The Planning of Pearl Harbor

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

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.

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.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

You Can Gift Your Favorite Nerd a Subscription to Famous Letters From History

Letterjoy
Letterjoy

Letter writing may be a lost art at this point, but you can still give someone the gift of getting a great letter in the mail, without ever picking up a pen yourself. Letterjoy, a subscription service for historical letters, sends out a different archival letter each week, giving subscribers the opportunity to dig through their mail and find a work of great writing rather than a pile of junk advertisements.

As part of the service, Letterjoy sends out one authenticated historical letter or telegraph each week, according to monthly themes. The letters are largely drawn from the last 400-plus years of American history, sourced by Letterjoy founder Michael Sitver from historical archives and private collections. Previous monthly themes have included "presidents and the press," "the right to vote," "Civil War spies," and "the birth of aviation." The letters often come from famous figures like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Clara Barton, and the Wright brothers.

Recipients don't just get a photocopy of an archival letter. Each letter is custom-designed by Letterjoy, either typed up on a Smith-Corona typewriter (for more modern missives) or handwritten by designers and enhanced with software. The goal is to make each letter look and feel as authentic as possible while maintaining readability—since the whole point is to read the letters, not just look at them.

Every letter comes with a context section that explains what the letter is and why it matters, including who the letter-writer and recipient were and the historical events surrounding its writing.

You can buy someone (or yourself) a yearly plan for $160 ($13.33 a month), a six-month plan for $100 ($16.66 a month), or a three-month plan for $50 (also $16.66 a month). Discounts are available for educators who want to use the letters in their classrooms.

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