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Teachable Texts from the National Archives at Boston

Attack on Pearl Harbor


Radiogram to military installations. Textual Records from the Department of the Navy. U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Squantum, Massachusetts. (1930 - 09/01/1943); Record Group 181: Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 1784 - 2000; National Archives at Boston. National Archives Identifier 596244

Historical Background

"A date which will live in infamy. . ."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Address to Congress, December 8, 1941.

Before the Attack

By 1940, in Southeast Asia, Japan begun to expand through invasion and war into Manchuria and China. In September 1940, the United States placed an embargo on Japan by prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan, due to Japan's takeover of northern French Indochina. The US employed diplomacy to try to resolve these international tensions.

Document Background

On December 7, 1941, the U.S. naval base on the island of Oahu, in the territory of Hawai'i, was attacked by Japan. Though diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan had been deteriorating, they had not yet broken off at the time of the attack. In less than 2 hours, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was devastated, and more than 3,500 Americans were either killed or wounded. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into war with Japan. Within days of the attack, Germany and Italy would declare war against the United States, and the country would be forced into the conflicts we call World War II.

Learning Activities

Examine It!

  1. Imagine you are the naval action officer on duty. After examining the content of the radiogram, write a brief narrative listing evidence that helps to identify for whom it was written, when it was written, who wrote it, what information was relayed, and where it was sent.

Collect Needed Knowledge of the Time and Place

  1. Refer to a world map. What is evident about the Hawai'ian Islands that would make them strategic to Japan's expansion?

  2. Explore a different point of view. Aware of what Pearl Harbor was being used for by the United States in 1941, imagine (write/discuss/present) that you are a Japanese strategist and explain why you might support an air raid.

Use it!

  1. Create a map of the Hawai'ian Island. Include land and water boundaries, latitude and longitude. Identify the geographical location of Pearl Harbor on a map.

  2. Take a position and support it with evidence. Elaborate as an historian looking back from the 21st century: This small, short document would come to symbolize and foreshadow the events and world climate that would define the last half of the twentieth century.

  3. In 1941, telegrams and letters were a means of communication. Today, people use email, text messages, and teleconferences to communicate. Create a modern-style text message conveying the 1941 information of the radiogram.

  4. Imagine you are a general in the War Room of the White House. Give evidence of what there is about the geographical location of the Hawai'ian Islands that substantiates justification for the United States Congress to support military deployments there.

  5. Understand the sentiments of the 1940s. Create interview questions for someone who remembers the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then, record the interview. You might include: How old were you at the time of the air raid? What were you doing when news of Pearl Harbor broke? What was your reaction to the news of Pearl Harbor, and what, if anything, did you or your family, neighbors, friends do upon hearing the news? What do you recall about your feelings toward U. S. involvement in a war before Pearl Harbor?

Broadening Activities

One day after the attack, President Roosevelt expressed outrage at Japan and confidence in the "inevitable triumph" of the United States in his famous "Day of Infamy" speech. On December 8, the United States declared war against Japan; on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.

  1. Listen to President Roosevelt's speech to Congress December 8, 1941, which the American people heard on the radio. Then, examine the written document of the speech.

  2. Create a choral reading performance of President Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech presented to the Congress of the United States on December 8, 1941, the day after the attack.

  3. Imagine you are legal counsel to the President of the United States. Examine Article 1, Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution, which explains the process to declare war. Prepare an informational bulletin for the President to assist him as he weighs his decision about how to deal with the air raid.

  4. Weigh the controversies. Research, write, and discuss: The declaration of war was not unanimous. What were the pros and cons of waging this war? Explore the topic from the point of view of those at that moment. Then, apply historical hindsight. Was it a "right" or "wrong" decision? Define "right" and "wrong" in terms of waging war. What should the criteria be for waging war?

Additional Resources

National History Standards

  1. Grades K-4
      a. K-4 Historical Thinking: Historical Comprehension
        i. Standard 2B - Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage
      b. K-4 Content Standards - Topic 3: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the People from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic, and Political Heritage
        i. Standard 4D - The student understands events that celebrate and exemplify fundamental values and principles of American democracy
      c. K-4 Content Standards - Topic 4: The History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World
        i. Standard 8C - Compares and contrast ways people communicate with each other now and long ago.
  2. Grades 5-12
      a. Grades 5-12 Historical Thinking: Historical Comprehension

        i. Standard 2B Historical Comprehension - Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage

        ii. Standard 2F - Historical Comprehension - Appreciate historical perspectives

        iii. Standard 2G - Historical Comprehension - Draw upon data in historical maps

        iv. Standard 5 - Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making - The student engages in historical issues, analysis, and decision-making

        v. Standard 5A -Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation.

        vi. Standard 5D - Evaluate alternative courses of action keeping in mind the information available at the time, in terms of ethical considerations; the interests of those affected by the decision, and the long-and-short term consequences of each.

        vii. Standard 5E - Formulate a position or course of action on an issue by identifying the nature of the problem, analyzing the underlying factors contributing to the problem, and choosing a plausible solution from a choice of carefully evaluated options.

        viii. Standard 5F - Evaluate the implementation of a decision by analyzing the interests it served; estimating the position, power, and priority of each player involved; assessing the ethical dimensions of the decision; and evaluating its costs and benefits from a variety of perspectives.
      b. Grades 5-12 Historical Thinking - Content Standard
        i. Era 8 - Standard 3A - The student understands the international background of World War II

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