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  • Provocation and Angst:FDR, Japan, Pearl Harbor, and the Entry into War in the Pacific
  • Paul S. Burtness (bio) and Warren U. Ober (bio)

Through the afternoon of December 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt kept getting more disheartening news about the devastation wreaked by the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. These reports were hard for him to fathom, for he knew that Washington had sent repeated alerts to all the Pacific bases—indeed, FDR had personally ordered warnings sent on November 27 and 28, which included a note that in a confrontation the United States would prefer to have the enemy fire first.1 This provision catered to Congressional isolationists, who would support combat only if U.S. forces were under attack. Although the president, unlike Secretary of War Henry Stimson, was not surprised by the attack, the outcome must have caused him grave angst.2 [End Page 91]

Japan regarded the successful air strike at Pearl Harbor as justified retaliation for America's existential attacks on Japan's economy beginning in July 1941. Those actions—freezing Japanese assets and embargoing the sale of oil to Japan—had been imposed by the United States as punishment for Japan's occupation of southern Indochina as a staging area for its campaign to seize oil. The American president, on the other hand, had compelling reasons for feeling that, as de facto leader of the free world, he had a grave responsibility to oppose both Hitler's Germany and its Tripartite Pact (Axis) partner, Japan, in their joint quest for world domination.

Though the immediate crisis resulted from Japan's aggression, Roosevelt's overarching concern was Nazi Germany and always had been. Hitler at this point not only dominated most of Europe, but also, surprisingly, in view of his hatred of communism, had been linked to Stalin and the Soviet Union through a non-aggression pact signed in August 1939. This Eurasian time bomb had exploded on June 22, 1941, when Hitler, disregarding his pact with Stalin, mounted a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, as the president looked on in horror. His advisers warned him more and more urgently that America must not wait longer to join Great Britain in its life-and-death struggle, for the Soviets might soon succumb, and Germany would then be able to overwhelm Britain. However, the president's support in the U.S. House of Representatives was paper-thin; on August 12 the House had passed by only one vote his indispensable proposal that the one-year term of service for draftees be extended.3

Meanwhile, the North Atlantic sea-lanes had to be kept open if Britain was to avoid starvation. After German torpedo attacks on the destroyers USS Greer in September and USS Kearny in October (in which the Kearny lost 11 of her crew), FDR ordered U.S. Navy ships convoying Lend-Lease shipments to Britain to shoot German U-boats on sight in American defensive waters west of Iceland. This was the context when Robert Wood—chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Company, and spokesman for the America First Committee, the leading isolationist organization in America—urged the president to ask Congress to vote "up or down" on the question of going to war. The president declined, perhaps sensing that Wood made the proposal knowing there were enough isolationist votes in Congress to prevail against FDR. [End Page 92]

On October 31 a German submarine torpedoed and sank the destroyer USS Reuben James, with the loss of 115 crew members. Roosevelt then ordered the arming of U.S. merchantmen; however, he continued to decline to call for a congressional vote on the issue of war, although in delaying such a vote he was plagued by the nightmare that Germany might defeat the British and Soviets before the U.S. could join the fight, leaving America, alone in the world, to engage the Axis powers.4

Facing this impasse in the undeclared war with Germany in the Atlantic—Hitler was shrewdly refusing to declare war—the president turned to the Pacific and Japan. He reasoned that, if Japan initiated hostilities by attacking an American asset, the U.S. would be justified in retaliating, in...


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