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The Planning of Pearl Harbor

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On this date in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an incredibly daring, technically sophisticated combined naval-aerial surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, just northwest of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The devastating aerial attack carried out by Japanese fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo planes crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet as a preamble to Imperial Japan’s lunge for strategic territories spanning the Pacific Ocean – but it also stirred the wrath of the American people, decisively ending U.S. isolationism and bringing the world’s largest industrial power squarely into the war against Japan and its European allies in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

The Economic Vise

Pearl Harbor was born of strategic desperation. Over the previous couple years, Japan and the U.S. had been engaged in a tit-for-tat diplomatic and economic struggle, as the Roosevelt administration tried to restrain escalating Japanese aggression with embargoes on raw materials crucial for the Japanese war machine. Japan was heavily dependent on American supplies of oil and metal, with American shipments accounting for 80% of Japan’s oil and copper imports and almost half of its scrap iron imports.

Over several years the U.S. tightened the economic vise, responding to Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia by cutting off supplies of aircraft materials in 1939, scrap steel in 1940, and machine tools and metal ore in 1941. The final blow came with the suspension of oil deliveries in summer 1941.

At first, the Japanese hoped to negotiate their way out of the American economic embargo, but the Americans’ unwavering opposition to Japanese foreign policy convinced the Japanese leadership that further negotiation would be fruitless. They decided instead to deliver a knockout blow to the U.S. Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which would, they calculated, give Japan two years of unchallenged supremacy in the Pacific and a window in which they could conquer the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) and the rubber plantations of Malaya. This, in turn, would give Japan enough resources to fight on once the U.S. rebuilt its Pacific fleet.

The odds were steep, to say the least. The plan required bringing a huge aircraft carrier battle fleet – comprised of six carriers, two battleships, and 48 combat and support vessels including cruisers, destroyers, submarines and tankers – 4,000 miles from the northeast coast of Japan to Pacific waters north of Hawaii in complete radio silence, a feat akin to smuggling an elephant through airport security. Ships in the attack fleet couldn’t communicate with home base, meaning there was no way to call off the attack without exposing their position.

Uphill Battle

In fact, the man in charge of planning the attack – the brilliant admiral Isoroku Yamamato, who had studied in the U.S. and respected American fighting spirit – advised against it, noting that even if it succeeded, Japan would still face an implacable enemy drawing on huge resources. He famously warned:

“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.”

But the hyper-nationalists in charge of Japan could not imagine submitting to what they perceived as American bullying, and decided on war, no matter how desperate, and no matter how steep the price. The die was cast.

After leaving Japan on November 26, the Japanese fleet steamed east across the Pacific, reaching a point about a thousand miles north of Hawaii on December 3. During their silent run, the Japanese ships were scattered by a sudden Pacific storm that lasted two days, stringing them out over hundreds miles of open water – but still managed to regroup with minimal use of short-range, low-power radio to communicate their positions, a remarkable feat of seamanship and navigation. Then from December 4-6, the fleet headed south until it reached a staging point a few hundred miles north of Oahu in the early morning hours of December 7.

Here the attack shifted from its naval phase to the aerial phase, with two waves of dive-bombers, fighters, and torpedo planes taking off from the carriers beginning at 6:10 a.m. Hawaii time. The first bombs fell at 7:48 a.m. Surprise was complete, as the operators of the primitive American radar mistook the approaching Japanese planes for a returning flight of U.S. B-17s.

Assisted by some ineffectual midget submarines, over two hours and 20 minutes 354 Japanese planes sank four American battleships, damaged three more and caused the last to run aground, while damaging or destroying ten other ships and over three hundred aircraft. The human toll came to 2,402 killed and 1,247 wounded, including 1,177 dead aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, the hardest-hit. Japanese losses were light, reflecting their success in achieving total surprise. Meanwhile Japanese forces fanned out across the Pacific, with near-simultaneous attacks on American forces in the Philippines and Guam, and tiny colonial garrisons in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.

Although the attack was devastatingly successful, it was not the knockout blow Japanese planners had intended. Most importantly, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific carrier fleet was left untouched, since all three aircraft carriers were at sea during the attack. These would provide a crucial counterbalance to Japanese naval power in the Pacific in 1942, beginning with the stunning American victory at the battle of Midway.

Photo: George Strock/TIME & LIFE Pictures

Worse, the Japanese leadership badly miscalculated in their long-term strategy. In particular, they were over-optimistic about their ability to secure the long maritime supply lines from the oil wells of the East Indies to Japan; these proved vulnerable to American submarines, which helped strangle the Japanese economy in the final years of the war.

Last but not least, the effect on American morale was essentially the opposite of what the Japanese hoped. In the weeks following Pearl Harbor (which included Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. on December 11), approximately one million American men volunteered for military duty. This would be followed by a draft that eventually built the American military into 12-million-strong juggernaut by 1944, compared with Japan’s 4.3 million men in military service by the end of the war.

Thanks to LIFE.com for the photo. See more rare Pearl Harbor pictures here. This post originally appeared in 2011.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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