A date which will live in infamy

07 December 2016

History | War and Conflict

Attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Click the image to access this document in the collection.

President Roosevelt famously declared December 7th 1941 ‘a date which will live in infamy’. As war raged across Europe, and America - the ‘giant’ - slept on, imperialist forces in Japan plotted a devastating strike on Pearl Harbor. Today marks the 75th anniversary of the deadly attack on that sleepy Hawaiian naval base, an event that would ultimately turn the tide of the Second World War.

In the wake of World War One, the American government had grown increasingly isolationist. The outcome of the conflict had proven bleak, and fearing entanglement in another international war, the US Senate rejected membership in the League of Nations when it was founded in 1920. Throughout the ensuing decade, as the United States sought to insulate itself - both economically and politically - from global trends, Japan embarked upon an aggressive campaign to gain territory in the resource-rich region of Manchuria.

By the autumn of 1939, violence had broken out once more. Ordinary Americans resented powers – including the British government and the Roosevelt administration - who they believed were attempting to force American troops into an unnecessary war with the Nazis. Meanwhile, military elements gained greater control in Japan and in October, General Hideki Tojo was appointed Prime Minister. Plans were swiftly laid for war with the US. The American military anticipated an assault, yet disaster could not be averted.

The first planes reached Pearl Harbor at 7.48am on a quiet Sunday morning, and for the next two hours, bombs rained down on the port. 2,403 people were killed. The Japanese ambush provoked fury throughout America and the public enthusiastically threw themselves behind the war effort; almost overnight, the focus of the war shifted from the ravaged fields of Europe to the far-flung islands of the East. Upon hearing news of the attack, Winston Churchill is said to have responded, ‘So we have won after all!’

 


Naval strategy map for bombing of Pearl Harbor, c.1941. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Click the image to access this document in the collection.

 

Published in conjunction with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, American History, 1493-1945 contains rare documents relating to the attack, including a fascinating Japanese battle plan. Powerful photographs taken on the day show stricken ships sinking amid plumes of smoke. My favourite document in the collection, however, is a colourful propaganda poster printed by the Office of War Information in 1942. 

 

  

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-- : remember Dec. 7th!, 1942. Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Click the image to access this document in the collection.

 

Depicting a tattered American flag flying at half-mast against a fiery background, the poster invokes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, while bold red letters command the reader to ‘REMEMBER DEC. 7th’. Commemorating an attack that still loomed large in the public consciousness, this poster was designed to incite a patriotic response and bolster the war effort. 75 years on, the command has been heeded; thousands will gather today to remember those who fell at Pearl Harbor, thus proving that the events of that infamous date live on in the collective memory of the American people.

 

American History, 1493-1945 is available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

All of the documents included in this blog will be available to access free for 30 days.

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, popular medicine, World’s Fairs and socialism around the globe. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.

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