December 7 just passed, and it always sets me to thinking… I ponder the day and the terrible war it set in motion. My mind’s eye sees the Japanese strike force sweeping over the North Shore of Oahu unleashing death and chaos on Pearl Harbor and its surrounding airfields. It was a truly spectacular display of combat prowess, demonstrating in horrible glory the newfound power of naval aviation. U.S. losses were heavy: eight battleships and eleven other warships had been sunk or badly damaged; two hundred American airplanes destroyed on the ground and another hundred damaged; 2,400 Americans dead.
(National Geographic has an excellent “attack map” here. It’s worth checking out.)
The Pearl Harbor attack was an astounding operational success, and it forever shifted the shape of naval warfare. It also strikes me as one of the greatest strategic blunders of modern times.
Enraged, the United States declared war on Japan the next day, committed in an instant to the new enemy’s total evisceration. Japan had provoked a total war with the one nation on earth that within a mere three and a half years — using only the left had of its power (the bulk of American combat power would end up arrayed against Hitler’s Germany) — would have the ability to exterminate Japanese civilization.
Nevermind the shortcomings of the Pearl Harbor raid –the survival of the American aircraft carriers or of Pearl Harbor’s repair and fueling capabilities — considering the enormous gulf between American and Japanese industrial potential, it’s hard to imagine ANY scenario in which the Japanese would have won the war considering that the Pearl Harbor attack had instantly committed the United States to a quarrel that could only end in”their overthrow or ours” (to steal a bit from Winston Churchill’s Christmas 1941 address to Congress.)
As I understand the Japanese plan, they knew they couldn’t overcome American industrial might in a protracted conflict, so their strategy for the opening of the war was to inflict such a crushing defeat on the United States that we’d feel hopeless and loose the will to fight back and would sue for peace, leaving Japan in position to dominate Asia.
It’s hard to imagine a more colossal miscalculation, a more enormous failure to “understand the enemy.”
It also begs several questions: why might they have thought that the US lacked the stomach for war? What alternative course or courses of action might they have pursued to achieve their end?