Roger McGrath Remembers Pearl Harbor, UPDATE 2

Roger McGrath, US Marine and illustrious historian of the American West, is also an authority on the Second World War.  In this ongoing interview, he sheds some light on the event that drew the United States into war 75 years ago.

TFF:  Prof. McGrath: This week marks the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. When you and I were growing up, “Remember Pearl Harbor” was a common phrase, something like “Remember the Alamo in 19th century America. I’d like to explore with you why this event was so significant to two generations of Americans and why these days it seems to be something we want to put behind us.   In an interview, obviously, we cannot hope to provide a detailed history, but for younger readers, can you tell us (and even some of us old guys need our memories refreshed) what happened.

McGrath:  The Japanese launched a sneak attack, which violated the way modern, civilized nations were supposed to act.  It's a bit ironic that war and civilized are mentioned in the same breath, but in the Western world certain, well-defined procedures were traditionally followed.  An attack followed a declaration of war, not the reverse as practiced by the Japanese.  Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor and later issued a declaration of war.  That's also why we call what Japan did a sneak, not a surprise, attack.  A surprise attack is in a time of war.  A sneak attack violates everything the West stood for.  Americans were at first shocked--then came righteous anger.  "Remember Pearl Harbor!" was not merely a propaganda phrase created by the government.  It came from the heart and gut of Americans.

Then, too, in 1941 (and going back to 1938) Gallup poll after Gallup poll found more than 70% of Americans strongly opposed to the U.S. entering the war in the Pacific or in Europe.  The great bulk of Americans felt we were trying to stay out of overseas conflicts--then came the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.  In many ways, we were an innocent people, thinking we were minding our own business.  President Roosevelt, an Anglophile, desperately wanted the U.S. to enter the war to rescue England, but he had failed in all his attempts to persuade the American people of such a course of action.  The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor unified the country with a suddenness and in a manner that Roosevelt could never have imagined.  However, it's important to remember that on December 8, we declared war on Japan only, not on Germany.

Following the attack the entire nation was mobilized for war, and the war dominated everything in American life for the next four years.  All our involvements since, even Korea and Vietnam, have been minor annoyances in comparison.  WWII was the epic event for every American of that era. 

TFF:  FDR 's critics argue that he unnecessarily provoked the Japanese while cutting the military budget.  Were MacArthur and others correct?

McGrath: I don't see FDR provoking Japan as much as responding too slowly to Japan's aggression in the Far East.  There's a lot to discuss here: Japan invades and annexes Korea in 1894.  Japan launches a sneak attack on Port Arthur in 1904 and starts the Russo-Japanese war.  Japan joins the Allies in WWI but only to gobble up German possessions in the Pacific.  Then, contrary to the League of Nations Mandate, she begins militarizing the islands and planting Japanese colonists on the them.  Japan invades Manchuria in 1931 and creates a puppet state.  Japan invades China in 1937.  Japan bombs the American gunboat Panay.  Japan claimed it was an accident but our intel intercepts show clearly that it was planned.  In December 1937 and January 1938 Japan commits one of history's great atrocities, the Rape of Nanking.  In 1940 Japan wrests control of Indochina from the Vichy French.  Only after all this did FDR announce an embargo of certain materials the U.S. could ship to Japan.   I should add that Yamamoto and others began planning for a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1938, long before any U.S. sanctions. 

TFF:   Was the American response dictated more by a spirit of revenge or by an upsurge of patriotic spirit?

McGrath: I think both.  Americans were highly patriotic without the war.  We were a very homogeneous people with a natural love for the country.  Nonetheless, there is nothing like an attack from the outside to inspire even greater patriotism.  At the same time, Marines and sailors in the Pacific talked again and again about this battle or that their victories were  payback for Pearl Harbor--and that continued right down to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

TFF: How serious a setback was the attack?

McGrath:  At the time it seemed that Japan had struck a devastating blow with her sneak attack on Pearl.  However, Japan failed to destroy our dry docks and tank farm.  This meant we could repair the damaged ships and that our Pacific supply of fuel and oil was intact.  Moreover, although few anticipated it at the time, the naval war in the Pacific would be not a battleship, but a carrier war.  Our three carriers at Pearl, Lexington, Enterprise, and Saratoga, were out at sea when the attack came.

TFF:   Explain for us a little bit about strategic intentions on both sides.  What did the Japanese high command hope to accomplish?   Even conceding your point that FDR was not deliberately provoking the Japanese until very late, after they had shown their hand, why did he not do a more effective job of preparing for a war in the Pacific?

McGrath: We can blame it all on Matthew Perry.  I'm not entirely kidding.  Commodore Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1853   and, at gun point, opened up a medieval, feudal, and insular Japan to the modern world.  For a number of reasons Japan took to the changes with a relish.  Feudalism was ended and industrialization begun.  Western methods in industry, especially mass production, were copied.  Emperor Meiji abolished the Shogun system in 1867 and an imperial army established.  In 1873 conscription was introduced that the Samurai lost their traditional monopoly of military service.  The Samurai did not go quietly into the night but revolted.  By 1877 Japan's modern conscription army had crushed the last Samurai resistance.  Despite modernization Japanese society still remained rigidly hierarchical with the emperor at the top, followed by a small minority of aristocrats and a large majority of peasants.  The emperor was "sacred and inviolable" and in command of everything.  To oppose the imperial will was blasphemous.

With the modernization and militarization of  Japanese society came the quest for expansion.  Japan looked at the Far East, then dominated by Western powers, and wanted not only a piece of the action but all of it.  After a series of attacks and conquests that I mentioned earlier Japan was well on her way by 1940 with her goal of Hakko Ichiu--bring the eight corners of the world under one roof.  The empire was to include China, Indochina, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, and possibly India.
By 1940 Japan had Korea, Manchuria, a good chunk of China, Indochina, and many islands in the Pacific.  To continue her conquests Japan knew that the United States must be neutralized.  Japan thought that a sudden, decisive blow against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor might cause the U.S. to  retreat to the mainland and leave Japan free to have her way with the Pacific.   Japan had managed to do that very thing to Russia by a sneak attack on Port Arthur in 1904.

Meanwhile, FDR was doing next to nothing to strengthen American forces in the Pacific.  It was stunning how weak our defenses were in the vital Philippine archipelago.  The same was truth in other island chains and at individual islands such as Wake.  FDR was an Anglophile.  England meant everything to him.  The Pacific meant next to nothing.  There was absolutely no threat of a German invasion of the U.S.  There was an actual threat of a Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian islands and the West Coast.  Japan did invade the Aleutians Islands.  My family lived in Pacific Palisades just above the beach on the Pacific Coast.  Everything was blacked out at night and men patrolled the bluffs 24/7, scanning the horizon and looking for Japanese submarines, which did shell the coast and sink ships within view of those on shore.  During December 1941 and through at least January and February of 1942 people thought a Japanese invasion was imminent.  At that time California had only 3,000 men in uniform.  Such great military bases as Camp Pendleton didn't yet exist. 

TFF:  What was the American response, when the attack was announced, both among ordinary citizens and in the military?

Initially, Americans were stunned by the news that trickled in hour by hour on Sunday, December 7.  By the next day that shock had turned into anger--a righteous anger--that would last until Japan was crushed.  On Monday, December 8, FDR asked for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan and he got it with but one dissenting vote.  That one dissenting vote came from a representative from Montana, Jennette Rankin.  It was only her second term in Congress.  Her first was in 1917 and she voted against the declaration of war for WWI as well.


TFF How long did it take for the US to get into action after December 7? When did the Nips begin to realize they had miscalculated and why was their intel on our capacity so mistaken? Or was it really a close-run affair? To what extent did the American victory require the strategic genius of MacArthur, Halsey, and Nimitz?  Do you think the attack on Pearl Harbor may have had a perverse effect in galvanizing American resistance.

McGrath: We really took it on the chin for the first half year of the war.  With only a few exceptions our actions were purely defensive in nature.  We were taking a beating everywhere.  Shorty after Japanese planes hit Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes were launched from Formosa (Taiwan today) and they bombed and strafed Clark Field, north of Manila in the Philippines.  Only 14 B-17s and a few dozen fighters escaped that attack.  The date of infamy there was December 8--across the international date line.  Two days later Japanese bombers destroyed the Cavite Naval Yard on Manila Bay.  That same day Japanese forces landed at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon's northwest coast.  

On December 26 MacArthur declared Manila an open city to spare it from destruction and began the withdrawal of American troops to the Bataan Peninsula.  We all know the suffering of those troops for the next several months and their abandonment by FDR.  When the Battling Bastards of Bataan surrendered in April, the Bataan Death March began.  Our fortress island in Manila Bay, Corregidor, surrendered in May and a second death march began.  Growing up in the Palisades, I knew a veteran of Corregidor, a Marine, George, who had earlier served in China.  He was a big guy, 6'2" and 200 lbs., when his captivity began.  When he was finally liberated from a prison camp in Japan, he weighed 120 lbs.  He told me the "Japs" were especially fond of beating him until he collapsed to the ground because he was a big guy.  As he told the story,  "Some little Nip lieutenant would gather the troops and have them watch and cheer as he beat me with a baseball bat."  George was eventually sent to Formosa in one of the hell ships.  Half of the American POWs who were still somehow alive died during the passage.  He finally was sent to Japan.  By then he was a skeleton, barely alive.  He said he was days from death when Americans arrived on Honshu.Defended only by 400 Marines and 1,000 American construction workers, Wake Island, after nearly 3 weeks of heroic resistance, fell to the Japanese on December 23.  And so it went throughout the Pacific.

Japan was also gobbling up the islands of the Dutch East Indies and storming down the Malay Peninsula.  Neither the Dutch nor the British could stop the onslaught.  The Japanese sent the great British battleship, Prince of Wales, and the cruiser, Repulse, to the bottom of the Gulf of Siam when they dared to sally forth from the harbor at Singapore.  On February 15, 1942, British Gen. A.E. Percival surrendered his 65,000 man force to a smaller Japanese force led by Gen. Yamashita.  The Japanese were stunned by the capitulation and marched into Singapore.

City after city, island after island, fell to the Japanese.  It was all so sudden and so easy that a Japanese admiral later said they had succumbed to the "victory disease."  Japan conquered more and more territory and failed to consolidate what they already held.

U.S. strategy during these dark days was euphemistically called "active defense."  This essentially meant guarding Hawaii and Samoa and keeping the sea and air lanes open to New Zealand and Australia.

We did have a few thing to boost our morale during these early dark days of the war.  During February a U.S. Navy task force with the carrier Lexington (Lady Lex) was reconnoitering the waters of the Solomons and trying to gather intel on the great Japanese base at Rabaul, some 400 miles to the west.  Off the coast of Bougainville, Lexington was spotted by a Japanese patrol plane.  Within minutes a group of Mitsubishi "Betty" bombers were bearing down on Lexington.  Nearly all the carriers fighters were elsewhere at the moment, and it was up to Butch O'Hare and his wingman to defend the carrier.  They took off quickly, but, when test firing his guns, the wingman found they were hopelessly jammed. He could do nothing but return to Lady Lex.  This left O'Hare alone in the sky to face 9 incoming Japanese plane.  He did so in a spectacular and death defying manner.  With the aerial battle so close the carrier the sailors above decks could watch the action, O'Hare shot down 5 of the bombers and badly damaged a sixth.  By that time other American fighters had arrived and dispatched the other Bettys.  For his lone battle against the Japanese, and for saving the carrier Lexington and becoming a ace on one flight, O'Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor and the nation had a hero to cheer.

Then in April came the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.  Led by one of America's most famous pilots, Jimmy Doolittle, 16 Mitchell B-25 bombers took off from Hornet and flew just above the water for 500 miles before climbing several hundred feet and bombing Japan.  The raid left the Japanese in shock.  Defensive rings around their home islands made them impregnable--or so they thought.  They couldn't imagine where the bombers had come from because they knew they couldn't have taken off from a carrier.  After bombing Japan most of the B-25s crashed landed in China.  Doolittle and 71 of the 80 men on the raid eventually made back to the United States.  Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor and the nation had another hero to cheer.

Nonetheless, the tide didn't begin to turn in the Pacific until the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.  The Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the U.S. because it saved Australia from a Japanese invasion.  Then in June came the Battle of Midway, a surprising and dramatic victory--against great odds--for the U.S.  It is commonly said that after the battle, Japan was on the defensive in the Pacific.  Not true.  Japan was still occupying and fortifying new islands, including, especially, Guadalcanal.

I don't know where we would have been without the aggressive punch of Bull Halsey or the strategic brilliance of MacArthur and Nimitz.  We certainly had the right men at the right time.  I'm not sure if any of them could survive the political correctness/cultural Marxism of today's America and today's Armed Forces.  Think of Halsey's message to the sailors of his fleet: "Kill Japs!  Kill Japs!  Kill more Japs!  You will help to kill the yellow bastards, if you do your job well."  By the end of the war he hadn't softened.  During the final days he was supplying his fleet with all the fuel and munitions he could possibly acquire to send his boys aloft in one last air raid against Nippon.  When asked why, he said, "I want to hit 'em one more time--before they quit."  Back in the states after the war he said at a press conference, "Since I've been back I've been asked if there is any such thing as a good Jap.  And I've said 'Yes, one who's been dead about six months.' "  The Bull.

I think Halsey statements suggest that Pearl Harbor did indeed galvanize American resistance.  Nothing else could have turned a nation that wanted nothing or next to nothing with a war in the Pacific and the Far East than the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.  I have pages from a high school yearbook of 1942 with the photos of the graduating seniors.  Accompanying the photos is all the typical yearbook information, including quotations  from the students on what they want to do following graduation.  Nearly every guy says "Kill a Jap," "Shoot a Jap," or something similar.

TFF:  What are the enduring lessons Americans can take away from Pearl Harbor?

McGrath:  It's easy to conclude from Japan's sneak attack that weakness invites aggression.  Japan had agents and spies everywhere.  Japan saw that our outposts in the Pacific were lightly defended, including the Philippines and the Marianas.  Both positions were strategic and both highly vulnerable.  In the Marianas we had Guam but the Japanese had Saipan and Tinian.  Against the League of Nations Mandate, Japan settled thousands of Japanese on those islands until they outnumbered the indigenous Chamorros 5 or 6-1.  By 1941 there were 25,000 Japanese civilians on Saipan alone.  Additionally, there were 32,000 Japanese troops and the island was heavily fortified.  This all began during the 1920s and continued through the 1930s.  Japan did all this with impunity on dozens of islands.

There was a Marine who traveled throughout the Pacific and reported on exactly what the Japanese were up to.  Alcoholic but brilliant and highly decorated Lt. Col. Earl "Pete" Ellis, in civilian guise, went from island group to island group during 1921-1923 and reported the Japanese were not only occupying dozens of islands but militarizing them.  They were preparing for war.  He said Japan would attack us as soon as they were thoroughly prepared.  There was no question in his mind that an attack would come.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Patrick Kinnell says:

    Good to hear from Professor McGrath.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    My wife has the blood of the Perry’s and I hope she resents your condemnation of her kinsman!

  3. Dot says:

    Dr. McGrath: Re: the first question and your answer, I understood that FDR, wanting to enter the war, knew beforehand that Japan was going to bomb Pearl Harbor. Having bombed Pearl Harbor, the American people were then emboldened to enter it.

    Thank you Dr. Fleming for doing this interview with Dr. McGrath. Thank you Dr. McGrath for this timely response on the 75th anniversary of our entering the war.

  4. james kruse says:

    It wasn’t a “sneak attack.”

  5. Alexander Coleman says:

    A marvelous interview. Dr. McGrath’s expertise is always wonderful.

    Attended last night’s San Jose Sharks hockey game. Before the game could begin the P.A. announcer informed the thousands, having been asked to stand up, to join together in a moment of silence as we remember this, the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor… Also, the P.A. announcer said, allowing only a two-second respite, the moment of silence serves us as we keep in mind the lives lost in the Oakland fire in the early hours of Sunday.

    The linking of the two somehow seemed shocking, even to jaded me, even today.

  6. david umlauf says:

    Mr. Kruse is correct. It was a “sneak attack” for the Japanese:
    they thought their attack was secret. Whether the President was
    surprised one may only speculate.