The attack on Pearl Harbor 49 years ago Friday was linked more closely than commonly believed to Japan's thirst for secure oil supplies, according to a new book that draws haunting parallels to the Persian Gulf crisis.
In "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" published this week, author Daniel Yergin called oil the "linchpin" of Japan's strategy for Asian conquest and the trigger for its stunning attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.The assault on the U.S. Pacific Fleet killed 2,335 American servicemen and 68 civilians.
Yergin's book, which was seven years in the making, cites the Pacific campaign as one of many examples from the 20th century of oil's crucial and painful role in global and regional conflict. It draws parallels to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, calling it a high-stakes gamble by a militaristic ruler bent on capturing new oil wealth in order to widen his regional domination.
Saddam Hussein, like Japan's leaders five decades earlier, coveted oil and gave in to "the inevitable and irresistible temptation to grasp for its rewards," Yergin writes.
Historians for years have drawn a connection between oil and Japan's Indochina campaigns. Yergin, however, says oil not only played a central role in the broader Japanese war strategy but also was the driving force behind Operation Hawaii, as the Japanese military called the Pearl Harbor plan.
Yergin concludes that Japan's main focus in the Asia campaigns was to secure access to the oil fields of Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.
Strangely, considering the important role that oil played in Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy failed to understand the importance of the oil supplies on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Yergin says. They did not strike at the more than 4 million barrels of oil stored on the island for the U.S. ships.
"If the Japanese planes had knocked out the Pacific Fleet's fuel reserves, they would have immobilized every ship of the Pacific Fleet, and not just those they actually destroyed," he writes.