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One Day in History: Dec. 7, 1941

DECEMBER 7, 1941, a Sunday in the central Pacific: at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the crews of the battleships were enjoying a longer than usual sleep. Many of the officers were ashore. The Army Air Corps base at Hickham Field was expecting an inward flight of B-17 bombers but very few of its aircraft were aloft or on patrol. There had been so many false alarms of a Japanese attack in the preceding weeks and months that the edge of alertness had been lost among the islind's defenders. The only active surveillance was being staged by a British-delivered radar station located at the extreme north of the island. Its search was due to close down for the day at 7 A.M. Just before it did so, the operator detected aircraft approaching the island. The news was reported to headquarters at Pearl Harbor but the operators were told by the duty officer that they had probably picked up the incoming B-17s and to shut down as scheduled.

In fact the operators had detected the approach of the aircraft of the Japanese combined fleet, which were already flying off to attack Pearl Harbor. The fleet consisted of six large carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, which embarked 460 torpedo bombers, dive bombers, high altitude bombers, and their escorting fighters. The carrier fleet was accompanied by large numbers of destroyers, cruisers, and battleships and presented a large target to a vigilant defender. The defenders were not vigilant. At 7:55 A.M., as the Pacific Fleet began to hoist colors for the start of the day, the Japanese attacking aircraft arrived overhead and began to deliver ordnance against Battleship Row, where eight battleships were moored in pairs in the lee of Ford Island. The Japanese also attacked Hickham Field, barracks, and naval and military installations. The alarm was sounded, accompanied by the loud-speaker warning"This is no drill!" As ships began to sink, their shocked crews manned their guns and began to fire back at the attackers. Aircraft took off from Hickam Field. Some Japanese aircraft were hit, but at 8:50 A.M., a second wave of attackers appeared. Resistance was by then better organized and 20 of the attackers were shot down. Those losses were heavily outweighed by those suffered by American forces. Five of the eight battleships had been sunk and 188 out of 394 American aircraft destroyed and 159 damaged. Of the 94 warships in harbor, 18 had been sunk or seriously damaged. Almost the only consolation for the U.S. Navy was that none of its aircraft carriers were present at Pearl Harbor on December 7. They were either in the continental United States or delivering aircraft to U.S. island bases elsewhere in the Pacific.

In Washington, D.C., the staff of the Japanese embassy were hastening to prepare a presentable form of a message from the Tokyo government to Cordell Hull, the U.S. secretary of state, announcing the termination of discussions undertaken to preserve the increasingly fragile peace between the two countries. Ambassador Nomura had been instructed that he was to type the document himself, so secret was it. It was to be delivered to Cordell Hull by 1 P.M., just before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was to begin. Nomura was not a good typist and completed, with each retyping, the 14-part message too late to meet the deadline. When he arrived at the State Department to deliver the message, Hull was already receiving news of the Pearl Harbor sinkings.

Meanwhile Japanese attacks were also opening on American bases in the Philippines, on the British colony of Malaya, and on island outposts at Guam and Wake. Hong Kong had been invaded and Japanese forces were sailing to intercept the British fleet sent to defend Singapore. In London, Winston Churchill, who had based all his hope of a successful outcome to the war on"dragging the Yanks in" was, since Britain's expulsion from the European continent in 1940, almost the only person at a high level of government in any of the nations at war, to see a silver lining to the news. As he retired to bed on the evening of December 7, he confided to himself"so we had won after all."

That was one way in which December 7, 1941, changed history. By forcing the United States to enter World War II, Japan had ensured that the world's foremost economic power would set itself to become the foremost military power as well. Because Japan was allied to Adolf Hitler's Germany in the Tripartite Pact, America's intervention was not confined to the Pacific but included Europe as well. Hitler then ensured that the United States would fight Germany as well as Japan by declaring war on the United States on December 11. American intervention against Germany and its espousal of the cause of Germany's other enemies ensured the survival of Josef Stalin's Soviet Union after its near-defeat in 1941, because Soviet Russia then became eligible for United States lend-lease war supplies. December 7, 1941, changed almost every important international relationship in the world--to the disadvantage of the Axis (Germany-Japan-Italy) and to the advantage of the Allies (United States-United Kingdom-Soviet Union), which would dominate the world in subsequent years.