Friday, May 2, 2014

Japan's Route to Pearl Harbor

Prime Minister Hideki Tojo

The US fleet sailed into Yedo Bay under Commodore Perry in 1853 and opened Japan to the western world.  Over subsequent years the nation industrialized under the rule of the Meiji Restoration.  This rising manufacturing economy of the Far East now required resources the mineral-starved island nation could not provide itself.  Like the imperial nations it emulated Japan looked to dominate neighboring lands rich in the strategic resources it needed most – oil, rubber, iron, nickel, tin, other minerals.  There were wars – first with China, then Russia and then China, once again.  Japan acquired Formosa, Manchuria, Korea and strings of islands that extended deep into the central Pacific, nearly as far to the east as the US-held Midway Island.  In time western nations became alarmed.  The British, French and Dutch all had colonies around the South China Sea – well within reach of Japan.  The United States controlled the Philippines and had a naval base in Manila.  There was also racial friction.  Japan was not part of the whites-only club.  The leadership in Tokyo came to believe the Asian economy would be better administered by Japanese. 

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  France fell to Germany in 1940.  Japan was bogged down in its own war with China.  She needed to cut China off from the supplies it received through French Indochina and British-held Burma.  Japan was allied with Berlin and found Indochina easy to pluck from the German-sanctioned Vichy French government.  The US, already angered by Japanese military action in China, cut off its exports to Japan as Japanese troops showed up in Saigon and her ships appeared off Cam Ranh Bay.  The island was left without its major source for oil and steel.  The act was an economic declaration of war.  Negotiations proved futile as neither nation was prepared to budge from their original positions.  The aggressive diplomatic posture of Washington was not matched by the country’s military position.  The United States was not prepared for war.  Neither was Britain in the Pacific.  England was struggling to stay afloat in a submarine infested Atlantic.  Her armies had met their match in the deserts of North Africa up against the forces of the German general Rommel. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

Japan was well aware of this situation.  For Tokyo, accepting US demands meant a sharp reduction in her economic power.  Refusing meant war.  Her new Prime Minister, General Tojo, would be easily seduced into adopting a military solution.  The reasons were compelling.  Japan had to act soon.  Its oil reserves gave its powerful Imperial Navy little time to act.  Foremost, Japan would need the oil and mineral-rich resources of the Dutch East Indies and British Malaysia to power her industries.  She would want to take Burma from Britain and, thereby, cut off the Burma Road – the final supply route to Nationalist China leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his Kuomintang army.  Japan would also need to overrun islands of the Celebes Sea, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in order to protect her southern flank that ran as far as Australia. 

Then there was the issue of the Americans in the Philippines.  The US Asiatic fleet in Manila Bay was inconsequential but the Americans had begun to move B-17 heavy bombers into the area and Tokyo didn't need this threat to her fleet activity.  A few well-placed bombs and a powerful, hard to replace Japanese battleship would soon be lost beneath the waves.  As it turns out, American forces in the Philippines were extremely vulnerable.  Manila was 5,600 miles from Honolulu and to supply US Philippine troops required getting past the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana Islands – all of them already based by the Japanese military.  The only means Washington had of doing this would require a drive by its powerful Pacific fleet, now based at Pearl Harbor. 

Gen. Douglas MacArthur - Philippines

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Combined Fleet, opposed war with America because, having spent time in the U.S. as a student at Harvard, he appreciated the nation’s enormous industrial potential.  Japan’s industry was small by comparison and a long war with the U.S. could only result in the island nation’s destruction.  None the less, as a patriot and a military man, Yamamoto felt obliged to produce a strategy that would result in a stunning victory, followed by a negotiated peace agreement with Washington.  This scenario of a decisive military engagement leading to a quick peace was the hoped-for conclusion by leaders in Tokyo.  It is the strategy that won Japan Formosa in 1895 and defeated the Russians in 1905.  Now Tojo, and his contingent, hoped that destruction of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, combined with a dominant Japanese military presence across the Pacific, would force Washington into signing a peace treaty, having concluded war with Japan would be futile.

Among the glaring fallacies of this line of thinking is the belief that Americans would respond to a humiliating defeat at Pearl Harbor by losing heart and throwing in the towel.  Misconceptions were rampant in the views of Americans popular to the Japanese as well as American attitudes toward Japan.  It was the dismissive opinion of Japanese military prowess by Americans that helped to undermine our readiness at Pearl Harbor in the first place.  The morning of December 7, 1941 and its aftermath six months later at Midway helped to permanently correct the views each nation held toward the other.

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