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The quote is portrayed at the very end of the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! as:
The supposed quotation was abbreviated in the film Pearl Harbor (2001), where it merely reads:
Although the quote may well have encapsulated many of his real feelings about the attack, there is no printed evidence to prove Yamamoto made this statement or wrote it down.
The line serves as a dramatic ending to the depiction of the Pearl Harbor attack, but it has yet to be verified that Yamamoto ever said or wrote anything resembling the quote. Neither At Dawn We Slept, the definitive history of the Pearl Harbor attack by Gordon Prange, nor The Reluctant Admiral, the definitive biography of Yamamoto in English by Hiroyuki Agawa, contains the line.
Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, readily admitted that he copied the line from Tora! Tora! Tora! The director of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Richard Fleischer, stated that while Yamamoto may never have said those words, the film's producer, Elmo Williams, had found the line written in Yamamoto's diary. Williams, in turn, has stated that Larry Forrester, the screenwriter, found a 1943 letter from Yamamoto to the Admiralty in Tokyo containing the quotation. However, Forrester cannot produce the letter, nor can anyone else, American or Japanese, recall or find it.
Regardless of the provenance of the quote, Yamamoto believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States. Moreover, he seems to have believed that the Pearl Harbor attack had become a blunder — even though he was the person who came up with the idea of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It is recorded that "Yamamoto alone" (while all his staff members were celebrating) spent the day after Pearl Harbor "sunk in apparent depression". He is also known to have been upset by the bungling of the Foreign Ministry which led to the attack happening while the countries were technically at peace, thus making the incident an unprovoked sneak attack that would certainly enrage the enemy.
In The Reluctant Admiral, Hiroyuki Agawa gives a quotation from a reply by Admiral Yamamoto to Ogata Taketora on January 9, 1941, which is similar to the famous version: "A military man can scarcely pride himself on having 'smitten a sleeping enemy'; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack."
The other common quotation attributed to Yamamoto predicting the future outcome of a naval war against the United States is: "I can run wild for six months … after that, I have no expectation of success". As it happened, the Battle of Midway, the critical naval battle considered to be the turning point of the war in the Pacific, did indeed occur six months after Pearl Harbor (Midway ended on June 7, exactly 6 months later).
Similar to the above quotation was another quotation that, while real, was widely misinterpreted in the US press. Yamamoto, when once asked his opinion on the war, pessimistically said that the only way for Japan to win the war was to dictate terms in the White House. Yamamoto's meaning was that military victory, in a protracted war against an opponent with as much of a population and industrial advantage as the United States possessed, was completely impossible — a rebuff to those who thought that winning a major battle against the US Navy would end the war. However, in the US, his words were recast as a jingoistic boast that he would dictate peace terms at the White House.