan was working on a different scale of expansion. The island nation, which had been colonizing and invading Asian islands and the mainland for centuries, had been working to gain ground in parts of China and in other territories in Asia where the United States had allies or itself had territory. Japan and the US already had bad blood; US and its European allies were more involved in the economic gains from China, and Japan’s actions, even in 1941, had given way to economic sanctions being made against them by the West. As with many American conflicts, oil was a big factor.  

Before the United States and the Empire of Japan could come to an agreement, Japan made a move that would end any negotiations: they attacked the American Pacific Fleet, without warning or significant provocation. The Empire believed that a preventive attack was necessary, as the Fleet had moved closer (from San Diego to Hawaii) in order to be able to intervene if Japan decided to move on any US held or allied nations. They had determined to declare war on the US; a determination that didn’t reach the White House until the day after their first act of aggression.

When the ninety minutes of bombardment and reaction were over, 2,403 Americans had died and 1,178 were wounded. Nearly half of those killed—1,177—were from the USS Arizona, whose front magazine exploded when it was hit. The explosion also took out a smaller, nearby ship. There were also people killed in land structures like barracks, and there were a few civilian planes that were shot down as well.

black and white photo of ruined building.
"Ruined barracks at Pearl Harbor," Taken December 16, 1941.

While this was considered an act of war, neither nation had yet declared it, thus making all those who died—many of whom might still have been abed—non-combatants. When the war was over, this factor made the attack a strong contender for a war crime, and was mentioned as one of the factors for many of the defendants, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

After the Japanese thoroughly crippled the Pacific Fleet, they went on to attack other territories, some connected to France and the UK. This led to declarations of war not only from the United States, but from Britain as well, and with them the other Allies. Similarly, Germany, Italy and Japan had developed the Tripartite Pact, stating that the three countries would counter external intervention when any of the others were involved in military engagements. To that end, after Japan and the United States declared war upon each other, Germany and Italy proceeded to declare war on the United States as well. The US could do nothing but make the declaration back, and suddenly the US was involved in massive land and air combat on both sides.

By the time VE- and VJ-Day were declared, millions of Americans had been killed, injured, or lost in the war. Japanese-Americans, for no reason other than their ancestry, had been put into internment camps. German-Americans and Italian-Americans saw their fair share of wartime discrimination. The war might have ended, but nothing would be the same. The United States would go on to enter conflict after conflict, never again declaring war, but bringing a whole new meaning to the concept.

Want a new perspective on the attack on Pearl Harbor? Check out these books that have been released in the past five years:

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Countdown to Pearl Harbor

The Other Pearl Harbor

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

A Matter of Honor

Fields of Battle

Target Tokyo

Dawn of Infamy



Still not enough? Dive into this Pearl Harbor subject page on US History in Context.