PEARL HARBOR UNITES AMERICANS BEHIND PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT
The impact of the Pearl Harbor attack on Americans was electric! The attack occurred when Japanese diplomats were in Washington discussing ways to resolve tensions between the United States and Japan that had arisen from Japan's brutal invasion of China in 1937. Angry Americans described the treacherous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor as a "sneak attack" and "a stab in the back". Pearl Harbor swept isolationist attitudes away and fired Americans with a fierce determination to avenge the loss of so many American lives and ships. The extent of the anger provoked by Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor made it difficult for President Roosevelt to tell Americans that their government had already secretly committed America to a "Germany First" strategy. He did not want to risk a divisive debate in Congress as to whether the Atlantic or Pacific should have top priority for the United States. The President was greatly relieved when Germany and Italy solved the problem for him by declaring war on the United States on 11 December 1941.
The American spirit was willing but the weapons were missing
However, the means to avenge Pearl Harbor, and halt the apparently unstoppable Japanese war machine, were not immediately available. Although millions of young Americans flocked to recruiting centres after Pearl Harbor, there was very little modern equipment available to arm them for war against the powerful Japanese army and navy. Factories that make aluminium saucepans require extensive reorganization and retooling to build warplanes. Factories capable of pouring out massive quantities of cars and refrigerators also require extensive reorganization and retooling to build tanks and landing craft. Those American factories that had already been producing tanks and warplanes saw most of their output leaving on ships bound for England, Russia, and the Middle East.
To match the power of Japan, the US Navy needed to be provided with a large fleet of modern warships, especially fast and powerful aircraft carriers. Apart from four large aircraft carriers that had escaped the Japanese onslaught at Pearl Harbor, and the addition of USS Hornet in February 1942, that modern fleet still had to be built in American shipyards that were struggling at the time of Pearl Harbor to meet the demands of the Battle of the Atlantic. American shipbuilding capability had been seriously impaired during the Great Depression years (1929-1939) when many American shipyards had been forced to close their gates. The problem facing Americans after Pearl Harbor was the lead time necessary to build a large warship and prepare it for war. The famous American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) played a vital role in turning the tide of the war against Japan in the first six months of 1942. The keel of Yorktown was laid in May 1934, and it was commissioned in September 1937. After additional fitting out, Yorktown undertook shakedown training for crew and pilots in January 1938. The Navy declared Yorktown to be fully operational in April 1938 - three and a half years after the keel was laid down! Under pressure of war, the time between the laying of the keel of a large carrier and achieving operational status was reduced to two years. The first of the powerful Essex Class carriers was laid down in April 1941. USS Essex (CV-9) became fully operational in June 1943. It was joined by the second Essex Class carrier Yorktown (CV-10) in December 1943. These inescapable timings meant that between Pearl Harbor and the middle of 1943, the United States had only four of the large carriers mentioned above to keep the powerful Japanese Navy at bay in the Pacific. USS Saratoga was torpedoed twice during 1942, and was out of action for most of that critical year.
The US Army faced similar problems. At the beginning of 1942, two million Americans had been recruited into the army, but much of the equipment, including planes and tanks, available to the US Army and its Air Corps was dated or obsolete, and insufficient to equip an army that would reach three million by the time of the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The United States had the industrial power to overwhelm Japan, but it would take almost two years from the date of Pearl Harbor to recover from two decades of defence neglect and provide the American Navy and Army with the weapons to do so.
Churchill insists that America adhere to his "Germany First" strategy despite Pearl Harbor
Just before Christmas 1941, the British Prime Minister travelled to Washington with his military chiefs aboard the battleship HMS Duke of York. His purpose was to persuade President Roosevelt to adhere to the secret agreement between the American and British governments to give priority to defeating Nazi Germany, and not to divert any of America's vast resources to halting Japanese aggression in the Pacific. That secret agreement had been reached between the American and British governments in March 1941.
Churchill was alarmed to find on his arrival in Washington that the American public was calling for an all-out war of vengeance against Japan. The American public was unaware that their President, and his military chiefs, had secretly committed the United States to defeating Germany as its top priority. This meant holding a defensive line between Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal. The "Germany First" plan effectively made everything west of that line expendable, including American military forces in the western Pacific and Australia.
Although conscious of the political risks for his Democratic Party in adhering to the "Germany First" strategy so soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt was persuaded by Churchill to adhere to this plan. When Roosevelt and Churchill joined the American military chiefs in conference on 23 December 1941, Admiral Stark had been replaced by Admiral Ernest King who strongly opposed any downgrading of the war against Japan to a secondary theatre. General Marshall was conscious of the fact that his army troops would have a much larger role to play in an assault on the Nazi stronghold of Europe and he supported the "Germany First" strategy. With nearly two million Americans in the army, and heavily under-employed at that moment, Marshall was keen for the assault on Nazi-occupied Europe to be undertaken as quickly as possible.
Churchill dismissed the feasibility of an early invasion of Europe. He pointed out that the Allied forces were simply not ready to invade Nazi-occupied France. Churchill argued forcefully that American troops would be better employed in an invasion of North Africa to assist British and Australian troops to defeat General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. Having been the architect of disastrous amphibious landings in World War I (Gallipoli) and World War II (Narvik), Churchill knew better than Marshall the grave dangers inherent in putting inexperienced troops ashore on a strongly defended coast. Churchill had assigned the code-name "Gymnast" to his plan for American army troops to gain amphibious landing experience in North Africa, before they undertook the far more dangerous task of assaulting the strongly defended coast of Nazi-occupied France.
To the dismay of the American military chiefs, President Roosevelt supported Churchill. Roosevelt underlined the political necessity of bringing the American army into action as soon as possible, and agreed that the North African operation was appropriate for that purpose. The American landing in North Africa was fixed for November 1942. It would later become known as "Operation Torch".
When Churchill addressed Congress on 26 December 1941, he made no mention of the President's secret commitment to a "Germany First" strategy for the United States military forces. He limited himself to a powerful speech condemning the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and this was warmly received.