This is the text of a talk I gave to the Randolph County Historical Society, titled “The Self-Defeating Logic of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.”
The title of my talk today is “the self-defeating logic of the attack on Pearl Harbor.” I’d like to discuss why Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and why, despite being a short-term victory, it ended up being a long-term failure.
There are many examples in history of winning a battle but losing a war. Sometimes, it’s the fact of winning that battle that loses the war. I don’t think there’s a better example of this than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which has gone down in history as “a date which will in infamy,” in the famous words of American president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Imperial Japanese government believed that its attack would accomplish a number of different aims that would guarantee Japanese success and power in the Pacific. As it turned out, the very act of attacking Pearl Harbor ended up guaranteeing that Japan could never maintain a position as the leading power in the Pacific.
In many ways, the United States was only incidental to what the Japanese wanted to accomplish in East Asia. Since the 1890s, Japan had been an expansionist power—it won wars against the Chinese and the Russians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But militaristic nationalists took power in the Japanese government in the late 1920s and really began to accelerate Japan’s imperialism. This became known as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which mostly served as a way to camouflage a direct and indirect Japanese empire. Japan was primarily concerned about controlling territory in East Asia and Oceania.
But this ran into conflict with western countries like France, Great Britain, and especially the United States. Some of the territory the Japanese hoped to control was bound to lead to conflict, like the American protectorate of the Philippines. Other Japanese actions like their conquests in China both threatened American economic interests and outraged Americans because of the Japanese mistreatment, even massacres, of Chinese civilians.
Tensions rose in the 1930s, and the United States started to limit its exports to Japan in response to the Japanese war against China, plus, Japan was getting diplomatically closer to the fascist governments in Italy and Germany. Even more than today, in the 1930s, the United States was one of the world’s primary oil producers. Japan has many blessings, but abundant raw materials are not among them. The Japanese got something like 80% of their oil from the United States, plus a large majority of other resources like iron and copper. By August 1941, the United States was embargoing almost all the important resources they sold to Japan.
This left the Japanese in a bit of a situation. They needed American resources to continue the war against China that made the Americans cut off those resources. Japan could give up their imperial ambitions in China, but the Japanese saw that as a humiliation. The other option was that they could grab those resources from somewhere else. British, French, and Dutch-controlled colonies in the South Pacific had valuable resources, including the all-important oil reserves but also things like rubber and tin, but the Japanese were sure, probably mistakenly, that attacking those territories would mean a war with the United States.
So the Japanese think that a war with the United States is inevitable. What, then, is the best way to win that war? That leads us to consider what had been the strategic doctrine of the Imperial Japanese Navy, plus many other navies, for decades before Pearl Harbor: the Decisive Battle Doctrine. The Japanese version of this is called Kantai Kessen. The idea is usually credited to the American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote that the reason that Great Britain became such a powerful country was that they had the strongest navy. They were able to crush their opponents in a single big naval battle, which then gave them command of the sea, so they could blockade their enemies and eventually win any war.
The Japanese believed this in part because their first big moment on the world stage seemed to prove it. In 1904 and 1905, Japan and Russia fought the Russo-Japanese War, which almost everyone in Europe expected to be an easy Russian victory. But to everyone’s surprise, the smaller Japanese military just smashed the Russians. At the decisive naval battle of Tsushima, the smaller Japanese fleet caught the Russian fleet as it went through the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan. The Russians lost eleven battleships and several other ships, and as a result they had to sue for peace.
The Japanese became obsessed with this idea that winning victory against a western naval power would rely on a destroying the enemy fleet in a single decisive battle. All their naval planning was built around the idea, and you can see why they would find it appealing: it would allow the smaller but better trained Japanese Navy to have a chance against a bigger, apparently stronger enemy.
This Decisive Battle Doctrine, the Kantai Kessen doctrine, is crucial for understanding what the Japanese hoped to do with their attack on Pearl Harbor. As war with the United States looked more likely, Japan’s basic plan against a stronger enemy like the USA was to lure the main enemy fleet closer to the Japanese home islands while wearing them down, so that Japan’s better tactics and training could make up the difference. Then, Japan would win a smashing, overwhelming victory that would force the Americans to negotiate a peace.
The Japanese never realistically planned to invade San Francisco or something crazy like that. The Japanese leadership was unrealistic and mistaken about many things, but they were not stupid. They knew that they could not win a long-term war with the United States. The Japanese admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was asked in the summer of 1941, months before the attack, about what would happen if Japan went to war with the United States. He famously and prophetically replied, “I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”
The Japanese knew that America’s industrial and economic power was many times greater than their own. They knew that a long war would be an inevitable American victory. Any attack would depend on consolidating the Japanese position and hurting American morale so much that winning a full-scale war with the United States would make a deal that would leave Japan with most or all of its gains. Japan’s strategy was essentially to hit America as hard as they could, grab as much as they could, and then hunker down to weather the inevitable American counter-attack before making a deal of some kind.
So then, this is why the attack on Pearl Harbor was so self-defeating. It was based on a strategy that didn’t really work in the first place. Some major wars between powerful countries are determined by a single battle or two, but most of them are not, especially one with a battlefield as big as half the Pacific Ocean. And even if that was true sometimes, it would not be true after Pearl Harbor.
For a variety of reasons, Pearl Harbor was seen as especially outrageous and unprovoked, a treacherous act of aggression. After the war, the United States would officially consider the attack a war crime, since it was an attack on a neutral power without a previously and explicit warning. The United States and Japan had held lengthy negotiations throughout 1941 to try to improve relations. These negotiations had not gone terribly well, because the two sides were so far apart in their goals, but they were still ongoing.
Before the attack, the Japanese Ambassador, Kichisaburo Nomura, was instructed to break off negotiations, not even formal diplomatic relations, with the United States at 1:00 pm Washington DC time, which would be about 30 minutes before the attack began. But he did not actually present his statement until more than an hour after the attack. Secretary of State Cordell Hull said that the statement was full of “infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any Government on this planet was capable of uttering them.” Even more insulting, the statement was not technically a declaration of war. Japan did not even formally write up a declaration of war until the government got confirmation of the successful attack, and Japan did not declare war on the United States until the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
American public opinion on the wars going on in Europe and Asia in 1941 was divided; American mostly wanted to help the British, and thought it would be good for America if the British won, but they generally opposed the United States becoming directly involved. That changed overnight.
So, in a meaningful sense, Pearl Harbor accomplished the opposite of everything the Japanese wanted. Their only hope in winning a war against the United States would be if it were a war that would be decided by a single decisive battle that would force the United States to negotiate. But much like the explosion on the USS Maine or the September 11 attacks, Pearl Harbor meant that the United States would fight to the end.
Even if the Kantai Kessen doctrine, the decisive battle doctrine, had been closer to correct, it would not have made a difference. Depending on how you count, there were five major aircraft carrier versus aircraft carrier battles of the Pacific theater that could have been considered potentially decisive battles: Coral Sea, Midway, the Solomon Islands, the Santa Cruz Islands, and the Philippine Sea. Except arguably the Battle of the Coral Sea, which was kind of a draw, all of those were American victories. But even if they weren’t, it would not have changed the final outcome of the war. The USA lost one carrier at the crucial Battle of Midway. Even if they’d lost all four of their aircraft carriers, the USA launched three new fleet carriers and three light carriers that year; by 1944, America had launched nine new fleet carriers and six light carriers. The Japanese simply could not match American military might.
It is possible that, if the Japanese had not launched a surprise attack on the United States, the American public would not have been willing to support a long war, especially with a war going on in Europe. America’s initial planning for a war with Japan, in fact, planned on a rapid attack that would win the war before public support ran out. Planners knew that the American people would not be excited about a long war somewhere far away from the United States, especially if there was a chance of war in Europe. But Pearl Harbor changed all that. Once America decided it was a war to the finish, to complete victory or complete defeat, Japan did not have a realistic chance to win the war.
This makes the strategic errors of Japan’s decisive battle doctrine and the attack on Pearl Harbor almost beside the point, but I will briefly mention them anyway. Because the Japanese expected to win a quick war with one or two major naval battles, they did not focus on destroying the infrastructure of Pearl Harbor, like the navy yard, the oil tanks, and the like. Because Pearl Harbor is relatively shallow, it was easy to salvage and repair the ships; in fact, only three ships were permanently lost as a result of Pearl Harbor. But again, the Japanese assumed this would not matter since that would take a long time.
On a larger scale, the Japanese focus on winning a decisive battle made them build a navy designed for a short war with a big naval engagement, not a long war. They built big giant battleships that ended up being superseded by aircraft carriers. They ignored building destroyers and escort vessels that could protect Japanese shipping. Overall, everything in Japanese planning was completely contrary to the war that they would actually end up fighting against the United States, and how they went about fighting that war.
In his memoirs of the Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote that he greeted the news of Pearl Harbor, with, as he put it, “the greatest joy.” As he wrote, “Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.” He further wrote of how he ended that day: “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and the thankful.”
Now, Churchill wrote this after the war, in 1950, so he was probably overestimating how excited he was – early 1942 was the darkest period of the war, when the Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan were at their most successful. But when America was fully devoted to the war effort, it proved how right Churchill was. American war power was awesome in the older sense of the word, frightening and awe-inspiring. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, against all their best interests, proved to be the most effective and surest way to unleash that power and guarantee that the Japanese, or their allies in Germany and Italy, could never win the war.