On December 7, 1941, dawn came clear and quiet to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. By 8 a.m. battle clouds had grayed the skies above Pearl Harbor. Though the Japanese attack was an earsplitting awakening for the island’s populace and Americans everywhere, it was preceded by a decade of darkening U.S.-Japanese relations.


1931: Japan captures China’s Manchuria region, boosting its struggle for an Asian empire and clouding affairs with the United States, which fears for its Pacific political and economic interests.

1937: Japan launches its campaign to annex the rest of China.

1940: The war in Europe leaves British, French, and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia exposed. This year the dominoes begin falling in earnest, though the U.S. remains officially uninvolved in World War II.

May 1940: President Franklin Roosevelt shifts the U.S. Pacific Fleet from California to Pearl Harbor—half an ocean closer to Japan.

July 1940: Roosevelt halts key U.S. exports to Japan: scrap iron necessary for steel and airplane fuel, both essential to Japanese warmaking. Oil—and mineral—rich Southeast Asia is more tempting than ever to natural-resource-poor Japan.

September 1940: Japan joins Germany and Italy in the Axis Alliance, which formally recognizes a “new order in Greater East Asia.” The main obstacle to Japan’s realization of this new order: the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

November 26, 1941: Six aircraft carriers, 24 support ships, and 5 fleet submarines—each with a midget sub strapped to its back—depart Japan in radio silence.

Dawn, December 7, 1941: The carriers are in position some 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of an oblivious Oahu.


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A Japanese Zero fighter, many of which were used to attack airfields during the Pearl Harbor raid

Photograph from Corbis




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