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Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor encapsulates the tactical brilliance and strategic stupidity that was one of the primary sources of the ultimate Japanese defeat. Tactical surprise was essentially complete, most of the American forces were damaged or destroyed, and it was indeed some time before the USA could gather its forces to effectively respond. Strategically, it was a disaster, as it brought the United States into a war the ultimate outcome of which was now determined. Not unlike Wilson before him, FDR had been trying for some time to drag an unwilling America into the Second World War, and now Japan had solved this problem. America First closed up shop the next day.

The Japanese military, deeply engaged in the seemingly endless war against China, badly needed oil and other raw materials. Commercial access to these was gradually curtailed as the conquests continued. The Japanese continued their expansion, and entered French Indochina in 1941. The United States responded with an embargo which made Japanese shortages of oil and raw materials even more acute as the war in China continued without resolution. In July 1941 the Western powers effectively halted trade with Japan. From then on, as the desperate Japanese schemed to seize the oil and mineral-rich East Indies and Southeast Asia, a Pacific war was virtually inevitable.

By late November 1941, with peace negotiations clearly approaching an end, informed U.S. officials (and they were well-informed, they believed, through an ability to read Japan's diplomatic codes) fully expected a Japanese attack into the Indies, Malaya and probably the Philippines. Largely unanticipated was the prospect that Japan would attack east, as well.

Japan's war potential, her probable action and plans of invasion had been brilliantly anticipated many years before by Homer Lea in his amazing book, The Valor of Ignorance, published in 1911. Although this extraordinary publication had created a sensation among the general staffs of the world, the growing Japanese menace was not fully appreciated. In 1918, the Imperial Defense Policy adopted by Japan identified the United States as their number one potential enemy. This belief influenced all aspects of Japanese naval policy. A naval arms race resulted from increased tensions between the two nations.

From the Japanese perspective, war with the United States seemed inevitable. President Roosevelt's decided to redeploy a significant part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii in May 1940. It brought the total number of American warships operating out of the Hawaiian port to well over 100. This forward basing decision by President Roosevelt was seen by the Japanese as a provocative action.

Dean Acheson, who in 1941 was Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, declared before Pearl Harbor that “no rational Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.” Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson believed the Japanese, “however wicked their intentions, would have the good sense not to get involved in a war with the United States.”

Edward N. Luttwak, in his Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, contended that the Japanese had no victory options after Pearl Harbor other than “an invasion of California, followed by the conquest of the major centers of American life and culminating with an imposed peace dictated to some collaborating government in Washington.” Luttwak conceded that such a strategy lay fantastically beyond Japan’s power, and, in fact, no Japanese leader ever proposed an invasion of the United States. “So the best Japanese option after Pearl Harbor was to sue immediately for peace, bargaining away Japan’s ability to resist eventual defeat for some years in exchange for whatever the United States would concede to avoid having to fight for its victory.”

Roberta Wohlstetter, in her path-breaking Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, denounced the fanciful Japanese thinking behind the decision for war: “Most unreal was their assumption that the United States, with 10 times the military potential and a reputation for waging war until unconditional surrender, would after a short struggle accept the annihilation of a considerable part of its naval and air forces and the whole of its power in the Far East.”

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, the Commander and Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, was highly respected within the Japanese Navy. He had spent considerable time in the United States and understood that Japan could not compete with America's great industrial capacity. Few Japanese leaders appreciated the limits of Japan’s power; on the contrary, many had wildly exaggerated ideas of Japan’s destiny and ability to fulfill it. By some accounts, Yamamoto reasoned that the shock of a decisive attack might drive the Americans to a negotiated peace with Japan in light of the deteriorating war situation in Europe. If he were wrong, Yamamoto felt it would take years for the United States to replace what it had lost in the attack. By that time, Japan could solidify the South Pacific region and retain it indefinitely.

But in October 1940 Yamamoto warned that to “ fight the United States is like fighting the whole world. . . . Doubtless I shall die aboard the Nagato [his flagship]. Meanwhile, Tokyo will be burnt to the ground three times.” Yamamoto had warned Prime Minister Konoe in the fall of 1940, “if I am told to ‘go at it,’ you will see me run wild for half a year, maybe a year. But I have no confidence whatsoever when it comes to 2 years, 3 years.”

Admiral Osami Nagano, the IJN’s chief of staff, clearly understood that a protracted war benefited the United States. He believed “the probability is very high that they [the United States] will from the outset plan on a prolonged war. Therefore it will be necessary for us to be reconciled to this and to be prepared militarily for a long war.” He hoped that the United States would “aim for a quick war leading to an early decision, send[ing] their principal naval units [into the Western Pacific], and challeng[ing] us to an immediate war,” but he feared that “America will attempt to prolong the war, using her impregnable position, her superior industrial power, and her abundant resources.”

In late 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto predicted: "It is obvious that a Japanese-American war will become a protracted one. As long as the tides of war are in our favor, the United States will never stop fighting. As a consequence, the war will continue for several years, during which [our] material [resources] will be exhausted, vessels and arms will be damaged, and they can be replaced only with great difficulties. Ultimately we will not be able to contend with [the United States]...."

America's Pacific Fleet was its center of gravity in the region. Its destruction was essential before initiating military operations in the south to achieve Japan's ultimate objectives. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a carefully planned fleet-to-shore operation. It was initiated as a result of growing tensions between Japan and the United States over an embargo of oil and other materials. This deliberate action by the United States was designed to penalize Japan for its aggressive military intervention in Indochina. Given the lack of natural resources in their own country, the embargo had the affect of "drawing a line in the sand" for the Japanese. The primary concern of Japanese war planners in 1941 was to secure a source of oil soon after hostilities were initiated.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, abruptly ushered the United States from defense to war and united Americans in a determination to defeat the Axis powers. The justificatory aim of the attack according to Japanese pronouncements was to liberate Asia from the colonial domination of the great American and European powers. Although the execution of the Pearl Harbor operation was successful, the operation did not achieve its strategic aim. A mismatch existed between operational and strategic objectives which was partially attributed to flaws in target selection, priority, and tactical level decision making during execution. Japan's narrow objective of destroying primarily capital ships, spared important logistical facilities from destruction. These support facilities proved to be the key to a quick restoration of U.S. naval presence in the region. Likewise, Japan's emphasis on placing a higher target priority for battleships versus carriers, allowed a more potent weapon system to essentially escape unscathed. This mistake had strategic implications in that aircraft carriers were the key weapon's platform used to destroy the Japanese Navy in later battles in the Pacific.

The tactical commander's failure to exploit America's military forces at its most vulnerable point, minimized further damaged which could have been inflicted upon the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. These operational and tactical errors allowed America to quickly recover from the attack and pursue offensive actions in the Pacific within a few months. The net result of the Pearl Harbor attack along with subsequent operations, solidified Japan's position in the Southwest Pacific. However, flaws in operational planning and conservative military leadership during the plan's execution, guaranteed this dominance only in the short term.

American military planners had to make an important decision when the US entered the war. The country could not fight effectively at the same time in both Asia and Europe. It was decided to use most of American forces to defeat the German troops of Adolf Hitler. A strategic defensive was maintained in the Pacific until success in Europe permitted the transfer of forces to the Pacific for an offensive against Japan. This decision had important results, as Japan was able to win many of the early battles of the war in Asia. The devastating attack against Pearl Harbor on 7 December 19411 and the subsequent Japanese thrusts in Asia left only one important obstacle in the path of the Japanese onslaught to the Southwest Pacific.

The Japanese operations which plunged the United States into total war occurred in rapid sequence and were well timed. The surprise attacks against Pearl Harbor and the Philippines were followed at once by the invasion of Malaya, the seizure of Guam, and the capture of other American and British areas in the Pacific and the Far East. When the first blows fell, Nazi Germany, Japan's ally, had already conquered most of Europe. The German armies were deep in Russia on a broad front, and in the Middle East Rommel's armored divisions were attacking the British troops defending Egypt.

Japan's ultimate aim was complete hegemony in Asia and unchallenged supremacy in the western Pacific. Her strategic objectives were the subjugation of the Philippines and the capture of the immense natural resources of the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya. The conquest of the Philippines became an immediate military necessity. . Close to South China and the island stronghold of Formosa, they were not only an obstacle to Japan's international ambitions, but they could be made into a powerful strategic springboard for their drive south and eastward. Flanking the vital sea routes to the south, they were the hub of the transportation system to Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific; from the Philippines, lines of communication radiated to Java, Malaya, Borneo, and New Guinea. Economically too, they were necessary to Japan's grandiose scheme of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. As a thriving democracy, the Philippines were a living symbol of American political success in Asia and a direct negation of the national and moral principles represented by Japan. The Japanese were convinced that the Philippines must be conquered.

The Japanese also planned to capture other strategic areas where they could establish advance posts and raise an outer barrier against an Allied counteroffensive. Their scheme of conquest envisaged control of the Aleutians, Midway, Fiji and Samoa, New Britain, eastern New Guinea, points in the Australian area, and the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. All these would be seized or neutralized when operational conditions permitted. If the offensive succeeded, the United States would be forced back to Pearl Harbor, the British to India, and China's life line would be cut.

The memory of the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor fueled a determination to fight on. Once the Battle of Midway in June 1942 had eliminated much of Japan's striking power, that same memory stoked a relentless war to reverse her conquests and remove her, and her German and Italian allies, as future threats to World peace.

Japan's industrial potential was approximately ten percent of that of the United States, and was always hampered by a lack of oil. Even though her research and technical design work was not purely imitative, Japan's ability to develop reliable operating equipment in the new fields was low. Japanese radar and communications equipment was weak. Japan could not build sufficient ships or escort vessels, and lacked construction equipment to build adequate airfields. Japan could not economically afford to build adequate shelters for her population, and could not both disperse her industry and also repair damaged plants. Japan chose dispersal rather than repair, but had insufficient means even to disperse effectively.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2018 23:31:09 ZULU