How Japan 'Pearl Harbored' Russia First (Decades Before World War II)

Michael Peck

Key point: Japan had a track record of surprise attacks.

At midnight the Russian fleet slept.

A few minutes after the clock struck 12 a.m. on February 9, 1904, Tsarist Russia's Pacific squadron peacefully bobbed at anchor at the Russian naval base nestled in the Manchurian town of Port Arthur. Ashore, the mood that night was festive as the garrison's army and naval officers availed themselves of refreshments at a birthday party for the admiral's wife.

Soon their revelry was disturbed by flashes in the night and the dull thud of torpedoes slamming into metal hulls. Some thought it was fireworks in honor of the admiral's wife. In reality, it was Japan announcing the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War with a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.

The drunken partygoers should not have been so surprised. Russia and Japan had long been on a collision course over who would control the plentiful resources of Manchuria, and ultimately the Far East as well. With the new Trans-Siberian Railroad linking Moscow to the Siberian port of Vladivostok, and having forced a feeble China to cede Port Arthur in 1895, Russia had asserted its ambitions to become the dominant power in the region.

Unfortunately, Japan had the same idea. Just fifty years before, the samurai had brandished their swords in impotent frustration at the American warships that dared to break Japan's feudal isolation by sailing into Tokyo Bay. But with astounding determination and energy, Japan had built a modern army and navy powerful enough to defeat the ailing Chinese Empire in 1894-95.

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