A highly detailed look at the tense buildup to Japan’s “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor becomes a study of how very unsurprising it really was.
Moving chronologically and rendering the Japanese side of the story as well, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Twomey has mined the “nine official inquiries, big and small, in five years” that occurred after the attack, providing a sense of how the participants (now mostly gone) met or failed to meet the challenge of Japan’s relentless bellicosity. Indeed, as the author authoritatively shows in a narrative that is fluid and only occasionally overwrought, there were numerous indications early on that Japan was planning an aggressive thrust into the South Pacific to seize crucial natural resources from the Dutch East Indies, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. However, undermining the overt motivation—that the Japanese desperately needed oil after the U.S. turned off the spigot due to the empire’s unwillingness to withdraw from Manchuria; that knocking out the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor was the only way to implement that aggressive thrust; and that the Japanese had learned the effectiveness of surprise attack 36 years before at Port Arthur in destroying the Russian navy in the Russo-Japanese War without formally declaring war—was the sheer fact of Western racism. The Americans could not fathom that the “little yellow people” had the wherewithal to carry out such a spectacular attack—certainly not without Germany’s help. Underestimating the enemy and ignoring the signs of aggression—from encrypted Japanese dispatches and mail, all of which the U.S. had cracked, as well as the closing of Japanese embassies and burning of important papers—are what sank the careers of the top Navy men at the time. Staggeringly, the vast Japanese convoy, including six aircraft carriers, en route through the North Pacific for 12 days and 3,000 miles, was never detected.
A well-researched study of an infamous moment that is still fascinating and controversial.