What was the significance of Pearl Harbor?

These sources have been chosen from the Churchill Archive to explore the significance of Pearl Harbor. Taken as a cohesive collection, they shed light on this historical event from a number of different angles, but teachers should also feel free to use individual sources or smaller subsets of these sources in their classrooms as they deem appropriate. Please bear in mind, though, that historians are always trying to compare multiple sources and find connections, threads, and contrasts that can build up an understanding of an event or an individual’s role, so the more sources students can explore, the more deeply they will understand the events covered by them.

How to use the Investigation:

  • Use the sources and activities for in-class investigations or homework.
  • Invite students to read through the introduction and background essay and then work their way through the sources, using the provided questions as guides. 
  • Go through the activities below step by step, or just pick and choose from the available activities and sources as needed.
  • Use the surface level and deeper level questions to encourage students to challenge themselves toward deeper historical understanding.

Activity 1: Looking at Individual Sources

Ask students to look at the sources individually and consider how the sources might help them answer the question posed in the Investigation. You might model this activity by working through one source as a group, or using a Smartboard or other display technology to talk students through your thought process when examining the source and responding to the questions on the table below.

Source What does this source suggest about the significance of Pearl Harbor? What specific evidence from the source leads you to that conclusion? Do you think the source provides strong or weak evidence of the event’s significance?  Why?


Activity 2: Who was Pearl Harbor significant for, and what did it mean to them?

Sometimes the perspective we have in mind when reading a source can deeply color our perception of it. If a scholar is interested in the strategic importance of a military target, for example, they may come away from a source about an air strike with a very different perspective than if they had approached the same source with an interest in understanding the impact of the strike on one side’s military readiness. Looking at these sources, students may find that sometimes the same source can reveal useful information about a variety of topics, depending on the perspective they adopt when reading them.

Just as sources can reveal information about different topics or angles on the events we study, they can also provide different interpretations. Historians often strive to understand the significance of events – why they matter, to whom, and in what way – and events can be significant in a variety of different ways. Invite students to look back at the sources with these questions in mind, which will allow them to see how the questions we ask of a source can help us understand it (and its significance) in markedly different ways:

  • What was the significance of Pearl Harbor as a military target to Japan? Why did they want to bomb that location? How did bombing Pearl Harbor fit in with their plans? How significant was the tactical advantage that Pearl Harbor gave to Japan?
  • What was the significance of Pearl Harbor to the military readiness of the United States?  What was the impact of the attack on the US naval fleet? 
  • What was the significance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in terms of the combatants in The Second World War? Which declarations of war between which countries were initiated by the Pearl Harbor attack?
  • What was the impact of Pearl Harbor on Great Britain? Did it affect its chances of winning the war, or its source of supplies?
  • How did Pearl Harbor cement allegiances between countries and between individual leaders?

It might be interesting to invite students to answer the question, ‘Why was Pearl Harbor significant?’ using these different perspectives and compile their answers. Then ask them to work in small groups to rank their responses about the reasons why Pearl Harbor mattered from the most important to least important. They could justify their answers, and then come together in larger groupings to discuss and defend their ideas.

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