"A Date Which Will Live in Infamy"
War message delivered to U.S. Congress December 8, 1941
In the years leading up to World War II (1939-45), the government of Japan was run by its military leaders. These men sought to expand Japan's power on the eastern Asian mainland, forming an enormous empire in Asia.
Japanese forces had been fighting in China since July 1937 and by 1940 had taken over much of Southeast Asia. Japan's next targets were the island groups in the southwest Pacific ocean. Alarmed by the Japanese government's quest to dominate Asia, the United States took steps to restrict—but not totally ban—trade with Japan and demanded the nation withdraw its troops from China and French Indochina (now Vietnam). Although the U.S.-imposed trade restrictions interfered with their manufacture of war materials, the Japanese did not buckle under the economic pressure. Japan's military steadfastly refused to remove troops from occupied areas. As a result, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt took more definitive action in the summer of 1941, cutting off all U.S. trade with Japan—including oil, which was vital to fuel the Japanese war effort. Shortly thereafter, the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands did the same.
The United States had been on the brink of war with the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) for months, but the events that occurred on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, propelled the nation into the very heart of the growing global conflict. During the early morning hours of that Sunday, the Japanese Fleet launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Pearl Harbor is located on the southern coast of the Hawaiian island of Oahu [pronounced oh-AH-hoo]. The torpedo planes and bombers that attacked the harbor were launched from Japanese aircraft carriers stationed about 200 miles north of Oahu.)
The raid on Pearl Harbor lasted less than two hours. In that time eighteen American warships were hit. The USS Arizona was destroyed in a fiery explosion. The Nevada and West Virginia were sunk. Approximately 200 planes—most of them on the ground—were destroyed and another 150 were damaged. The Pearl Harbor attack left nearly 2,500 Americans dead and 1,200 wounded. In a radio address to the nation on December 9, 1941, President Roosevelt declared: "We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way."
Things to remember while reading"A Day Which Will Live in Infamy":
- Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940, thus pledging support to the governments of Germany and Italy. Together, the three nations became known as the Axis Powers.
- Throughout the autumn of 1941 the United States expected Japan to attack somewhere in the Pacific. Many U.S. officials suspected the Philippine Islands—not Pearl Harbor—to be the prime target for an enemy assault.
- In 1941, although the United States had not declared war against Germany, a significant portion of the American naval fleet was already engaged in battles with German U-boats in the Atlantic while protecting U.S. and British merchant ships. (See Herbert Werner entry in chapter one for more information about the Battle of the Atlantic.)
- The attack on Pearl Harbor was the idea of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan's navy.
- By sidelining the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (putting it out of action by launching a surprise attack), Admiral Yamamoto thought he would clear the way for a Japanese conquest of islands in the western and southern Pacific.
- Japanese attacks on the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island followed shortly after the raid on Pearl Harbor.
"A Day Which Will Live in Infamy"
War message delivered to the U.S. Congress, December 8, 1941
Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy— the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State [Cordell Hull] a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.
It will be recorded
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.
Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. (Roosevelt, pp. 302-3)
What happened next…
On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. While America was scrambling to recover from the raid on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese staged a series of invasions in the Pacific. U.S. military bases on Guam (a U.S. territory in the western Pacific) and Wake Island (located northeast of Guam) were attacked the same day as Pearl Harbor. Japanese forces captured Guam on December 10 and Wake Island on December 23, 1941. On December 25, following a week of steady bombing, Hong Kong fell to Japan. Manila, the capital city of the Philippine Islands, surrendered to the Japanese eight days later, and the southeast Asian island of Singapore, located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, followed suit in February of 1942.
But the naval battle at Midway, which took place during the first week in June 1942, marked a turning point in the war in the Pacific. Midway Island is located in the northern Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Japan. On June 3, 1942, one hundred Japanese warships staged what was supposed to be a surprise attack. Two factors gave American forces the upper hand in the Battle of Midway: (1) Japanese military codes had been deciphered, or broken, by the United States, revealing Japan's battle plan, and (2) American aircraft carriers had not been at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. Five were at sea and one was in a California harbor.
Consequently, U.S. aircraft carriers (called "flattops") and bombers were well prepared for the Japanese assault on Midway. After losing four of their own carriers in the battle against American forces, the Japanese retreated. The American victory at Midway was considered revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor. From that point on, a Japanese invasion of the continental United States was no longer a threat.
In the first half of 1942 the Japanese also captured the Solomon Islands, located north of Australia, and used them as bases to launch further attacks in the Pacific. U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands, on August 7, 1942. For six months Americans fought on the ground, in the air, and in the shark-infested waters to win control of the Japanese-held island. By January 1943 the Japanese had lost Guadalcanal.
Did you know…
- When Japan invaded China in 1937—before World War II had even started—a Japanese plane attacked and sank the USS Panay in the Yangtze River. The United States did not launch a counterattack. Later, the Japanese government apologized and promised to end its bombing raids over China. When the air bombings continued, the U.S. government cut exports to Japan.
- Radio communications between Washington D.C. and Pearl Harbor were hampered by the bad weather on the morning of December 7, 1941.
- A "Declaration by the United Nations," issued on January 1, 1942, pledged the full cooperation and assistance of twenty-six member nations in the fight against the Axis Powers.
- When the USS Arizona exploded at Pearl Harbor, 1,177 Americans were killed. In 1962 a memorial bridge and shrine were constructed over the remains of sunken battleship.
- Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, was killed on April 18, 1943, when U.S. fighter pilots shot down his plane over the South Pacific.
For More Information
Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982.
Shapiro, William E. Pearl Harbor. New York: F. Watts, 1984.
Pearl Harbor: 50 Years Later. Turner Entertainment, 1991.
Pearl Harbor: Two Hours That Changed the World. MPI Home Video, 1991.
Pearl Harbor Remembered. [Online] (accessed on September 6, 1999).
The History Place. December 7, 1941-Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor [Online] http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/pearl.htm (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Allen, Peter. The Origins of World War II. New York: Bookwright Press, 1992.
Dunnahoo, Terry. Pearl Harbor: America Enters the War. New York: F. Watts,1991.
Harris, Mark Jonathan, Franklin Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, eds. The
Homefront: America during World War II. Introduction by Studs Terkel. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1984.
Newsweek, March 8, 1999, pp. 42-4, 49.
New York Times, December 8, 1941, pp. 1, 8.
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932-1945. Edited by B. D. Zevin. New York: Houghton, 1946.
Ross, Stewart. World Leaders. New York: Thomson Learning, 1993.
Zich, Arthur, and the editors of Time-Life Books. The Rising Sun. "Time-Life Books World War II Series." Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977.