In the summer of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was focused on the escalating war in Europe. Nazi Germany had occupied France and launched major air attacks against Great Britain in preparation for an invasion. Roosevelt believed that America's entry into the conflict against Hitler was inevitable -- despite a strong sentiment toward neutrality within the United States -- and he was sending weapons and supplies to Britain through the Lend Lease Act, inching closer to open conflict with every U.S. convoy that fell prey to German U-boats. On the other side of the world, the Japanese were also aggressively expanding their empire, invading areas in Southeast Asia rich in natural resources that Japan needed to wage aggressive warfare in China and elsewhere. Roosevelt hoped to delay a war with Japan as long as possible, considering Germany the major threat to American security.
"The war party in Japan wanted their country to become an island power like Great Britain," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "They hoped to establish an economic empire that extended into China and Manchuria, down into the Dutch, French, and British colonies of Southeast Asia, where there were great quantities of natural resources such as rubber, tin and, supremely, oil -- the lifeblood of modern warfare." At this time, Japan purchased 80% of its oil from the United States, and the military junta that now controlled the government insisted that this reliance on American oil curtailed Japanese diplomatic and military independence, since the United States could turn off the spigot at any time.
Japan's aspirations went further than territory and economics, however. The nationalistic military leaders controlling the government, led by General Hideki Tojo, "began advancing a doctrine of racialism, the superiority of the Yamato race," Miller says. This was done with the compliance of Emperor Hirohito. "This ideology was taught in Japanese schools to the children who soon would be fighting American soldiers in the Pacific," Miller says. They were taught that Japan had a sacred mission to free Asia from white, western imperialists. They were also told that the western powers, ruled by whites, were conspiring to reduce Japan to secondary status. "Over the previous 80 years, Japan had rapidly westernized and industrialized, and these young militants began pressing for a 'cultural renaissance,'" he adds. "They wanted to eradicate this soft, decadent western materialism and make Japan, once again, a 'pure' nation of samurai spirit warriors."
Despite Japan's increasingly aggressive posture, Roosevelt hoped diplomacy and trade sanctions would curb its territorial expansion. But when the Japanese army occupied French Indochina (now Vietnam), in preparation for an invasion of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies [now Indonesia] -- an area where the United States also traded heavily -- Roosevelt placed an embargo on American oil and iron exports to Japan.
"Though Japanese militarists understood that seizing this territory would almost certainly mean war with the United States, they were willing to take that step," Miller says. "And when Roosevelt embargoed oil and iron, it was the final indignity for the Japanese." The embargo went into effect in July 1941, and in following months Japanese naval leaders were told to prepare a plan to attack Pearl Harbor, America's naval bastion in the Pacific." This surprise attack was designed to eliminate the only naval force in the Pacific capable of stopping Japan's great resource grab in Southeast Asia," Miller says. The attack on December 7, 1941 decimated the American fleet, sinking or damaging eighteen warships and killing more than 2,300 servicemen and civilians.
This was the first attack by a foreign power on American territory since the War of 1812, and it provoked a deep desire for revenge. "At the service enlistment posts in the days after Pearl Harbor, almost all the volunteers wanted to fight the Japanese; not the Germans, even though Germany had declared war on the U.S. on December 11," Miller says. "The country was in a state that can only be described as panic. With terrifying speed after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seized Burma, the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, and other island outposts in the Pacific. Just months after Pearl Harbor, Japan controlled the largest oceanic empire in history."
In June, 1942, carriers from America's Pacific fleet repelled a tremendous Japanese naval assault against Midway Island, which guarded the Western approaches to the main Hawaiian Islands. Although this was the first decisive American victory of the Pacific War, Japanese territorial aggression was not halted until a Marine amphibious force began landing in August 1942 on a small island in the Solomon chain called Guadalcanal. The Japanese were building an airfield on the island, which would allow their planes to attack American ships delivering supplies to Australia, the island nation from which America intended to begin its great counter-thrust against Japan in the Pacific.
"Guadalcanal would prove to be one of the decisive turning points in military history," says Miller. That August, the United States and its Western Allies were losing the war, in the Pacific and everywhere else. "America had not regained a scrap of territory from the Japanese," Miller says. "And there was a concern that our fighting forces weren't ready physically and psychologically to defeat veteran Japanese troops that had been fighting since 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet government."
So the impending battle on the desolate jungle island of Guadalcanal would be a great testing for the miserably unprepared American military. As the First Marine Division steamed toward Guadalcanal in the late summer of 1942, the untested men knew that they would be facing a resolute enemy that was still winning the war in the Pacific.
"Japanese militarists understood that seizing this territory would almost certainly mean war with the United States."