Looking over the history of World War II and, specifically the attack on Pearl Harbor, you’ve probably come across a phrase every so often, one that may sound a little silly, considering the circumstances surrounding it, but actually means a lot more than is apparent at first glance.
Waking the Sleeping Giant
The “sleeping giant” in this case refers to the United States of America. Hearing it may bring up questions like “how was it sleeping?” or “what does ‘waking’ even mean?” but the phrase isn’t intended to be taken literally. Essentially, it refers to the prod that led to America’s active involvement in World War II. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US had taken a neutral stance. Though it supported the Allies with arms and other resources, the nation wasn’t willing to send its military into battle.
But once the Japanese struck the naval base on Oahu, the sentiment of most of the nation—represented by Congress—changed. The United States awoke from a slumbering state of neutrality, eventually sending over ten million troops to war.
The question of whether anyone actually considered the United States a “sleeping giant” remains. The idea that the phrase was actually spoken by the man it’s attributed to may be a fallacy brought about by a fictionalized recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
At the conclusion of the 1970 war film Tora! Tora! Tora!, the character of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto questions the effectiveness of the attack on Pearl Harbor, saying, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
While it makes for great cinema, and it’s known that the man who orchestrated the attack was on the fence about going after the United States, there’s no indication that this line was ever spoken by him. Regardless of whether it is a real part of history, it became such an iconic line that it was quickly ingrained into the history of the attack.
Fiction, but Still Fact
Though the phrase may have been a creation of screenwriters to make for a great dramatic closing to their film, one can’t deny the factual element to it.
Japan did essentially awaken a sleeping giant and, through its own actions, inadvertently sealed its fate. It wasn’t long after the United States started patrolling the Pacific that Japan saw its first major defeat, at Midway Atoll.
Attempting to recreate the success of the surprise at Pearl Harbor, Japan sought to strike Midway without American advance knowledge. The United States was wide awake from its pre-war slumber, however, and American code breakers deciphered Japan’s plans, enabling their forces to prepare and strike back against the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway in June of 1942.
With much of its navy destroyed at Midway, the Japanese never fully recovered and never quite regained the power it started the war with. The power it had before waking a sleeping giant.