Did public opinion make Pearl Harbor possible?

Richard Freeman asks whether public hysteria in wartime Britain helped fend off an attack, while public apathy in America help to precipitate one.

Richard Freeman | Published 07 December 2014

USS Pennsylvania, behind the wreckage of the USS Downes and USS Cassin.
USS Pennsylvania, behind the wreckage of the USS Downes and USS Cassin.

In December 1941 most Americans refused to believe that the Japanese would mount a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack duly came on December 7th that year. In the years leading up to the First World War the British lived in terror of a surprise attack and invasion by the German High Seas Fleet. The attack never came. Did public hysteria in Britain help fend off an attack, while public apathy in America help to precipitate one?

Despite their nonchalant attitude, the Americans had every reason to expect an attack, given what they knew about the Japanese. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 began with Japan’s pre-emptive strike on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria after contriving a bogus incident to cover its own aggression. Their invasion of French Indochina followed in 1940. Thus the Americans should have been deeply suspicious of the Japanese even before 1941. That year saw a rapid deterioration in Japanese-US relations, coupled with repeated warnings from diplomats and intelligence services that Japan was planning an attack in the Pacific. Never, perhaps, has a nation been so thoroughly warned of impending danger. But the Americans’ abhorrence of war meant that their politicians were untroubled by political opinion. There was no pressure to act, so all the warning signs were ignored.

How different was the British scene in the years leading up to the First World War. As the Kaiser built his great battle fleet, Britain was swept by wave after wave of invasion scares. These were fed by novelists in works such as Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1905). These wild imaginings were reinforced by the rantings of people such as the second-rate admiral Lord Charles Beresford and the hysterical journalist H A Gwynne, editor of The Morning Post

British public opinion helped to build a deterrent to a threat that almost certainly did not exist. While it was true that Germany was determined to build a battle fleet to rival the Royal Navy, battle fleets could not invade. Invasions needed masses of slow transports, none of which Germany was building. Nor did Germany ever show the least sign of wishing to, or preparing to, invade Britain. No matter, it was a terrified public that cried ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ and so got their extra four dreadnoughts. 

If the British hullabaloo helped prevent attack in 1914, for the Americans in December 1941 the lack of any great public clamour told a different story. The government and the military, free to ignore an obvious danger, did so. They paid the price at Pearl Harbor.

The irony remains: the country that needed arousal remained silent; the one that faced no threat suffered a turmoil of agitations.

Richard Freeman’s Pearl Harbor: Hinge of War is published as an ebook by Endeavour Press.

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