Pearl Harbor - a review
Craig Nelson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 978-1-474-60564-9, 532pp
A trip to Moruya Books is always a worthwhile expedition. I have commented before that you cannot buy too many books. A stack of unread books talks about one’s future in a way that nothing else can. When I bought “Pearl Harbor”, Janice (who is the inestimable proprietor of Moruya Books) said she had been worried about stocking a book with a cover price of $60. She need not have been. This book provides a read worth ten times a book priced at $30. It reads almost as a cross between some serious history and a novel. It takes a while to come to terms with the author’s style and his attention to detail but the investment of effort is more than worth it.
It was, of course, 75 years ago last December that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (we have to spell it like that for it is an American place name) took place. This was a turning point in the Second World War, if not the turning point. It is the event that brought America into the Second World War. America’s entry into the war was crucial for Australia. The Japanese vision was for an Asian empire that would have stretched north and south. Australia was clearly in the Japanese sights. The British were stretched in Europe and Africa so they could not spare any support for Asia. The rapid fall of Singapore and Hong Kong just after the Pearl Harbor raid is testament to that. The Americans would almost certainly have entered the war at some point but who knows whether or not it might have been too late for Australia.
Until I read this book I should have said that the Pearl Harbor attack was unexpected. Nelson's book tells me that it wasn't. There were plenty of warning signs and they were repeatedly ignored. The two senior (four star) officers on the island seem to have been derelict in their duty to protect their men at a time when it was clear that the risk of attack was high. The Japanese planning for this attack was meticulous and although it didn't achieve all its objectives (luckily for the Yanks their aircraft carriers were not in the harbour) it was considered a success. The attack involved developing the ability to launch torpedoes into a harbour considered too shallow for such an attack. The Japanese fleet had to take a long route to the north that involved refuelling at sea in difficult waters. The planning and execution of the attack reads like a thriller.
The attack and its aftermath are described in chilling detail through eyewitness accounts. Not surprisingly there were a number of enquiries by the government and the military about how the attack could have come to pass. There is, therefore, considerable material to draw upon and Nelson has not stinted in his efforts to pull together a graphic description of what it is like to be on an island many miles from anywhere on a sunny Sunday morning when a first wave of 183 planes arrived and began to deliver death and destruction. The attack was over in an hour and a half. By then about 2,500 people were dead.
The book describes how the Japanese got to the point where they went to war, including some background to its bloody and brutal incursions into China. Support for war with the US was not universal either in the civilian government or in the military. The Army, led by Hideki Tojo, were the hawks while the Navy was not originally as aggressive even though Admiral Yamamoto was the architect of the attack plan. The civilian arm of government was effectively neutralised when Tojo manoeuvred himself in to the position of Prime Minister, and the Emperor Hirohito seems to have blown with the wind. They had advice from a number of sources (within Japan) that the relative economic strength of the US and Japan was such that Japan could not possibly win.
The attack took place without a declaration of war. Indeed, Japanese ambassadors in Washington were still negotiating with the Americans. An hour after the attack started they went to a meeting with Cordell Hull (the American Secretary of State) knowing nothing of it. The Americans, however, knew and the Japanese ambassadors were incarcerated. Because there was no declaration of war the attack was considered a war crime. Hideki Tojo was hanged in 1948. The Emperor escaped the death penalty.
President Franklin Roosevelt declared 7 December 1941 to be "a date which will live in infamy”. It was a brutal attack that took place without the cover of a declaration of was and to that extent it was a shameful military operation. Yet without it, I find it difficult to contemplate what kind of Australia we might now be living in.