Pearl Harbor


December 7, 1941 brought an attack upon the United States the likes of which had never been seen before. Join Active Minds as we tell the story from both the Japanese and the U.S. perspective. We will cover not only how the Japanese planned and executed such a bold attack, but also how the U.S. could have been caught so completely unaware. We will also examine the impact this had on World War II and the American psyche.

Key Lecture Points

  • The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shocked the United States and led directly to its involvement in World War II.  The approximately 3500 American dead and wounded and the sinking of a significant portion of the Pacific Fleet outraged the American public and outweighed a strong isolationist tendency to provide support for war.
  • In many ways, the attack can be seen as a culmination of a growing rivalry between Japan and the United States for supremacy in the Pacific.  Japan and the US had maintained an isolation from outside interests until the middle of the 19th century when both nations began to expand their territorial holdings.  By 1900, the Japanese Empire had expanded south to include Taiwan while the US had occupied Hawaii (and its Pearl Harbor) and the Philippines.
  • During the war, indeed to this day, the humiliation of the Pearl Harbor defeat raised many questions.  Dozens of military and civilian inquiries, as well as professional and amateur historical inquiries have pondered how the surprise attack could have been achieved with such devastating loss of life and armaments.
  • Despite the devastating loss, though, the attack on Pearl Harbor turned out to be a strategic misstep by the Japanese, in that it galvanized US public opinion (largely influenced by an isolationist impulse up until December 7, 1941) in full opposition against the Japanese Empire.  By August 1945, 44 months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese were defeated and occupied by the US.
  • The relationship between the US and Japan warmed significantly and remarkably subsequent to WWII.  Fearful of the spread of Soviet power into the Asian Pacific region, the US occupation of Japan (headed by General Douglas MacArthur) focused upon rebuilding Japan, and fostering it as an US ally throughout the Cold War and after.  The US-Japan rivalry remains largely in the economic sphere today.

Exploration Questions

  • Why do you think the Japanese Empire chose to attack the US?
  • What were the primary reasons that conflict broke out between the US and Japan?
  • Why was it that the US was so thoroughly surprised by the attack upon Pearl Harbor?

Reflective Questions

  • What, if any, are your memories of December 7, 1941? Describe. How are they different from your memories of 9/11?
  • In the course of your lifetime, how has your perception of Japan changed?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Dye, Dale and Robert O’Neill. The Road to Victory: From Pearl Harbor to Okinawa. Osprey Publishing, 2011. 256 pages. This book reveals each of the battles America would fight against Imperial Japan from the naval clashes at Midway and Coral Sea to the desperate, bloody fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
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  • Prange, Gordon. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. Paperback. Penguin Books. 1982. 912 pages. Provides an account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Prange spent nearly 37 years preparing this book by a series of interviews with surviving Japanese officers who took part in the operation.
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  • Gillon, Steven M. Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War.  Basic Books, 2012. 224 pages. This historian portrays minute-by-minute the anxious and emotional events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and how the President and the American people responded in the 24 hours following the attack.
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