Rousing a Sleeping Giant


At the end of the epic movie Tora, Tora, Tora, (1970), Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the combined Japanese fleet, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, refuses to join in the elation of his staff, and makes this haunting observation: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  The line is almost certainly apocryphal.  The director of the film, Elmo Williams, claimed that Larry Forester, the film’s screenwriter, had found the line in a 1943 letter written by Yamamoto.   However, he has been unable to produce the letter, and there is no other evidence that such a letter exists.

However, there is no doubt that Yamamoto would fully have endorsed the sentiment that the line contained.  He had studied at Harvard in 1919-1921, and served two tours as a naval attache at the Japanese embassy in Washington DC.  He spoke fluent English, and his stays in the US had convinced him of that nation’s vast wealth and industrial power.  He had also developed a fondness for both America and Americans.

In the 1930’s Yamamoto spoke out against Japan allying with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fearing that such an alliance would lead inevitably to a war with the US that Japan would lose.  He received frequent death threats as a result from fanatical Japanese nationalists.  These were not idle threats, as such nationalists did assassinate a fair number of Japanese politicians and military men during the Thirties who were against war with the US.  Yamamoto ignored the threats with studied contempt, viewing it as his duty to the Emperor and Japan to speak out against a disastrous course.  Yamamoto wrote in a letter to one nationalist:

Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.

After war came, and his warnings were ignored, Yamamoto fought to win it for Japan, until he died at the hands of an American P-38 Lightning raid, specifically targeting the plane he was flying in, the US eager to have their brilliant adversary no longer at the helm of the Japanese navy.  In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor raid, on January 9, 1942, when Japan was riding high on a wave of rapid conquest throughout the Pacific, Yamamoto made the following comment which indicated both his moral qualms as to the Pearl Harbor raid, and his fears as to the ultimate outcome:

“A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

On the other side of the globe from Admiral Yamamoto, in Paris, Illinois, my father, Donald Dean McClarey, was an eight year old boy.  He would recount to me in later years how he remembered the day after Pearl Harbor, seeing long lines of men and teen-age boys waiting patiently in the early morning for the recruiting offices in Paris to open up, so they could join up to fight.  My father, I am certain, if he had been old enough to do so, would have been standing in one of those lines himself, since that is precisely what he did during the Korean War, shortly after his eighteenth birthday, when he joined the Air Force.  (My late father-in-law joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor, receiving his parent’s permission to do so since he was 17.)   Similar scenes were replicated throughout the US on the day after the date which will live in infamy.

In London, Winston Churchill, sharing Admiral Yamamoto’s fondness and appreciation for America and Americans, (Churchill’s mother having been American), grasped immediately what Pearl Harbor meant:

No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy. I could not foretell the course of events. I do not pretend to have measured accurately the martial might of Japan, but now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all! Yes, after Dunkirk; after the fall of France; after the horrible episode of Oran; after the threat of invasion, when, apart from the Air and the Navy, we were an almost unarmed people; after the deadly struggle of the U-boat war — the first Battle of the Atlantic, gained by a hand’s breadth; after seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress, we had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care. Once again in our long Island history we should emerge, however mauled or mutilated, safe and victorious. We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force. The British Empire, the Soviet Union, and now the United States, bound together with every scrap of their life and strength, were, according to my lights, twice or even thrice the force of their antagonists. No doubt it would take a long time. I expected terrible forfeits in the East; but all this would be merely a passing phase. United we could subdue everybody else in the world. Many disasters, immeasurable cost and tribulation lay ahead, but there was no more doubt about the end.

Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy, and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

Pearl Harbor was a tactical defeat for the US, but a strategic defeat of epic proportion for the enemies of the US, something understood seventy-nine years ago today by a Japanese admiral, a British prime minister, and an eight year old boy in Paris, Illinois.


Published in: on December 7, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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  1. Churchill was so happy that he declared war upon(?) Finland…
    Mannerheim komplex?
    Just staying in Jakobstad in Finland. Corona quarantined!
    Best wishes
    Finland just celebrated 103 years and one day of independance.
    Myself only a humble little swede

    • There are no humble Swedes Ulf, or at least my Norwegian/Swedish descended bride so claims!

      • Sorry for your wife!
        I do not seem to be up to date…


      • 🙂

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