Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


Would China Really Launch a Pearl Harbor Attack on America?

U.S. Navy
SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 19, 2021) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69), rear, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Akizuki-class destroyer JS Akizuki (DD 115) transit the South China Sea in formation. Milius is assigned to Commander, Task Force (CTF) 71/Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, the Navy's largest forward-deployed DESRON and the U.S. 7th Fleet's principal surface force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Christine Montgomery) 211019-N-TC847-1020

As we afford our hallowed forebears the remembrance they deserve, let’s also try to learn from what transpired here eighty years ago, and see what it tells us about America’s future as an Asia-Pacific sea power.

In particular, let’s look at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the enemy.

Why did Japan do it? Doing nothing is a viable strategic option, and oftentimes a good one. Imperial Japan would have been far better off had it forgone the attack on Pearl Harbor and confined its operations to the Western Pacific. Had Tokyo exercised some forbearance, it may have avoided rousing the “sleeping giant” that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto reputedly said he feared so much. And even if it did awaken the American giant, it would have avoided filling him with what Yamamoto called a “terrible resolve” to crush Japan. Think about it:

-By attacking Oahu, Japan took on a second full-blown war in the Pacific Ocean while waging a massive land war on the continent of Asia. Bear in mind that Japan had already been at war for a decade by the time it attacked Hawaii; the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. This was a mammoth undertaking. When the shooting stopped in 1945, some 1.8 million Japanese troops were left in China, Manchuria and Korea. That illustrates the dimensions of the ground war—a war comparable in scale to the maritime war.

-Japan picked a fight with a foe boasting vastly greater economic and industrial power, and it fired that foe’s resolve to translate economic and industrial resources—potential military power, in other words—into deployable military might on a scale that Japan had little hope of matching. My former chairman George Baer, the author of an award-winning history of the United States Navy, reminds us that our navy’s shipbuilding budget for 1940 alone exceeded a decade’s worth of Imperial Japanese Navy shipbuilding budgets. That shows what Japan was up against.

-And after the sleeping giant had started awake, the Japanese leadership failed to walk back its ambitious political and strategic aims. It tried to defend the vast territories it overran in 1941–42—and never really adapted to the new circumstances it had created by poking a slumbering America.

Picking a fight with a stronger enemy, enraging that enemy and refusing to admit the likelihood of defeat—that adds up to “self-defeating behavior” of the first order on the part of Japan’s military rulers. And the repercussions were hardly unexpected. We know they were foreseeable because perceptive Japanese military men foresaw them.

Admiral Yamamoto, to name one, caught sight of how the war would unfold. He compared fighting the United States to “fighting the whole world.” The mismatch in economic and military power would be that lopsided once American industry was in full gear, turning out war materiel in vast quantities. Yamamoto told his political superiors: “If you insist that we really do it, you may trust us for the perfect execution of a breath-taking show of naval victories for the first half-year or full year. But if the war should be prolonged into a second or third year, I am not confident at all.”

Nor should he have been. As we know from the history books, the war did spill into a second year, 1942–43, and then into a third, 1943–44, and into a fourth. By late 1943, what amounted to a second complete U.S. Navy—the shiny, new, higher-tech fleet authorized by Congress under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940—was steaming into the combat theater to do battle. Events bore out Yamamoto’s prophecy once that force arrived on scene—and began overpowering Imperial Japanese Navy defenders.

So Yamamoto was right: Japan had to win quickly or not at all. But he was also wrong: by executing his plan to strike Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy guaranteed there would be no quick win. So, again: if the outcome was predictable, why did they do it? What should they have done?

This is a roundabout way of getting to the beginning. Let’s ask “what if?” as we look back eighty years to the Japanese aerial assault on this place. Now, as a Naval War College professor of strategy, I am required to mention our patron saint—our holiest of holies, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz—every time I give a talk like this one. So here’s a pearl of wisdom from the great Carl: no fair Monday-morning quarterbacking!

To learn from past failures, in other words, it’s not enough to second-guess what commanders or statesmen of bygone ages did wrong amid the fury of war. To truly learn from them, we have to envision some alternative course of action that would have yielded better results than the one they took.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? No one likes the armchair QB in New England, my adopted home, who takes Bill Belichick or Tom Brady to task for substandard play in a Patriots defeat. The natural response—the Clausewitzian response—is to ask: okay, what would you have done better, wise guy? Or if you prefer your rejoinders more highfalutin, my hero Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that it’s not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena, splattered with sweat and blood but getting it done. And then we would subject the armchair QB’s proposed alternative to the same scrutiny we used to vet the play that actually was run.

Who knows? Maybe we would make ourselves better play-callers than Belichick or Brady through this learning process—a process we at the Naval War College call “critical analysis.”

So let’s play critic. Let’s look at Japanese failures in strategy, and then consider the strategic import of Japanese tactical failures once Tokyo did send Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s aircraft-carrier task force hurtling toward Hawaii on its errand of destruction. Japan erred by attacking Pearl Harbor—then it erred in how its aviators attacked Pearl Harbor.

First consider the failure of Japanese strategy as strategy. What did Japanese want in the Pacific? To oversimplify, they wanted to partition that ocean between Japan and the United States. The waters, skies and landmasses west of Asia’s “second island chain”—a loose line of islands stretching from northern Japan through Guam down to New Guinea—would become a Japanese preserve.

To accomplish such an ambitious goal, the resource-poor island state desperately needed imports of raw materials—primarily from Southeast Asia. That lent even more momentum to Tokyo’s plans for aggression.

In effect, then, Tokyo envisioned enclosing its territorial conquests and sources of natural resources within a long, distended defense perimeter that coincided, more or less, with the second island chain. It would barricade them off from outsiders. Now, Japanese strategists had seen the United States as the next likely enemy in the Pacific since shortly after the turn of the century. The Imperial Japanese Navy had eradicated Chinese sea power during a short, sharp war in 1895, then turned around and crushed the Russian Navy in naval battles in 1904 and 1905—putting an end to Russian sea power in the Far East for decades to come.

That left the United States Navy as the next big thing for Japan’s navy. Japanese strategists set to work determining how to overcome another strong yet faraway foe—just as U.S. naval strategists in places like the Naval War College pondered how to project military might into a determined opponent’s home region, thousands of miles from American shores.

Think about what Japan was contemplating from a geographic and geometric perspective. Every time Japan extended its defense perimeter eastward or southward was like extending the radius of a circle: it expanded the sea area Japan’s fleet had to police by the square of the distance from the Japanese home islands, which lay at the empire’s center. And perversely, Tokyo had an insatiable appetite for more sea space. It was constantly extending the defensive frontier—including at far-flung places like Guadalcanal, in late 1942. The circle got bigger and bigger, Japanese naval coverage thinner and thinner. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s reach exceeded its grasp by mid-1942—just as Yamamoto had foreseen.

But the problem was worse than policing vast sea areas: trying to defend a long defensive line is hard, at sea or on land. Think about it. If I want to defend a line, I have to be stronger than my opponent at every point along the perimeter. That verges on impossible. By contrast, my opponent only has to be stronger than me at one point along the line. He can mass forces at some point along the line and punch through. There’s no such thing as an impenetrable defensive wall sprawling across hundreds or thousands of miles. That’s a fallacy.

In short, Japan had put itself in an impossible position unless it could keep the U.S. offensive halfhearted. And it could have. Clausewitz teaches that the elements of strength are force—by which he means material resources—and will. A combatant like the United States can boast all the economic and industrial resources in the world, yet remain militarily weak if it lacks the resolve to tap those resources, converting latent into actual military might.

Japan, in other words, could weaken America by being less provocative than it was. It could avoid firing Americans’ passion for war, and thus their desire to construct and deploy a vast military machine. Japan probably had to attack U.S. possessions to get its way, but it could have attacked something Japan valued but the American people and their leaders did not: the Philippine Islands. Few back home could find the Philippines on a map. It’s doubtful an assault confined to the Philippines would have stoked the popular fury set loose by the raid on Oahu.

No democratic leader—not even one boasting the rhetorical gifts of a Franklin Roosevelt—can wage war for long without fervent backing from the people. Absent the public fury that followed Pearl Harbor, chances are only a modest U.S. counteroffensive would have lumbered across the Pacific. Halfheartedness would have worked to Japan’s benefit—limiting the naval and amphibious challenge it had to contend with starting by late 1942.

Attacking Pearl Harbor stoked popular desire for vengeance. That passion—that terrible resolve—fueled the twin counteroffensives commanded by Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Tokyo may have had to awaken the sleeping giant to accomplish its goals in the Pacific—but it could have avoided filling him with rage and spite. It could have spared itself an all-out American onslaught.

Japanese war planners had long assumed the U.S. counteroffensive would remain limited in scope. They assumed Japanese forces would evict America from the Philippine Islands, and they assumed, rightly, that the U.S. Pacific Fleet planned to steam to the Philippines’ relief. They also knew the U.S. Pacific Fleet was stronger than their Combined Fleet—and thus had to be cut down to size for Japan’s navy to win.

Thus they embraced a doctrine they called “interceptive operations,” whereby aircraft and submarines stationed in the outer Pacific islands would pepper the U.S. battle fleet with small-scale attacks on its westward voyage. If successful, they would wear down the Americans before they even reached the fighting theater. An apocalyptic sea battle—a reprise of the victories over China’s and Russia’s navies decades before—would settle matters somewhere in Western Pacific waters.

Japan’s navy believed it stood a chance in action against a U.S. fleet enfeebled by attacks from the depths and aloft—and it was right. It is really, really hard to overcome a resolute antagonist on his own home ground, even if that antagonist is outmatched in terms of ships, planes and manpower. The Imperial Japanese Navy might deprive the U.S. Navy of the war-making implements on which it depended, as the strategy of interceptive operations envisioned. Or, in the best case from Tokyo’s standpoint, the price tag of entry into the Western Pacific might soar above the price America was willing to pay.

If so, the United States might do the rational thing. They might shrug at the loss of the Philippines. They might write off the Western Pacific—ceding it to Japan by default. Tokyo would win without hazarding a pitched fleet battle.

So the Pearl Harbor raid was fatally flawed as strategy. Japanese leaders could have gotten part or all of what they wanted by foregoing the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese leadership bartered away long-term strategic success for momentary gain. Attacking Battleship Row constituted “self-defeating behavior” of colossal proportions for the island empire.

And yet they did it anyway. Why?

Part of the reason comes from Japanese leaders’ reading of their own maritime history. Contending historical memories gripped different segments of opinion within the Japanese navy. Japan struck first—and before it declared war—to open the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. While the torpedo raid against the Russian fleet at Port Arthur did little permanent physical damage, it did far-reaching psychological damage. From then on, Russian commanders sheltered timidly under the guns of Port Arthur. And when they did venture out, they got pummeled by Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s Combined Fleet. Port Arthur made an appealing precedent for Pearl Harbor. A preemptive attack might intimidate American commanders the way it had Russians in 1904.

And then there was the Battle of Tsushima Strait, the climactic sea fight of the Russo-Japanese War and the bookend to Port Arthur. Having lost the Russian Pacific Squadron to Tōgō in August 1904, the czar ordered the Baltic Fleet to steam to the Far East. Because Britain denied the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, it was forced to circumnavigate Africa, transit the Indian Ocean and make its way into the China seas. That added up to a journey of eighteen thousand miles without significant repairs or maintenance. Tōgō awaited the Russians at Tsushima, the narrow sea separating Japan from Korea—and made short work of the czar’s dilapidated force.

In a sense, then, Japanese strategists were debating between the Tsushima and Port Arthur precedents as they shaped strategy against the United States. The Tsushima model gave rise to interceptive operations, while Yamamoto—a veteran of Tsushima—prevailed on the leadership to shift to the Port Arthur template in early 1941. The blow fell on Hawaii that December. We know it didn’t have the same impact the Port Arthur attack had.

But even if the strike was ill advised, Japan could have wrung value out of it. Let’s look at the tactics the Imperial Japanese Navy deployed on December 7. There are certain obvious differences between raiding Port Arthur, across the Yellow Sea from Japan on the Chinese coast, and raiding Pearl Harbor thousands of miles to the east. For one, Tōgō’s fleet could strike at the Russians, then stay to blockade them in port. It had Japanese seaports nearby to sustain the effort. Nagumo’s fleet, by contrast, had too little fuel and too few supplies to linger in the Hawaiian Islands’ vicinity for long—following up on its success. It had outrun its logistics—and then some.

The Pearl Harbor attack thus had a come-and-go character that Port Arthur did not. Both preemptive attacks were inherently indecisive. But the Japanese navy could keep up the pressure in 1904 where it could not in 1941.

That being the case, Nagumo’s airmen really had to make their shot at the Pacific Fleet count. As Admiral Nimitz noted when he arrived on Oahu to take command of the Pacific Fleet, the Japanese navy blundered egregiously by going after the U.S. battleship fleet instead of other targets. Yes, the American carriers were at sea, as is often pointed out. Hitting them would have hurt. But Nimitz believed the Japanese missed an opportunity by striking at the battle fleet but not its logistics. Japanese aviators could have taken out the dry docks that would refit most of the damaged vessels. They could have taken out the fleet’s fuel supply.

Take out a fleet’s logistical support, and it withers on the vine. Ships can’t steam without fuel oil. Planes can’t fly without avgas. Sailors can’t eat without regular food shipments. Had Japanese tacticians planned the strike wisely, they would have made infrastructure the main target, then hit the fleet with whatever munitions they had left after clobbering dry docks, fuel storage sites, and other support assets like oilers, ammunition ships, and destroyer, submarine and seaplane tenders. That would have set back the U.S. counteroffensive considerably, granting the Japanese Empire time to cement its conquests in Asia and the Pacific.

Before he met his maker after the war, wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo cited the U.S. Navy’s capacity for underway replenishment—and thus its capacity to remain constantly at sea—as a decisive factor in the Pacific War’s outcome. Indeed it was. Testament from high places.

Now, some might contend that the United States would have gone to war in the Pacific even had the Pearl Harbor attack never happened. Our allies were under assault, and we were honor bound to keep our commitments. The Japanese armed forces certainly would have attacked the Philippine Islands, which lay astride the sea lanes connecting the Japanese home islands with the “Southern Resource Area” in the South China Sea. The Philippines, of course, had been American territory since 1898. Tokyo could hardly let an American stronghold stand along this maritime thoroughfare remain intact—posing a constant threat to Japan’s economic lifelines. Nor could Washington overlook an attack on American soil.

And there’s no gainsaying this. In all likelihood President Franklin Roosevelt would have honored the U.S. alliances with Great Britain, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and with the Netherlands. But think about two things. One, popular sentiment in the United States may not have demanded offensive action in the Pacific following an attack on the Philippines. It certainly wouldn’t have demanded action as loudly as it did following December 7.

After all, the Pacific War was not the only show in town. The United States, an offshoot of the British Empire, had always faced eastward across the Atlantic. We were, and many argue still are, a Europe-first nation. The war against Hitler’s Germany may have had first claim on American loyalties absent a Pearl Harbor attack—and the Pacific War may well have remained a backwater until the Allies’ work in Europe was done. By that time, Japan may have locked in part—or all—of its gains in the Far East. Time would have been on its side.

And, two, even after the U.S. Navy, Marines and Army started their westward march across the Pacific, Japan would have been better-positioned to resist the U.S. offensive if the Japanese armed forces had stuck with their prewar game plan. Rather than the vengeful America that Japan faced by the evening of December 7, it may have faced a relatively halfhearted America, war-weary from fighting in Europe.

By consolidating and fortifying the islands it had wrested from their inhabitants, and by electing to protect a shorter island defense perimeter, it may have imposed higher costs on the United States than Americans were willing to bear. Washington may have accepted some sort of negotiated settlement that left Japan supreme in East Asia. Tokyo should have been patient, exercised self-restraint and stuck with its prewar game plan. Interceptive operations held far more promise than a one-off preemptive strike into the Eastern Pacific.

What can we learn from this today? Several things. First of all, the United States remains a Western Pacific power eighty years after Pearl Harbor, yet the U.S. Navy’s logistics remain frighteningly lean. What I suggested Japan’s navy should have done—strike at our navy’s capacity to deliver bullets, beans and black oil to ships at sea—remains an option for potential foes today. It’s the choice I would make if I were they. We must not expect a China or Russia to blunder as Japan did.

Second, we would find it hard to regenerate combat power quickly after a scrap with China or Russia. The incoming administration is on record favoring a 350-ship navy, up from about 272 today. Yet none of these ships has been approved by Congress. Still less have their keels been laid. No 2016 counterpart to the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 is yet on the books. We should press for a bigger navy and associated joint forces—a force robust enough in numbers and battle capability to take combat losses, fight on and win. More ships? Bring it on!

And third, let’s not expect prospective foes to be as reckless as Imperial Japan. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a diplomat who was forever on the go: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Sometimes inaction—or less ambitious action—represents the wisest strategy. Sometimes old methods are best. Never miss a chance to do nothing.

China, unlike Japan, appears content to build up naval and air power along its periphery in hopes of rewriting the rules of the Asian order—the liberal order of seagoing trade and commerce over which America has presided since Japan’s downfall in 1945. While sometimes bellicose and always assertive, Beijing does not appear eager to pick a fight. It doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to fulfill its maritime destiny.

In short, this is a rival who seems to have learned from Yamamoto: don’t jab a sleeping giant, and if you do, don’t steel his resolve. Let him slumber until it’s late in the contest, and you may prevail. China may have learned the true lessons of Pearl Harbor. Let’s do the same—and get ready. If we do, those who fell here eighty years ago will have rendered good service once again.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “ Visualize Chinese Sea Power ”.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”