Today in History: Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2017 | Matt

Today in 1941 was the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the sea-change moment that drew the United States into World War II.

A Japanese bomber pierced the clouds above Oahu at 7:55 am Hawaiian time. It was followed by 360 Japanese planes that proceeded to bomb the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The attack significantly damaged the American Pacific naval fleet.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet were aware that due to deteriorating relations with Japan, an attack was likely imminent. Nevertheless, adequate precautions at Pearl Harbor had not been taken. That morning, a Sunday, many passes had been issued to attend religious services away from the base.

The swarm of Japanese planes was spotted on radar at 7:02 am. There was a flight of B-17s that was supposed to be arriving from the United States at that same time, and no alarm was sounded. The assault came as a total surprise.

Of the eight American battleships docked at Pearl Harbor, five were destroyed in the bombing. The Japanese also claimed three destroyers and seven other ships, along with two hundred aircraft. The bombing killed 2,400 Americans and wounded 1,200 more. Japan, in turn, only lost 30 aircraft, five “midget” submarines and under one hundred men.

All three of the American fleet carriers in the Pacific were on training maneuvers at sea. Six months later, they would play a pivotal role in gaining a military advantage over Japan at the Battle of Midway.

The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt delivered his famous speech to a joint session of Congress. “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.”

FDR asked Congress to approve a resolution declaring war upon Japan. The Senate voted in favor by 82 to 0, and the House voted yes 388 to 1.

That one dissenting vote was from Montana Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to Congress. An ardent pacifist, Rankin believed that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a direct consequence of Roosevelt’s provocations of the Japanese, meant to precipitate an attack that would justify American entry into the War. She understood the move was political suicide. Indeed, a furious mob outside the capitol building tried to physically attack her. She was nicknamed “Japanette Rankin.”

Rankin never issued an apology for her vote against entry into WWII and was also an active member of the anti-war protest movement during the Vietnam era.

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