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Pacific War - The Path to War

While most Americans anxiously watched the course of the European war, tension mounted in Asia. Taking advantage of an opportunity to improve its strategic position, Japan boldly announced a “new order” in which it would exercise hegemony over all of the Pacific. Battling for survival against Nazi Germany, Britain was unable to resist, abandoning its concession in Shanghai and temporarily closing the Chinese supply route from Burma. In the summer of 1940, Japan won permission from the weak Vichy government in France to use airfields in northern Indochina (North Vietnam). That September the Japanese formally joined the Rome-Berlin Axis. The United States countered with an embargo on the export of scrap iron to Japan.

In July 1941 the Japanese occupied southern Indochina (South Vietnam), signaling a probable move southward toward the oil, tin, and rubber of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The United States, in response, froze Japanese assets and initiated an embargo on the one commodity Japan needed above all others — oil.

Japan's road to war has long been characterized as the result of mindless nationalistic posturing by military decision-makers who knew there was no hope for success. But Japan's leaders actually adopted a strategy which they thought could shift the global situation in Japan's favor.

A Japanese Army report produced before the start of the war, compiled by leading Japanese economists, the report attempted to analyze the relative military strength of major countries at the time, including the US and Britain.The group that drew up the original report was known as the Akimaru Organization, named after Lieutenant Colonel Jiro Akimaru, who led the team.

The report went against the current of nationalistic confidence that was sweeping the military at the time, portraying the likelihood of Japan's success in starkly realistic terms. The report's evaluations of the US and Britain highlight how factors such as oil production and ship-building made the countries far stronger than Japan. But he says the analysis of the military supply routes between the two countries is particularly insightful about what drove the thinking at the top levels of the Imperial Army.

In a 1991 interview about decision-making leading up to the war, Akimaru said that even within the military, it was accepted that the US and Britain were much stronger than Japan. But no one was willing to say this out loud to the top officials. "Attacking the US and Britain meant confronting countries that were a combined 20 times more powerful," he said. "But this was a time when negative opinions could not be expressed."

The analysis suggested Japan could triumph in a war against Britain if Germany were able to quickly defeat the Soviet Union and gain control of Europe. German ascendancy on the continent would cut off the flow of supplies from the US, making Britain less likely to extend itself fighting Japan halfway across the world. The Imperial Army leadership saw this as a weakness that could be exploited, and used it as justification to go to war. Even if the actual intention was to avoid starting a war, the conclusion of the report was deliberately ambiguous. It was drafted by a department of the army ministry, so obviously it couldn't contradict established policy.

From an economic standpoint, Prospect Theory posits that a person in distress has two choices. The first is to take a gradual approach to try to ease the situation. The second, which is what most people tend to opt for, is to try to quickly eliminate all problems in one go, despite slim chances of success. Japan's position of dominance in Asia was threatened because of US oil embargoes. The situation was likely to force Japan to cede to the US within a matter of years, with or without a war. Faced with this predicament, a fanciful idea settled in among Japanese leadership: the belief that all of these problems could be erased by war.

The thinking went that if Germany cut off shipments between North America and Europe, while Japan occupied Southeast Asia and secured the region's resources, Britain would be forced to quickly surrender, and the US would lose its appetite for war. Despite the immense odds, the risk seemed worth it to the Japanese leadership. Rampant anti-US sentiment within the country added to the Imperial Army's inclination to opt for a more radical approach.

General Hideki Tojo became prime minister of Japan in October 1941. In mid-November, he sent a special envoy to the United States to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Among other things, Japan demanded that the United States release Japanese assets and stop U.S. naval expansion in the Pacific. Hull countered with a proposal for Japanese withdrawal from all its conquests. The swift Japanese rejection on December 1 left the talks stalemated.

On the morning of December 7, Japanese carrier-based planes executed a devastating surprise attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Twenty-one ships were destroyed or temporarily disabled; 323 aircraft were destroyed or damaged; 2,388 soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed. However, the U.S. aircraft carriers that would play such a critical role in the ensuing naval war in the Pacific were at sea and not anchored at Pearl Harbor.

American opinion, still divided about the war in Europe, was unified overnight by what President Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.” On December 8, Congress declared a state of war with Japan; three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2020 18:08:56 ZULU