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What was the significance of Pearl Harbor?

USS Arizona Burning in Pearl Harbor, 1941. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

On 9 February 1941, Churchill made a BBC broadcast on the status of the war. In this broadcast, although he acknowledged the impact of US troops in securing victory in the First World War, Churchill emphasized that Great Britain did not need American soldiers on the ground in the current conflict. Instead he asked only for the supplies and equipment he believed Britain needed, and implored the USA to ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’.

Was Churchill’s confidence that Great Britain needed only the tools to ‘finish the job’ justified at this moment in the war? At this point Britain and its allies faced Italian and German forces in North Africa. German U-boats hunted shipping in the Atlantic and German aircraft bombed Britain’s cities. Overhanging all of this was the possibility that Hitler might soon attack Britain directly, as well as concerns about the ambitions of Japan in Asia and the Pacific.

Just before 8am on 7 December 1941, over 350 Japanese aircraft launched an attack on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is a natural harbor in the Hawaiian Islands which had been a US naval base since the early twentieth century, but became much more significant when the US fleet was sent there as a deterrent to the Japanese in April 1940. The decision had been made to base the fleet there and to rename it the US Pacific Fleet.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused extensive damage, destroying nearly two hundred US aircraft, sinking four battleships and damaging several more. Over 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack, and over 1,100 more were wounded. The very next day, the USA declared war on Japan and formally entered the Second World War.

Civilians Killed in Pearl Harbor Raid. Among the civilians killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were three in this car about eight miles from Pearl Harbor. The tires were flattened and the sides pockmarked by shrapnel from a bomb. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Churchill had declared previously that if the United States become involved in a war with Japan, Britain would soon follow. As a result of this, and of the Japanese attacks on other Pacific targets, Britain also declared war on Japan. Germany and Italy responded with declarations of war on the United States, and the US reciprocated. The war had now become a global one, and with the might of the United States on the Allied side, Britain was now confident about its outcome.

The US was then committed in both Asia and Europe. On 12 December 1941, Churchill visited Washington D.C. and remained there for three weeks. In the short period following the attack on Pearl Harbor, both Roosevelt and Churchill sought to define the event and to use it to galvanize their own people and cement the friendship and allegiance between the two nations. In his memoirs, Churchill was famously honest about his relief at the news of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war and wrote, ‘I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.’

In this investigation, you will explore what Pearl Harbor meant to the Japanese, the Americans, the British, and to the outcome of the war on a wider scale.

 Investigation page

 The sources

 Notes for teachers

Find out more

 The US National World War II Museum
 “Remembering Pearl Harbor 70 Years Later” from Prologue magazine from the National Archives and Records Administration
 Teaching With Documents: “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” from the US National Archives and Records Administration
 Pearl Harbor Posters from the National Archives
 Pearl Harbor Oral Histories with Ann Hoog, a webcast with numerous resources from the US Library of Congress
 Second World War section of Churchill and the Great Republic from the Library of Congress
 Remembering Pearl Harbor from the US Department of Defense
 An article from Ron Helgemo on The Churchill Centre website debunking the myth that Churchill knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor before it happened
 UK National Archives: Why was the USA so unprepared for the attack on Pearl Harbor?
 “New Light Shed on Churchill and Pearl Harbor,” an article from the New York Times
 “Remembering Pearl Harbor: Interview with a Navy Survivor” from the Naval Historical Foundation