Pearl Harbor Wasn’t the Only Attack that Week that Changed HistoryHistorians/History
tags: WWII, Pearl Harbor
Matthew Levey is professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. His areas of interest and research are East Asian history, World War II and World history.
While most Americans remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a “date which will live in infamy,” we rarely think about the attack in the global context of the rest of the war that engulfed the globe till 1945.
For four years already, Japan had been waging war in China, the primary tension building between Japan and the Soviet Union for supremacy in continental east Asia. The Soviets supplied much of the weaponry and other forms of aid that helped Chiang Kai-shek in the early years of Japan’s massive invasion of southern China in 1937.
But it wasn’t just indirect involvement between the two nations. Japan and the Soviet Red Army ultimately fought two major engagements in the border regions between the eastern Soviet Union and Japan-occupied Manchuria between September 1938 and August 1939. The Soviets handily defeated the Japanese in both battles, convincing the Japanese leadership to reconsider the Imperial Army’s plan for northward expansion into the Soviet Union, and focus instead on developing a vast colonial empire in the south Pacific and southeast Asia, which could be achieved only by attacking the colonies of the western powers in south and southeast Asia. Japan and the western powers vied for control of the Pacific.
Not only did they look elsewhere for conquest, but the Japanese even formalized their armistice with the Soviet Union through a non-aggression pact, one Adolf Hitler tried vehemently to convince the Japanese to break so the Soviet Union would find itself in a two front war, just as Germany did and the United States soon would find itself fighting.
Just days before Japan would attack Pearl Harbor, the last efforts by Germany to overthrow Moscow and the Soviet Union would fall short, thanks largely to the additional troops and manpower the Soviets could move from the east that had previously been put in place to thwart a potential Japanese invasion.
On December 5, the Soviets launched a massive counterattack to drive German forces away from Moscow. Only six days after suffering the first real strategic failure of his war, Hitler would also declare war on the United States on 11 December, thus ensuring America’s involvement in the Allied war against the Axis powers.
Between December 5-11, the war, which had previously been two distinct regional wars, exploded into global war that would consume the planet for another four years. World War two had two primary origins: Japan’s war in China and the global potential it had by virtue of Soviet involvement and the colonial presence of the western powers in southeast Asia and the western Pacific; and Germany’s wars in eastern and western Europe, the success of which Germany achieved in the west gave Japan an even greater incentive to head south.
Yes, the attack at Pearl Harbor is certainly a date which will live in infamy as President Franklin Roosevelt so eloquently noted the following day in his speech before Congress. But it’s also just one event of several which simultaneously determined the direction of global history.