This is the final installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and the final blog of the year…therefore my last pitch for Why the Samurai Lost Japan, Those of you who have hung in there since the beginning of December…many thanks. For those just now picking it up, just go to the website and start with the 3 December blog.
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of the book while you’re there…
While the Pearl Harbor strike began five minutes or so before the actual declaration of war on the United States was to be effective (but hours before it was finally delivered), that minor misstep was a good deal more important to the civilian diplomats than it was to their bosses in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Diplomacy no longer mattered to the samurai leadership…it hadn’t really mattered to the samurai since the Triple Intervention in 1895 “stole” Japan’s hard-won gains in China. If they were successful in their enterprise of getting the Americans back to the bargaining table in 1942, no one would either care or notice a five-minute gap between the diplomatic and the military; and if the Americans didn’t stop fighting, the samurai knew they were probably doomed.
And there is the crux of it…all of it. Japan had to succeed big and FAST. Even the most enthusiastic samurai bosses knew that in any protracted conflict—one lasting more than six months—Japan stood no chance of being able to carry on with a conflict against any Western power, especially the United States. Resources aside, Japanese technological edges were razor-thin, and in some areas non-existent. In any prolonged war, Japan from the beginning knew that she had but two real advantages: distance and time. Japan was half a world away, and that she was but one of three major enemies that the West was fighting at the time.
The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months…Britain was expected to capitulate…leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.
But before Pearl Harbor, Japan had planned everything they were to do with a short war as the starting premise. When the British and Americans decided on “Europe first” in March 1941 it came not as a surprise but a relief to Japanese planners. As long as Britain held out, Europe would be an easier target than Japan as long as Russia was out of the equation. The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months before the Soviets were either destroyed or sought an armistice. After that, Britain was expected to capitulate, as were the Dutch, leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.
…the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy…
But the Japanese failed to appreciate the depths of Stalin’s hatred of the Nazi regime in 1941 and the lengths to which he could get the Soviet Union to drive its people to crush Germany. They also failed to appreciate that their own fragile war machine could be crippled in mere minutes by unforeseen events—in this case, two naval battles in early 1942 that devastated their cadre of carrier pilots and maintainers. Finally, the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting—and hopefully being able—to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy. Even if Great Britain only wanted a return to the pre-1941 status quo ante, they at least had the wherewithal to try and, in some cases, succeed. Japan, once it lost any of its hard-won 1941-42 gains, could never get them back, and the leadership knew it.
The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.
While Pearl Harbor traditionally angered the US into a dreadful fury that ended in Tokyo Bay, any military action by Japan against any American territory in late 1941 would probably have had the same result. In the Atlantic, the US Navy had already been in a quasi-war with the Germans for close to a year by December 1941 and had lost a destroyer to German torpedoes in October. The American military was already on high alert; the National Guards and Reserves had all been called up starting in 1940 with the fall of France and a draft filling in the ranks since September 1940. American war materiel was being shipped to Britain and France (and the Soviets after June 1941) and was delivered to the “fighting French” in the Pacific. Even if Japan had only ventured upon a bombing raid on the Philippines, a war in the Pacific would probably have been the result anyway: the Americans were already tacit belligerents against the Germans. The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.
The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan
The Pearl Harbor attack, ultimately, was a devastating blow to samurai-dominated Japan far more than it was to the United States. Even if the US prewar carriers had been in the harbor, the war would have delayed the ultimate result by perhaps a few months. For while rousing the sleeping giant/tiger/dragon (choose your metaphor) was the result, the destruction of Japanese military power only left a clean palate for more representative government to take hold once the power of the samurai to dictate affairs had been broken. The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan.
Future essays of the “Reconsidered” variety, based on our research for the book, will follow in the next few months. Look for future series on Coral Sea/Midway, the Solomons and the atomic bombings.
Tomorrow is Christmas in the US, and for those of my readers who are far from home serving their country in the way they can, have a restful and peaceful day, and good luck.
There’s a certain ambiguity to imagery like this. Hitler is trying to be just another regular guy, and it’s before his Final Solution got started so it may be easy to dismiss this imagery as “early.” But there’s an eerie sort of shadow over it, no?
Then again, we have the image above, of future President Reagan hawking cigarettes as Christmas presents while plugging his 1952 movie, Hong Kong, which fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. While the ad men didn’t care, the timing seems odd. Celebrity endorsements of tobacco products were common in the 1940s and ’50s, so there’s no issue there…but giving smokes to all your friends for Christmas? Huh.