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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Colossal Mistake

Pearl Harbor
Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee.

Eighty years ago the Imperial Japanese Navy pulled off an astonishing feat of arms, pummeling the U.S. Navy battle line moored at Pearl Harbor.

The operation was an abject failure.

Am I contradicting myself? Not at all. The Japanese Kidō Butai, or aircraft-carrier striking force, had crossed thousands of miles of storm-tossed seas to draw within reach of O’ahu, home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet—the major obstacle to the Japanese militarist regime’s schemes of conquest in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s fleet was made up of six fleet carriers, a combined air wing numbering 450 combat aircraft of all types, and a retinue of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries to provide the flattops with protection, supplies, and support.

Surging such a force from Japanese home waters to Hawai’i was a monumental task. The fleet stretched its logistical tether to the breaking point, and then some. But it succeeded anyway in a tactical sense. Two waves of fighters, torpedo planes and dive bombers swooped in on their targets on the morning of December 7, 1941, a date President Franklin Roosevelt prophesied would “live in infamy.” Ninety-four U.S. Navy men-of-war lay at Pearl Harbor that day, but the priority targets for Japan were the eight battleships moored in pairs at Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor.

Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian and great chronicler of naval operations in World War II, tells it: “Half an hour after the battle opened, Arizona was a burning wreck, Oklahoma had capsized, West Virginia had sunk, California was going down, and every other battleship (except Pennsylvania in drydock) had been badly damaged.” (Thankfully Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were at sea on December 7, ferrying aircraft to airfields elsewhere in the Pacific.)

By 8:25 that morning the first wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor was complete. By then, Morison attests, “the Japanese had accomplished about 90 percent of their objective—they had wrecked the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet.” Japanese airmen also demolished most of the combat aircraft present on O’ahu.

By 10:00 the battle was over. Morison’s verdict: “Never in modern history was a war begun with so smashing a victory.” And yet I would cite three reasons why Pearl Harbor was a calamity for imperial Japan. First, because the Kidō Butai was so far from home port, it by necessity flouted the strategic principle of “continuity.” The military grandmaster Carl von Clausewitz urges commanders to find their enemy’s “center of gravity,” that which gives the enemy society and military forces cohesion. Once they’ve detected the center of gravity and struck an effective blow at it, they should land “blow after blow, all in the same direction” until the enemy capitulates or can no longer resist.

It’s the same principle you see in the ring, when one boxer knocks the other off balance, then pounds away repeatedly till he scores a knockout.

Military forces are an obvious center of gravity for any combatant—Clausewitz gives them pride of place—and I would agree with Imperial Japanese Navy officers that the Pacific Fleet was the center of gravity of U.S. naval power in the Pacific. Because the Japanese logistical lifeline was overstrained, though, the fleet was unable to linger off O’ahu long enough to deliver blow after blow until the fleet and its supporting infrastructure lay in smoking ruins. Nor did the Kidō Butai have enough fuel to hunt down the American carriers at sea or lay in ambush until they returned to port.

Japan landed a crushing one-two punch on December; it did not score a knockout blow, and it could not deliver a flurry of punches that added up to the same thing. Battleships were wounded or died; U.S. carrier aviation lived, even though it was a fugitive for the time being.

Which leads to the second reason Pearl Harbor was a failure for Japan. Much as Admiral Chester Nimitz did when he arrived in Hawai’i late that December to take command of the Pacific Fleet, Morison concludes that the Japanese struck the wrong targets: “They knocked out the Battle Force and decimated the striking air power present; but they neglected permanent installations at Pearl Harbor, including the repair shops which were able to do an amazingly quick job on the less severely damaged ships.” (Indeed, most of the battlewagons stricken on December 7 returned to service. They exacted vengeance from the Japanese battleship fleet late in 1944, pummeling the foe at the Battle of Surigao Strait in the Philippines—history’s last major fleet-on-fleet gun battle.) Nor did Japanese aviators strike at the power plant or fuel tank farm supplying the naval station and the fleet. Nor did they inflict as many casualties as they might. Early on a Sunday morning in port, after all, many crewmen were ashore enjoying some R&R and thus not in Japanese crosshairs.

A fleet withers on the vine without drydocks, repair facilities of all kinds, and shore services such as fuel and electricity. As Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske observed a century ago, bases in effect replenish the stored energy that fighting ships discharge while riding the waves or dueling opponents. It recharges their batteries. And as Admiral Thomas C. Hart pointed out in the wake of the Pearl Harbor raid, demolishing infrastructure would have set back the U.S. war effort in the Pacific far longer than did the assault on the battle fleet.

So Japanese battle planners chose the wrong targets for December 7. The fleet may have been the U.S. Navy’s center of gravity, but the naval station was the indispensable enabler for the fleet’s fighting endeavors. You don’t get the one without the other.

And third, think about the politics of Pearl Harbor. In the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and again in Midway (2019), the Hollywood version of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy, laments after Pearl Harbor that “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” (The real Yamamoto didn’t use such poetic phrasing, but in his writings he did say something conveying the same meaning. Moviemakers simply made his words memorable.)

Think about what he was saying. America was slumbering in that it was reluctant to get involved in foreign wars, but it was a giant in that it boasted gargantuan natural resources and industrial capacity. In other words, it was an industrial giant with the latent capacity to make itself a military giant. And it could translate that potential into working military might given sufficient resolve. The U.S. economy was nine to ten times the size of Japan’s. You don’t want to poke a potential enemy with that vast a potential military advantage. And yet Japan did at Pearl Harbor. It mobilized the American people and society to transform latent into actual military power. Their fury aimed that juggernaut at the empire across the Pacific.

And wartime resentments burned long after the guns fell silent in 1945. My family is a military family, and was a navy family during World War II. Both of my granddads were enlisted men; one had his ship, an escort carrier, sunk out from under him. Thankfully he survived despite giving a wounded shipmate his life vest. Imagine in 1987, when I pulled up in my grandparents’ driveway in Tennessee in my first car—a fire-engine-red Honda! That was an ugly situation.

And that is the main reason Japan erred at Pearl Harbor. You do not want to pick on a musclebound adversary that might bestir itself to smite you down.

What should Japan have done instead? Almost anything else. It could have chosen better targets if it opted to go through with the attack. Maybe it could have carved out a durable sphere of supremacy in the Pacific if it bought enough time.

Or it could have stuck to its prewar game plan. Not until 1941 did Yamamoto convince military leaders to strike Pearl Harbor. The navy’s longstanding strategy, honed across decades, envisioned waiting for the U.S. Pacific Fleet to come to the Imperial Japanese Navy after an attack on the Philippine Islands, then U.S. territory. Japanese submarines and warplanes operating from and around Pacific islands would repeatedly strike the American fleet on its westward voyage, whittling it down to size until the Japanese fleet could engage and defeat it somewhere in the Western Pacific—Japan’s home turf.

That was a sound strategy.

Instead, the Japanese leadership gave in to what Morison called “strategic imbecility.” Tactical brilliance—for which the Japanese armed forces were justly acclaimed—could not make up for strategic illiteracy among the senior leadership.

And that is why Japan failed at Pearl Harbor.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the US Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, Marine Corps University. He is slated to present these remarks on board the battleship Massachusetts, Fall River, Massachusetts, this December 7. The views voiced here are his alone.

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.”

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Commentar

    December 5, 2021 at 8:47 am

    Pearl Harbor was Taranto of the east. But Japan was no UK.

    Japan’s FATAL mistake was it’s totally unspeakable war in china,which among other things, tied down the jap military there and it led directly to Japan’s failure to block off Australia and which in turn led to failure in new guinea, Guadalcanal and later islands like Guam.

    Had Japan wisely withdrew from china quagmire especially after its setback at midway, it would have had a fighting chance stopping US in the Pacific.

    Lesson:never ever bite off more than one can chew.

  2. Bemused Berserker

    December 6, 2021 at 6:29 am

    I agree with you, but would also point out that leaving China or the Asian continent wasn’t an option. Without Japan’s stranglehold on the mainland, Japan simoly didn’t have the raw material necessary for its war machine.

    Without the raw material, the attack on Pearl wasn’t possible IMHO.

  3. Land Snark

    December 6, 2021 at 8:07 am

    Japan couldn’t hit the US strategic center of gravity with its carriers because the US center of gravity was US industrial capacity, not the Pacific Fleet.

    Even if the entire US Pacific fleet had been sunk, US production was already on the way to completely replace the entire fleet. The defeat of Japan would have look different, but Japan would have fallen anyone.

    It could also be argued that Japan did hit what the US perceived as its operational center of gravity in the battleships as US naval doctrine at the time focused on the battleship as the primary means of destruction of the enemy with the aircraft carrier still in a supporting role.

  4. David Chang

    December 6, 2021 at 11:09 am

    When Asia countries involve in the controversy of socialism,
    United States forget General Washington’s advice and watch Japan Army make the war.

  5. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (Ret.)

    December 6, 2021 at 2:31 pm

    All arrogant stupid leaders can destroy their nation in war. Japan never had a chance. In 1939, in an open physics conference held in Berlin, a speculative design of the A bomb was presented. All major combatants knew of the theory but there were impossible barriers, making the bomb fuel was an “impossible” task, delivery and time. Could anyone achieve these goals before they were conquered?

    We now know the answers. Uncle Sam made the bomb and the delivery system, the B -29, then Stalin stole the design. And everybody else was instantly a second rate power.

    Today, there are some 15,000 thermonuclear bombs, each one many times more destructive than any thing which existed in the 1940s. Mankind will either learn to coexist or will cease to exist.

  6. Tim

    December 6, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    This article neglects to mention that FDR and Cordell HUll had deliberately created an untenable situation for Japan – there was no way to “carve[d] out a durable sphere of supremacy” given the sanctions placed on Japan’s peacetime economy; sanction emplaced to force Japan depart China without a peace or economic agreement which Hull refused to negotiate. Give Hull/FDR credit, they put Japan in an unsolvable bind with their economic stranglehold. But they completely screwed up in thinking Japan would lose its empire quietly. There were many ways to end the war in China, which FDR/Hull should have taken – that they didn’t was a tragedy and we are still feeling the effects, and ironically will still in the future as the CCP continues its rise.

  7. Rich

    December 6, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    Japan’s failure and ultimate defeat in the Pacific is more due to the Axis powers’ strategic mistake of not fighting as true allies but separate entities without common goals. By December 1941, before Pearl Harbor, the Wehrmacht had pushed to the gates of Moscow. Despite the Red Army’s winter counter offensive that halted the drive and recovered some lost ground, the Germans were able to renew their redirected campaign in the south and drive deep into the Caucasus during the summer campaign of 42. Once Richard Sorge had delivered the intelligence that Japan would not attack in the east, Stalin was able to pull substantial eastern forces to fuel both the Moscow and Stalingrad reversals. Had Japan attacked to the west (Eastern USSR) instead of the focusing east (Pacific), even a relatively modest campaign by WWII standards would have tied down enough Soviet force to potentially shift the outcome of Barbarossa. War with the US may have come eventually regardless. That can be argued one way or the other. However, without the Pearl attack, Japan could have likely bought a year or more of peace with the US. This would have provided enough time to knock the Soviet Union out of the war and allowed Germany to refocus back to Great Britain. With only a weakened GB and a politically hesitant and geographically distant US involved, WWII would have likely turned out much different. Without the Eastern front chewing up and spitting out the lion’s share of German forces in 43-44, the Allied invasion of France would have looked much different if it even happened at all However once Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor, they not only sealed their own fate, but that of Nazi Germany. In retrospect, by the afternoon of December 7, 1941, the only question remaining was how much destruction and death would be required to achieve the inevitable Allied victory.

  8. Dan Hossley

    December 6, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    China is today’s 1940 US. Industrial capacity to replace losses, shipyard to repair others. The US trails China the way Japan trailed the US in 1940’s. Like the IJN, we will have to fight the next conflict with the ships we have…because we can’t build new one’s fast enough

  9. mrmusterstone

    December 6, 2021 at 9:40 pm

    Thank you Dr. Holmes, an enjoyable post.

    No one in Japan was under the impression that they could win a war of attrition with the United States.

    The plan was to give the Americans such a military slap in the face, strut Japanese boldness and overwhelming military power that US leadership and the people would flinch and sue for peace. This logic was based on the idea (proclaimed by many Japanese officers to many Americans in POW camps) that Americans were “mongrel dogs”! and the Japanese were a special race.*

    * Japan. Early 19th century, Moto-ori taught the Japanese to see their neighbors as wretched crushed inhabitants of dirty countries. His leading disciple Hirata taught that “…every Japanese is born from a god and has perfect heart and spirit. The Japanese were a special race! (see much more at the reference)

    Ref: Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, p 809

  10. David Chang

    December 6, 2021 at 9:45 pm

    United States ignored General Washington’s moral advice during the Meiji Restoration, so U.S. made of Japan which determine diplomacy by force, and helped Soviet in China Civil War. To the present, many strategic scholars believe that we cannot lose Taiwan. However, people in Taiwan believe socialism, think that United States is evil empire, teachers and students believe that Bible is evil and Jesus is Communist. Nothing we can do until the President of United States trust God forever.

  11. Wharfplank

    December 7, 2021 at 11:55 am

    And now on the 80th commemoration there is yet another 2 front war brewing. Biden should find his spine or the Ukraine and Taiwan will pay a terrible price.

  12. wolf man

    December 7, 2021 at 1:11 pm

    Read Day of Deceit by Robert Stinnett. It gives the complete story. FDR provoked Japan into attacking the US. When he knew the Japanese Fleet was on the way to Pearl Harbor, FDR kept that information from the military commanders at Pearl. He wanted to maximize deaths so that the incident was sure to lead to war. The US was isolationist and did not want war. It needed a Pearl Harbor attack to get us in. FDR did what he could to make that happen. He moved the naval fleet to Hawaii. He put a trade embargo on Japan.

  13. John Hinman

    December 8, 2021 at 4:33 am

    The Japanese felt as Hitler and the Germans did. Rather barbarically, both thought they were superior races and somewhat united to dominate the world.
    Japan, without any real plan after the attack other than hoping for a different response, were absolute idiots to just attack and incite a fierce enemy that responded until the Japanese surrendered after brutal battles and the U.S. prepared to invade mainland Japan, instead of invading at the cost of untold thousands of American lives, the United States chose to & detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Japan refused to surrender with the American military ready to invade and the decision was made to use atomic bombs, the first and only time in history.

  14. tony

    December 16, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    if the 2nd ww taught us anything is that mistakes that look small can later become the agents of failure

    the shift of bombing airfields to cities in the battle of britain
    the delay in barabarrosa combined with the lack of prep for winter
    pearl harbour is another one, to say that the war would have ende d the same but later is an understatement, destroying the repair and fuel facilities would have forced the us fleet back to the west coast, coral sea midway guadalcanal would have had the us forces with supply lines as long as the japanese, that might have cost the us more carriers

  15. Dustin Barlow

    January 9, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    Japan attacking Pearl Harbor is just like a 2 vs 3 sword fight. The 2 are battle hardened Veterans fighting with sword & shield, and are beating the 3 pretty bad. The 3 are just about beaten so the 2, feeling cocky, walk over to the hobo sleeping under a bench and kick him a few times as he lay snoozing. The hobo’s eyes burst open and up stands a 9 foot tall massive man, that kicks his blanket away revealing a 50 pound 2-handed Great Sword. Brilliantly done fellas!

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