attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor shocked the American public and precipitated the country's entry into World War II, and the mark it left on the United States' culture and public consciousness was arguably not rivaled until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Because of the surprise nature of the attack and the massive casualties, Pearl Harbor has been regarded as a tragedy by historians and the public alike, but viewing the attack in this way actually serves to preclude an effective understanding of the events surrounding the attack, its aftermath, and the true tragedy of the whole affair. Considering the attack on Pearl Harbor with a sober eye allows one to understand that the true tragedy was not the military lives lost on December 7th, but rather the fact that the attack, and indeed, the subsequent war between the United States and Japan, could have been prevented had either side been able to move past their ignorant, racist assumptions about the other, choosing to engage as equals rather than escalate tensions through a series of shortsighted, punitive measures. Realizing this allows one to further understand how the tragedy of Pearl Harbor is ongoing tragedy that continues to this day; by framing the tragedy of Pearl Harbor as the ruthless surprise attack by a dishonorable opponent on the noble United States, popular views of the attack only serve to reinforce the very same attitudes which led to the escalation of hostilities in the first place.
Before discussing how the true tragedy of Pearl Harbor lies in the misunderstanding and animosity fueled by racism and ignorance, it is necessary to confront the popular view of the attack head on by suggesting that the deaths of 2,402 American service members, while regrettable, is far from a tragedy in any sense of the word, and any responsible view of history should not consider these particular deaths to represent the reasons why the attack should be considered a tragedy. This likely sounds overly callous to anyone accustomed to the usual jingoistic pablum which surrounds historical discussions of the United States military, especially during World War II, but this statement is both accurate and useful, and to understand why, one must consider the true purpose of a military, and what it represents.
Firstly, the death of any member of the military is, by definition, not a tragedy, or at least is only a tragedy in that the death any conscious being may be considered a tragedy. Despite claims that the ostensible purpose of a military is to defend any number of things, from freedom, to "the homeland," to "our way of life," at its most basic a military exists to kill people and destroy property as a means of producing a desired result, whether that be political change, genocide, or economic dominance. As a defensive entity, a military exists to be killed or destroyed before civilians and there property, or else to kill and destroy the aggressor. A military can never be noble or just, because by definition it represents a failure of society to effectively deploy human intellectual capacity in the resolution of conflict. Although some might undoubtedly claim that in some cases military intervention is absolutely necessary (indeed, Hitler is often deployed as the hypothetical foe against which violence is always the only answer), even in this case any situation in which military intervention is supposedly the only answer may ultimately be traced back to a failure of society and ideology. Thus, the deaths of the American service members at Pearl Harbor are not a tragedy, but rather represent the fulfillment of one of the military's purposes; that is to say, as they failed to kill the attacking Japanese, they at least were able to die, offering a legitimate target of aggression for the Japanese, who were ultimately retaliating for the economic destruction inflicted by the United States (and to pretend that the United States has ever treated human lives as something inherently worth more than their economic potential is to disregard the dominant theme of all American history up to and including the present).
Due to Japan's relatively small size and lack of indigenous resources, "Japan in 1941 was heavily dependent on outside sources for the minerals, petroleum and other raw materials needed to fuel its economy," so its goal in the years leading up to the attack "was to insulate the region from world-wide depression by allowing raw materials to flow into Japan for conversion into manufactured goods for the limitless Chinese market, hereby ensuring freedom from Western economic domination."
However, as Japan put this plan into action via its brutal assault and occupation of China, the United States attempted to counter its expansion into Asia with "the passage of the Export Control Act [which] gave the President an excuse to retaliate against Japanese expansion without appearing to be punitive," and so President Roosevelt imposed an embargo on scrap iron and steel, followed shortly by a prohibition on "the exportation of aviation fuel and lubricants to all but Great Britain and the Western Hemisphere countries."
Although this was not the most punitive measures the United States would take, it hampered Japan's plans to the point that in 1941, a new Japanese ambassador was sent to Washington in the hopes that he could negotiate a deal, offering "a freeze on Japanese military operations in China and initiation of negotiations with Chaing Kai-shek [the leader of those portions of China not under Japanese control], who still exercised a precarious sway over its unoccupied provinces" in return for "a lifting of embargoes of critical materials, resumption of normal trade with the United States, U.S. assistance in restoring the flow of raw materials from South East Asia, and exertion of influence on Chiang Kai-shek to open peace negotiations with Japan."
The United States' response demonstrated the condescension with which it viewed Japan, and marked one of the crucial points at which understanding, instead of ignorance, could have prevented the thousands of deaths to come.
Rather than negotiate with the Japanese ambassador on the possible terms of the proposal, the United States' Secretary of State at the time, Cordell Hull, refused "to be drawn into specifics and countered with a demand for agreement in principle on four points before negotiations could begin -- Japan was to pledge respect for the territorial integrity of all nations, non-interference in other nations' internal affairs, equality of commercial opportunity, and a commitment to peaceful change in the status quo."
Though these four points appear ostensibly reasonable, when viewed in the context of Japan's ongoing occupation and war in China, as well as the United States' long history of disregarding territorial integrity and interfering in other nations' internal affairs, Hull's counteroffer demonstrated an arrogance and disinclination towards genuine negotiation that put off the Japan ambassador, and so the talks amounted to nothing.
While American disapproval of Japan's treatment of the Chinese is understandable in the sense that it was generally atrocious, it is worth pointing out that this disapproval was almost certainly not born out of a genuine concern for the dignity of human life (once again, as represented by the entirety of the United States' existence as a country), but rather out of its desire to secure an economic foothold in China for itself. Recognizing this helps to explain some of the United States' reluctance to enter into genuine negotiations with Japan in order to secure and end to the atrocities in China; the United States did not actually care about the people in China, but rather their potential as a consumer market, and so it was unwilling to negotiate without first ensuring that it would be able to easily access that market, or, to put it another way, ensuring the "equality of commercial opportunity." The meetings between the Japanese ambassador and the Secretary of State represented one of the last genuine opportunities to forestall war between the two countries, but the United States' intransigence only served to escalate the hostilities.
In June of 1941, following the cessation of negotiations between the ambassador and Secretary Hull, "the United States suspended petroleum exports to Japan from East Coast and Gulf ports."
Though negotiations would continue after that, this additional blow may be viewed almost as a point of no return, because events began to rapidly cascade towards war, culminating the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan had long viewed the oil in the East Indies as one of the primary sources with which to wean itself off of Western imports, and the United States' refusal to negotiate coupled with suspended petroleum exports made the decision inevitable; "on July 24th, the Japanese army […] occupied key positions throughout Indo-China" as part of a plan to eventually occupy "Malaysia, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Hong Kong."
Although the planning for Pearl Harbor had not begun, Japan's decision to move into Indo-China was essentially a recognition that war with the United States was inevitable, because by November 1940,…