Pearl Harbor and the “silly people” leaders of imperial Japan

Imperial Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor is the ultimate incarnation of strategic illiteracy. Indeed, it depended utterly on what U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as the presumptions of ” silly people.” The presumption was that the U.S. could be knocked off balance and out of the fight.

Of course, historians have a pretty good idea of what imperial Japan was thinking when its forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Short of oil and other raw materials, Japan needed to dominate Southeast Asia to secure those resources. But first, it needed to defeat any prospect of U.S. confrontation with that agenda. Japan’s hope was that by destroying the docked Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, it would so fray American nerves and war-fighting power that the U.S. would sue for peace.

But in pure military terms, Japan’s hawkish military leaders were utterly delusional about the blow the Pearl Harbor attack would inflict. Consider that even if Pearl Harbor had been worse for the U.S. Navy, had the Pacific carrier fleet been sunk there, for example, the U.S. would still have retained a potent naval force. While such a defeat would have required a redeployment of warships from the Atlantic Fleet, it could and would have been done.

The only measurable impact would have been delay in U.S. war plans moving toward offensive operations. In the case of a far-worse Pearl Harbor attack, the first intent would have been to use the Atlantic Fleet to reinforce the Pacific Fleet in order to preserve the sea lines of communication between Hawaii and the U.S., and Hawaii and Australia. Might this have led to the fall of Midway rather than its salvation, and the annihilation of the Japanese fleet in June 1942? Yes, probably.

Still, it is extremely difficult or nearly impossible to see how Japan could have sustained an operational scale that would have allowed it to dominate Southeast Asia and simultaneously take out Hawaii. Look at the distances involved and consider what they would have required in logistical and supply efforts. Then add in the constant factor of U.S. submarine warfare harassment — which, in the worst-case damage from Pearl Harbor, would have been prioritized at ship-building plants before surface warfare vessels.

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Don’t believe me? Let’s assume Japan did somehow seize Hawaii. What then? Would Japan have sought to conquer the U.S. mainland? I think not. Again, distance and America’s size are the natural enemies of such a venture.

Ultimately, imperial Japan would have faced the same fate that it ultimately received: destruction. The simple reality of U.S. industrial power is such that the U.S. military could have constructed a vast naval force with which to retake Hawaii and then push forward through the Pacific. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weaponry would also have played its same role in delivering Japan’s submission. The only difference in Japan’s best-case scenario is that the U.S. would have relegated the European theater of operations to a secondary priority front. That would have meant securing the Atlantic sea lanes and protecting Britain, but waiting until 1943 or 1944 to launch the offensive operations it launched in 1942.

Regardless, 77 years ago today, Japan wasn’t thinking straight.

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