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We The People: What triggered the U.S. entry into World War II

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea on Dec. 7, 1941, during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  (HO)
The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea on Dec. 7, 1941, during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (HO)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Why did the United States enter World War II?

Eighty years ago this week, on a sleepy Sunday morning over Oahu, Hawaii, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida was flying his Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bomber, leading the first wave of raiders from the Kidō Butai – an armada of six Imperial Japanese Navy carriers – toward his target when Pearl Harbor came into view.

There were no planes in the air to greet him; no anti-aircraft fire to challenge him. He ordered his radio operator to send word back to the fleet they had achieved complete surprise: “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

Moments later, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Logan Ramsey watched as a dive bomber flew low over Ford Island. He was trying to get a look at the aircraft tail number to report it to his command when it completed its dive and pulled up. Seconds later, a bomb detonated.

Ramsey, realizing it wasn’t an American pilot hotdogging over the airfield, rushed into the command center to send the most important message of his and millions of Americans lives: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill.”

The United States had fought hard to stay out of the resurgence of entangled alliances that thrust the world into the last war back in August 1914, isolating itself behind its giant moat – the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – to shield itself from the rising tide of fascism and ultranationalism in the Far East and Europe.

In the early 1920s, Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy, seeking to reclaim the former glory of the Roman Empire by seizing colonies across the Mediterranean in Africa. To his north, Adolf Hitler completed his ascendancy to power in 1933 and began a crash program to jumpstart German industry to arm and equip his “Thousand Year Reich.” In the Far East, Army leaders with extremist views of continental expansion through the subjugation of Korea, Manchuria and China pushed the government in Tokyo toward a more militarist Japan and its vision of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The dominoes fell one by one: The Italians seized Libya and Ethiopia in Africa, while the Germans remilitarized the Rhineland, completed the Anschluss (political union) with Austria and demanded the return of Sudetenland – a province of the newly formed, post-World War I Czechoslovakia – to German control. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931. In the summer of 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident – in which reports of a single missing Japanese soldier led to shooting between the Chinese and Japanese armies encamped near each other – signaled the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Despite many in the United States holding on to an isolationist worldview, the signs World War II was on the horizon were as big as any billboard you’ll see driving north up Division Street.

Between 1935 and 1937, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts drafted to keep the country out of another European war, but the country’s leaders realized they weren’t going to be able to stay out of the coming conflict.

In October 1937, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to invoke the Neutrality Act against the belligerents fighting in Asia; he wanted to support the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese, but could not do so outright. During a visit to Chicago that month, Roosevelt gave his famous Quarantine Speech, in which he shifted American foreign policy away from neutrality.

“It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease,” Roosevelt said.

One more Neutrality Act was passed in November 1939, two months after the Germans invaded Poland, but this time most pretenses of American neutrality were gone.

Congress added a “cash and carry” clause to the act, saying foreign powers could purchase arms from the United States as long as they paid with cash and carried the materials on their own ships. This allowed British ships to keep the Chinese supplied in their fight against Japan and the Allied forces supplied in their fight against the other two Axis powers – Germany and Italy – in Europe.

The following year, with France fallen and the Battle of Britain raging in the skies above London, new Prime Minister Winston Churchill hammered out a deal with Roosevelt to trade 50 U.S. destroyers in exchange for rent-free rights to a number of British bases in the West Indies for 99 years. The trade was lopsided in America’s favor as the destroyers were antiques by the time they were pressed into Royal Navy service, but the deal’s significance was in the beginning of the Anglo-American “special relationship” between London and Washington.

The Japanese naval fleet maneuvers of 1939-40 included a simulated attack by torpedo planes on ships anchored in a harbor. The head of the Combined Fleet – Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – was impressed by the results and was convinced just such an attack would be successful if the raiding force maintained the element of surprise.

Thus the genesis of Yamamoto’s plan for the raid on Pearl Harbor was born. Yamamoto was not a proponent of attacking the United States; he’d attended Harvard University, served as a naval attache in Washington, D.C., and also participated in the London Naval Conferences of 1930 and 1935. He knew what Japan would be facing if it attacked the United States: “In the first six to 12 months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”

With General Hideki Tojo installed as prime minister, however, the country demanded resources like oil and rubber to fuel its Army and Navy’s expansionist plans. Those resources could be seized from places like the Dutch East Indies, which would mean taking on Great Britain and the United States, delivering a killing blow to the American Navy at anchor in Pearl Harbor and forcing it to sue for peace.

The only problem for the Japanese was that the United States didn’t sue for peace.

“I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

“Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

“With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God,” President Roosevelt said in an address to a Joint Session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941.

With that speech, the United States was marching toward the sound of distant guns again. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Yamamoto predicted its outcome with reasonable accuracy. Nearly six months to the day after Pearl Harbor, four of the six carriers involved in the strike on Pearl Harbor were lost at the Battle of Midway. For the next three years, the Japanese were on the defensive and losing ground.

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