FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE December 17, 2021
Release #2169 Point of Contact—Jeffrey Prater (401) 832-2039
Naval War College professor details events that led to Pearl Harbor attack as part of NUWC Division Newport naval history series
Much like the event that day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, still live in infamy.
“When I was a child, I remember hearing a rebroadcast of President Roosevelt’s address to the nation,” Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport Public Affairs Officer Jeff Prater said as he introduced Naval War College professor Dr. John H. Maurer on Dec. 7. “Every time I hear it still, it gives me goosebumps.”
While Roosevelt’s words and the attack that prompted them remain ingrained into the memories of many Americans 80 years later, the high politics and strategy that led to the attack are not as readily recalled. Maurer explored this topic during his presentation “President Roosevelt and the Road to Pearl Harbor” in honor of the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The presentation was part of Division Newport’s naval history series, which spotlights critical moments or events in naval history.
Roosevelt as a young man
“First I want to look at the apprenticeship of Franklin Roosevelt,” Maurer said. “At the age of 31, he was assistant secretary of the Navy in the administration of Woodrow Wilson. This was the No. 2 civilian position in the Navy Department at that time.”
In June of 1915 — in what was somewhat foreshadowing of future events — Roosevelt attended the launch of the battleship USS Arizona in Brooklyn, New York. Some 25 years later, it would be sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.
“Were these two countries, the United States and Japan, destined for war?” Maurer questioned.
In 1923, Roosevelt — who was stricken with polio two years earlier — wondered the same thing while still recovering his strength.
“Already Japan and the U.S. were looking at each other as enemies,” Maurer said. “There had already been two war scares before the First World War in 1907 and 1913 that seemed to point toward war between these two Pacific powers.”
Despite this, Roosevelt believed at this time that war between the two countries was not imminent and they were on the road to eliminating the friction between the two countries.
As the 1920s progressed, Roosevelt continued to preach this message and gain political power, becoming governor of New York in 1928 despite Republicans taking control of the presidency, congress and senate.
“Fast forward to 1941 to 1945, the United States is moving to invade Japan in the Second World War, so Roosevelt’s crystal ball is a little bit cloudy,” Maurer said. “Of course, he would be president of the United States when it was building up its power to do a cross-Pacific offensive and invade Japan.”
Economic downturn leads to militarization
A number of events obviously would change the outlook from optimism to all-out war, and that started in 1929 with the Great Depression.
“The economic downturn is the most important cause of the Second World War in that it leads to militarization of several countries,” Maurer said. “Germany goes from being a republic to a Nazi dictatorship under Adolph Hitler, and the Japanese government becomes more and more militarized as well.”
In 1932, Roosevelt defeats Herbert Hoover in a landslide for the presidency as Hoover is seen a failure because of the Great Depression. Roosevelt spent money on infrastructure and, specifically, the Navy as a means of revitalizing the economy.
Meanwhile, in Japan, nationalist extremists assassinated a number of its top leaders who wanted to continue working for peace. It led to the military seizing more power in Japan, exemplified by Japan taking Manchuria by force in 1931. This act inflamed sentiments in China, leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937-1945.
“Japan had hoped for a quick victory in the war, but instead they faced stiff opposition from the nationalist regime led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek,” Maurer said. “Instead of getting a quick victory, Japan becomes bogged down in a war with China. When Pearl Harbor occurs, Japan had already been fighting with China for four years.”
The pictures and newsreels of atrocities committed by the Japanese that came from this war spurred anti-Japanese sentiments in the U.S. By 1937, it was clear Roosevelt had changed his mind about the inevitability of war with Japan when he gave his “Quarantine” speech in Chicago. It reads, in part:
“It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease. War is a contagion. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. Let no one imagine that America will escape, that America may expect mercy, that this Western Hemisphere will not be attacked.”
World War II begins
The machinations of global conflict hastened in 1939 with Germany and the Soviet Union crushing Poland in a month. The Germans continued their warpath into Western Europe over the next year, taking over Denmark and Norway, as well as quickly defeating France.
“This is a big upset. No one expected this to happen,” Maurer said. “In the Great War, the French army stood fast and defended Paris against the hammering of the German army. In 1918, with American and British help, they transitioned to the offensive and beat the German army on the Western Front.
“Here, in a span of six to eight weeks, France is collapsing. This is a big shock to the whole international system that a great power like France could be so quickly defeated by the Germans.”
Despite this, Britain continued to fight and paid a cost. Germany bombed St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and Parliament between late 1940 and early 1941. Approximately 25,000 British citizens were killed by German air bombings during this time.
The fall of France and ongoing conflict in Europe galvanized the American buildup of military power. There was a conscription of soldiers in peacetime, and it built up navies on both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
These sentiments — and some canny campaigning — ultimately are what led to Roosevelt being elected for a third term. There were no term limits set at this time, but traditions dating back to George Washington stated that no president would seek election after two terms.
“The tradition was that our founding father, Washington, only served two terms. If you stood for a third term, the implication was that you’re greater than George Washington,” Maurer said. “This was a taboo that no American politician wanted to break.
“The fall of France creates a different climate — a climate of fear — in the United States. It was thought that Roosevelt was the only man with the experience to lead America in what seems to be a new war that’s coming on the United States.”
Roosevelt’s campaign played into the idea that a third term was his calling and he won the election handily in 1940.
“Roosevelt is a remarkable individual. He is a genuinely gifted strategist. He had long studied military affairs, naval affairs, larger strategy matters and international politics,” Roosevelt said. “He’s very much attuned to the international strategic environment and the challenges out there. He’s very much a global thinker.”
No escaping kinetic conflict
To Roosevelt, thinking globally meant he could not just focus on one theater of war, but had to take a global perspective. This line of thinking ultimately led him to provide supplies to those fighting Germany and Japan, and forge better relations with Britain.
This began to come into play on June 22, 1941, when Hitler turned on his ally, Joseph Stalin, and attacked the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. A few months later, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss strategy.
One of the outcomes of this was the August 1941 Atlantic Charter, which contained language that despite the U.S. not officially participating in World War II, discussed the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny.” Japan was not specifically mentioned, but was talked about as an aggressor state that needs to be demilitarized. Another outcome was the U.S. and Britain — along with Canada — working together to build the atomic bomb.
“It’s important to remember the first nuclear arms race is the Second World War,” Maurer said. “What’s motivating the American and British leaders is that the U.S. and Britain have to get these weapons before Hitler does.”
While this is going on, Japan remained tied up with China and contemplated its next move. If it moved against the Soviet Union, a war on two fronts could cause the Soviets to collapse; a move against British holdings in Southeast Asia could hurt the war effort of Britain. To deter this, Roosevelt ratcheted up economic pressure on Japan and moved the Pacific fleet from the West Coast to Hawaii.
Japan ultimately decided to attack the British in the southeast, but also added onto its battle plans the strike on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The day after the attack, Roosevelt gave his speech calling it “a day that will live in infamy.”
“Personally, I found the presentation awesome and I appreciate that we receive these lessons in naval history,” Prater said. “Here at Division Newport, as well as at the War College and Newport in general, it’s about naval history.
“It’s about what we do for this nation and what we do for this nation’s Navy, as well as how we continue to do it to this day supporting the Navy and undersea superiority. That’s what we’re all about.”
NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.
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