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Pearl Harbor Curriculum Hub

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Central Issue

Did Roosevelt “Let” It Happen?      

Almost as soon as the attacks occurred, conspiracy theorists began claiming that FDR had prior knowledge of the assault on Pearl Harbor. Others have claimed he tricked the Japanese into starting a war with the United States as a “back door” way to go to war with Japan’s ally, Nazi Germany. However, no document or credible witness has been discovered that proves either claim. Most scholars view Pearl Harbor as the consequence of missed clues, intelligence errors, and overconfidence.

On December 7, 1941 debate over American involvement in World War II ended abruptly.  Isolationist sentiment disappeared and the nation emerged united and determined, in FDR’s words, to “win through to absolute victory.”

“We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman, and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war.”
-Franklin Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, December 9, 1941

Context Paragraphs

Lead Up to the Day of Infamy                   

“I tell American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship.”
-Franklin Roosevelt, radio address, July 4, 1941

The causes behind the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 date back nearly a decade before.  During the 1930s, Japan began expanding its borders, occupying Manchuria and then mounting a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. In September 1940, after the fall of France, Japan seized part of French Indo-China and signed a mutual defense pact with Germany and Italy.

America opposed this expansion and President Roosevelt used a variety of methods to try to deter Japan. During the late 1930s, FDR began providing limited support to the Chinese government. In 1940, he moved the Pacific fleet from the mainland to the naval base at Pearl Harbor as a show of American power. He also attempted to address growing tensions with Japan through diplomacy.

When Japan seized southern French Indo-China in July 1941, Roosevelt responded by freezing Japanese assets in the United States and ending sales of oil to Japan. Japan’s military depended upon American oil. Without this oil, Japan’s military would soon grind to a halt.

Japan then had to decide between settling the crisis through diplomacy or by striking deep into Southeast Asia to acquire alternative sources of oil, an action that was certain to mean a confrontation with America.

Japan chose to continue its diplomatic talks with the United States while— at the same time— secretly preparing for a coordinated assault throughout the Pacific. Japan’s leaders hoped that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would destroy American resolve and cripple the U.S. Navy for at least six months, giving Japan time to consolidate its new empire.

December 7, 1941: The Attack on Pearl Harbor 

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” 
-Franklin Roosevelt, Address to Congress, December 8, 1941

On December 7, 1941—a date that still lives in American memory—America entered World War II.

In the early morning hours of that December Sunday, Japan unleashed a devastating surprise attack on American and British military outposts in the Pacific. The attack at Pearl Harbor stunned the American public and severely damaged America’s Pacific fleet.

The December 7 offensive was part of a bigger Japanese plan to seize oil-rich territories in Southeast Asia. To prevent American interference, Japan’s leaders decided to first strike a crippling blow against U.S. military power in the Pacific.

The worst blow came at Hawaii, site of the giant Pearl Harbor naval base and other military installations. Japanese bombers destroyed or damaged 21 American naval vessels and over 300 aircraft. The attacks killed 2403 military personnel and civilians and shattered the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

President Roosevelt was having lunch at the White House when he got the news. Throughout the afternoon he met with aides and monitored the crisis. Shortly before 5 p.m., he began preparing a war message for Congress. Though drafted in haste, FDR’s words galvanized the nation. 

Teachable Moments: December 7, 1941: A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Welcome to December 7, 1941: A Date Which Will Live in Infamy. This video is part of a series we call Teachable Moments. It contains archival film footage and still photographs culled from the holdings of the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum relating to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

This (2-3 minute) segment is suitable for classroom viewing and is designed to provide a short and concise overview of this important event. Primary source documents, short answer questions and vocabulary regarding the attack on December 7, 1941 are available to download from our website.


Additional segments from this series, relating to other Roosevelt topics, are also available there. 

Distance Learning Opportunities

Onsite and Online Day of Infamy Presentations

The Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum offers onsite and online interactive presentations on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

All presentations are curriculum centered and developed using documents, photographs and reproduction artifacts selected from the Roosevelt Presidential Archives consisting of 17 and a half million pages of documents, more than 130,000 photographs, 35,000 artifacts, and nearly 50,000 books… 22,000 of which are from FDR’s personal book collection.

Each session consists of a 15-20 minute presentation followed by a 15-20 minute question and answer period where you and your students get to follow up and cross examine with whatever questions, or comments you may have regarding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sessions can be delivered via skype, Poly Com/Zoom Room or Google Hang Out. And they are all offered free of charge!

For more information about scheduling a session with your class contact the Library’s education specialist at:

Jeffrey Urbin at (845) 486-7751 or Jeffrey.urbin@nara.gov

Links for More Information

National World War II Museum

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Pacific Historic Parks