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What was the significance of Pearl Harbor?

Source 5

Copy of a telegram from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, 10 December 1941


➜ CHAR 20/46/62

Simplified Transcript

  1. Much has happened since you left. The United States has been attacked in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and now has only two battleships facing ten Japanese in the Pacific. They are recalling their battleships from the Atlantic and for the moment are not exporting any munitions. This information is for you only. Secondly the Japanese are going to attack us in Malaya and the Far East. Thirdly, Italy and Germany are going to declare war on the US. German navy has been ordered to attack US ships. Fourthly, magnificent Russian successes against the Germans at Leningrad and around Moscow and further south at Kursk. Germans largely in retreat. Fifthly, tide is turning in our favour in North Africa but much heavy fighting still lies ahead. Sixthly, we have to send aircraft from Middle East to support our forces in Malaya. 
  2. In view of these points you should not offer the Russians ten squadrons. We do not really know where we stand in terms of supplies from the US at the moment and I will not know until I get the chance to talk to the Americans in detail.
  3. Hope you are better. We are having a jolly time here.

Original Transcript

[This Document is the Property of His Britannic Majesty’s Government, and should be kept under Lock and Key.]


[CYPHER]                        PRIME MINISTER


No. 12. HAUGHTY                D. 5.25 a.m. December 10th, 1941.
December 10th, 1941.


  1. Since you left much has happened. United States have sustained a major disaster at Hawaii and have now only two battleships effective in Pacific against ten Japanese. They are recalling all their battleships from Atlantic and have laid embargo on all exports of munitions for the time being. This is for your own information alone. Secondly, we are going to be heavily attacked in Malaya and throughout Far East by Japanese forces enjoying command of the sea. Thirdly, Italy and Germany are about to declare war on United States. German navy has already been ordered to attack American ships and a tripartite declaration of implacable war against British Empire and United States is expected either 10th or 11th. Fourthly, magnificent Russian successes at Leningrad, on whole Moscow front, at Kursk and in south; German armies largely on defensive or in retreat, complaining of terrible winter conditions and ever-strengthening Russian counter-attacks. Fifthly, Auchinleck reports tide turned in Libya but much heavy fighting lies ahead on this our second front. Sixthly, urgent necessity to reinforce Malaya with aircraft from Middle East.
  2. In view of the above you should not, repeat not, offer ten squadrons at present time. Everything is in flux with United States supplies and I cannot tell where we are till I get there.
  3. Hope you are better. We are having jolly time here. Will start Thursday if invited.

What is this source?

In this telegram, Churchill updates his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, who was in Moscow at the time, on several facets of the war, three days following the attack on Pearl Harbor

Background to this source

This telegram was sent as Churchill was in the USA and planning to meet with Roosevelt and other US officials a few days after Pearl Harbor. Eden was in Moscow at the time meeting with Stalin and other leading Soviet officials. The Soviet Union was now heavily involved in the war as well, having suffered massive attacks by German forces from June 1941 onwards. By 7 December, German forces were only 25 miles from Moscow and one of the main issues of discussion for Eden was supporting the Soviet Union by supplying war materials via the dangerous sea route north of Norway to Archangel.

Additional information

In this source an embargo is a government ban, for example an order dictating the movement of ships in and out of ports. Munitions are war materials, especially weapons and ammunition.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating the significance of Pearl Harbor. This source provides insights into the available intelligence and immediate concerns in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. How did the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor impact the American fleet and how did the Americans respond?
  2. Why was the American embargo on munitions relevant?
  3. What intelligence did Churchill have about the intentions of Italy and Germany?
  4. What upcoming concerns does Churchill convey in this communication?
  5. Which concerns seem most urgent or critical? How can you tell? What can you find out from the order in which items are listed in this telegram?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

  1. What was the connection between the attack on Pearl Harbor and Malaya and the Far East?
  2. What was the impact of Pearl Harbor on British import of American supplies? What does this telegram reveal about implications of that change for the British military?
  3. Do you think Stalin would have agreed with Churchill’s overview of Soviet-German operations? Or do you think Churchill sets out his interpretation of events, hoping that Eden will use it to justify the decision not to provide the Soviet Union with the 10 squadrons? How do you think Stalin would receive this news?
  4. Does Churchill’s telegram suggest that he was aware that Eden would have a tricky task to deliver this news to Stalin? What can you discern about the relationship between these two men from this communication?

Need help interpreting the source?

  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor badly damaged eight US battleships (sinking four) and eight other vessels, and destroyed 188 US aircraft.
  • The American fleet at Pearl Harbor was a key potential source of support for British vessels in the Pacific.
  • Churchill had intended that Eden would offer ten squadrons of Royal Navy ships to the Soviet Union to support their efforts in the war, but Pearl Harbor made him change his mind.

Explore the guide to interpreting telegrams

 Source 6

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