We know that on December 7th, 1941, Japanese bombers launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, officially drawing the United States into World War II. After the attack, American forces battled in the Pacific and European fronts, lending aid to Allied soldiers at Normandy and other notable battles while fending off Japan’s forces on the other side of the globe. It was a difficult fight that resulted in the deaths of over 400,000 American soldiers, including the over 2,400 who perished at Pearl Harbor.

But how would things have been different had the harbor been left alone and Japan never launched its attack? Is it possible that the war would have been an Axis victory without American intervention or was the United States destined to enter the fray regardless? The Japanese attack, fueled by the arrogance of commanders who believed the devastation to Pearl Harbor would cripple America’s Pacific efforts, wasn’t as effective as it was meant to be. Some say Japan guaranteed its own defeat by drawing the US in, but it’s possible that even without entering the fray, the United States would have stood in Japan’s way.

Why They Attacked: The Embargo

As Japanese forces marched across Asia, they found themselves locked in battle with China. While the two forces battled, one for conquest and the other to protect its land, the United States slapped Japan with embargoes that halted oil and other materials essential to the Axis efforts in the Pacific. Unable to defeat China and its further efforts hindered, Japan knew it had to disable the United States to overcome the embargo and further strengthen its forces.

Pacific Theater

The What If…

At the time of the attack, Japanese leaders had been split between two decisions: Either attack Russia and deliver a potentially fatal blow or take the war to Southeast Asia and claim what the Americans and Europeans held. Had the forces been taken to Moscow, it’s possible that the already worn Russian troops would have caved. Stalin, still reeling from Germany’s surprise attack, may have reached out to Japanese leaders in search of an armistice in return for Russian-controlled land.

Had the two engaged one another, however, it’s possible that dividing Russian forces between Germany and Japan would have meant defeat for the Soviets.

Doolittles B-25 taking off from USS Hornet

Would America Still Intervene?

Knowing the perseverance of Hitler and Japan, it’s likely that the United States would have entered the war, but it may have done so too late. It’s possible that with the US holding out, Russia could have already fallen and British forces may have been greatly reduced.

There are those who believe the American embargo was placed in order to provoke Japan and give the US reason to enter the war. This could mean the government was just looking for the right time and provocation to get involved. Tragically, almost 2,500 American’s had to die in order for that time to come.

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