Nobody Expects the Japanese Invasion: How Pearl Harbor Blindsided America

Why was the U.S. so unprepared for the attack? Because Washington thought the Japanese believed Hawaii was alert and prepared.

Paper sellers at Times Square on December 7, 1941 (AP Photo/Robert Kradin)

"Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition," Monty Python pointed out in a series of absurd sketches. In reality, many of history's most world-changing events relied on the element of surprise. On December 7, 1941, the unexpected invasion of Pearl Harbor propelled the U.S. into World War II. All the events that followed over the next four years -- the victories and tragedies that now form a huge part of our national identity -- rose from the ashes of that Sunday morning.

One of the most immediate questions raised by Pearl Harbor was how such a massive attack was able to catch America off guard. The United States had known that the Japanese empire would lash out eventually, but the government's calculations were way off. In the July 1948 Atlantic, Major General Sherman Miles, the chief of Army intelligence between 1940 and 1942, wrote "Pearl Harbor in Retrospect," in which he examined why the base at Pearl Harbor was so dismally ill-prepared. He looked at what was known and communicated at the time among government, intelligence, and military leaders:

It has since been implied that the reason Hawaii was not on the alert was that Washington thought the Japanese would not attack there. That suggestion points up very neatly the crucial issue. For the opposite was true—Washington thought the Japanese would not attack Hawaii largely because it believed Hawaii was alerted and prepared.

That was, admittedly, an assumption, but it was so fundamental an assumption, based on so many years of indoctrination, as well as on issued orders, that it was not questioned by anyone in Washington, from the President down. For guns don't shoot or planes fly by themselves.

Miles likened the events to classical tragedy: for him, looking back, it was as if the disaster arose inexorably from Japan's belief "that the incredible might happen and Hawaii be surprised"--and from dangerous negligence by military leaders in Hawaii.

David M. Kennedy, in his March 1999 Atlantic article, "Victory at Sea," traced the dramatic story of how World War II was waged upon the oceans. He began with a look at the attack on Pearl Harbor, through which "a few hundred Japanese pilots enormously widened the arc of naval war, and transformed its very nature." Kennedy contended that, contrary to popular belief, Japan's attack represented not suicidal folly, but a calculated risk.

The plan was hugely ambitious but not mad. Its slender logic resided for the most part in the hope that the isolationist and militarily unprepared Americans would be so stunned by Japan's lightning blows that they would lose the will to fight a protracted war, and would accept a negotiated settlement guaranteeing Japan a free hand in Asia. All the Japanese planners understood that a conventional victory, ending in the complete defeat of the United States, was an impossibility.

In December 1991, James Fallows's article "Remember Pearl Harbor How?" described Japan's paranoia, in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor's fiftieth anniversary, about a possible backlash of anti-Japanese feelings in the United States.

However the United States responds to the Pearl Harbor observances, it cannot possibly meet the expectations that have been building up in Japan. Indeed, by far the most interesting part of the fiftieth anniversary is the way Japan's opinion-making class--its popular press and foreign-policy specialists--has prepared the public to cringe in dread of U.S. outbursts this month.

Not every recent Japanese article about U.S.-Japanese relations has begun with a phrase like "As the clock ticks toward the anniversary of Pearl Harbor..." But a lot of them seem to start that way.

Fallows pointed out that Japan's intense uneasiness about Pearl Harbor was somewhat surprising, considering that, by contrast, the fiftieth anniversary of the Rape of Nanking "had passed almost unnoticed in Japan." He speculated that part of the explanation may have been that the Japanese anticipated being "victimized"--50 years later--by a wrathful America as it remembered the sting of Pearl Harbor.