Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

HISTORY | 4/10/2018 | Sarah Pruitt
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When Japanese bombers appeared in the skies over Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the U.S. military was completely unprepared for the devastating surprise attack, which dramatically altered the course of World War II, especially in the Pacific theater. But there were several key reasons for the bombing that, in hindsight, make it seem almost inevitable.

Before the Pearl Harbor attack, tensions between Japan and the United States had been mounting for the better part of a decade.

Island - Nation - Japan - Rest - World

The island nation of Japan, isolated from the rest of the world for much of its history, embarked on a period of aggressive expansion near the turn of the 20th century. Two successful wars, against China in 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, fueled these ambitions, as did Japan’s successful participation in World War I (1914-18) alongside the Allies.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Japan sought to solve its economic and demographic woes by forcing its way into China, starting in 1931 with an invasion of Manchuria. When a commission appointed by the League of Nations condemned the invasion, Japan withdrew from the international organization; it would occupy Manchuria until 1945.

July - Clash - Beijing - Marco - Polo

In July 1937, a clash at Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge began another Sino-Japanese war. That December, after Japanese forces captured Nanjing (Nanking), the capital of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (Kuomintang), they proceeded to carry out six weeks of mass killings and rapes now infamous as the Nanjing Massacre.

In light of such atrocities, the United States began passing economic sanctions against Japan, including trade embargoes on aircraft exports, oil and scrap metal, among other key goods, and gave economic support to Guomindang forces. In September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, the two fascist regimes then at war with the Allies.

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