Could Japan Have Won World War II?
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By Robert James Holmes, The National Interest
Let's face it. Imperial Japan stood next to no chance of winning a fight to the finish against the United States. Resolve and resources explain why. So long as Americans kept their dander up, demanding that their leaders press on to complete victory, Washington had a mandate to convert the republic's immense industrial potential into a virtually unstoppable armada of ships, aircraft, and armaments. Such a physical mismatch was simply too much for island state Japan -- with an economy about one-tenth the size of America's -- to surmount.
Quantity has a quality all its own. No amount of willpower or martial virtuosity can overcome too lopsided a disparity in numbers. Tokyo stared that plight in the face following Pearl Harbor.
(This first appeared several years ago.)
So Japan could never have crushed U.S. maritime forces in the Pacific and imposed terms on Washington. That doesn't mean it couldn't have won World War II. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? But the weak sometimes win. As strategic sage Carl von Clausewitz recounts, history furnishes numerous instances when the weak got their way. Indeed, Clausewitz notes that it sometimes makes sense for the lesser contender to start a fight. If its leadership sees force as the only resort, and if the trendlines look unfavorable -- in other words, if right now is as good as it gets -- then why not act?
There are three basic ways to win wars according to the great Carl. One, you can trounce the enemy's armed forces and dictate whatever terms you please. Short of that, two, you can levy a heavier price from the enemy than he's willing to pay to achieve his goals. The value a belligerent assigns his political objectives determines how many resources he's prepared to expend on those objectives' behalf, and for how long. Taking measures that compel an opponent to expend more lives, armaments, or treasure is one way to raise the price. Dragging out the affair so that he pays heavy costs over time is another. And three, you can dishearten him, persuading him he's unlikely to fulfill his war aims.
A disconsolate adversary, or one who balks at the costs of war, is a pliant adversary. He cuts the best deal he can to exit the imbroglio.
If a military triumph lay beyond Tokyo's reach, the second two methods remained available in the Pacific. Japanese commanders could have husbanded resources, narrowing the force mismatch between the warring sides. They could have made the conflict more costly, painful, and prolonged for America, undercutting its resolve. Or, alternatively, they could have avoided rousing American fury to wage total war in the first place. By foregoing a strike at Hawaii, they could have enfeebled the opponent's resolve or, perhaps, sidelined the opponent entirely.
Bottom line, no likely masterstroke -- no single stratagem or killing blow -- would have defeated the United States. Rather, Japanese commanders should have thought and acted less tactically and more strategically. In so doing they would have improved Japan's chances.
Which brings us to Five Ways Japan Could Have Won. Now, the items catalogued below are far from mutually exclusive. The Japanese leadership would have boosted its prospects had it embraced them all. And granted, enacting some of these measures would have demanded preternaturally farseeing leadership. Foresight was a virtue of which Japan's vacillating emperor and squabbling military rulers were woefully short. Whether it was plausible for them to act wisely is open to debate. With these caveats out of the way, onward!
Wage one war at a time. Conserving enemies is a must even for the strongest combatants. It's imperative for small states with big ambitions to avoid making war against everyone in sight. Imposing discipline on the war was particularly hard for Japan, whose political system -- patterned on Imperial Germany's, alas -- was stovepiped between the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy (IJA and IJN), with no meaningful civilian political oversight. Absent a strong emperor, the army and navy were free to indulge their interservice one-upsmanship, jostling for influence and prestige. The IJA cast its gaze on continental Asia, where a land campaign in Manchuria, then China proper, beckoned. The IJN pushed for a maritime campaign aimed at resources in Southeast Asia. By yielding to these contrary impulses between 1931 and 1941, Japan in effect surrounded itself with enemies of its own accord -- invading Manchuria and China before lashing out at the imperial powers in Southeast Asia and, ultimately, striking at Pearl Harbor. Any tactician worth his salt will tell you a 360-degree threat axis -- threats all around -- makes for perilous times. Tokyo should have set priorities. It might have accomplished some of its goals had it taken things in sequence.
Listen to Yamamoto. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reputedly cautioned his superiors that Japan must win a quick, decisive victory lest it awaken the American "sleeping giant" with fateful consequences for Japan. The IJN, prophesied Yamamoto, could run wild for six months -- maybe a year -- before the United States mustered its full power for combat. During that interval, Japan needed to stun American society into a compromise peace -- in effect a partition of the Pacific -- while firming up the island defense perimeter enclosing the Asia-Pacific territories won by Japanese arms. What if its efforts fell short? U.S. industry would be turning out armaments in massive quantities, while new vessels laid down under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 -- in effect a second, bulked-up U.S. Navy -- would start arriving in the theater. The balance would shift irretrievably. In short, Yamamoto warned military leaders against "script-writing," or assuming the enemy would do precisely what they foresaw. The admiral knew a thing or two about the United States, and understood the American propensity to defy preconceptions.
Don't listen to Yamamoto. If Admiral Yamamoto rendered wise counsel on the strategic level, it was suspect on the operational level. His solution to the problem of latent U.S. material superiority was to strike at what navalists saw as the hub of enemy power -- the adversary's battle fleet. For decades IJN planners had envisioned waging "interceptive operations" to slow down and weaken the U.S. Pacific Fleet as it steamed westward, presumably to the relief of the Philippine Islands. Once aircraft and submarines deployed to outlying islands whittled the Pacific Fleet down to size, the IJN battle fleet would force a decisive battle. Yamamoto, however, convinced IJN commanders to jettison interceptive operations in favor of a sudden blow at Pearl Harbor. But in reality, the battle line stationed in Hawaii wasn't the core of American naval strength. The nascent Two-Ocean Navy Act fleet was. The best that Yamamoto's scheme could accomplish, consequently, was to delay an American counteroffensive into 1943. Tokyo may have been better off sticking with the interwar plan, which would have driven up U.S. costs, protracted the endeavor, and potentially sapped U.S. perseverance.
Concentrate rather than disperse resources. Just as Japanese officials seemed incapable of restricting themselves to one war at a time, they seemed incapable of limiting the number of active operations and combat theaters. Look no further than Japanese actions in 1942. IJN task forces struck into the Indian Ocean, inflicting a Pearl Harbor on the British Eastern Fleet off Ceylon. They saw the need to shore up the northern flank at the Battle of Midway by assaulting the remote Aleutian Islands. And they extended the empire's outer defense perimeter -- and assumed vast new waterspace to defend -- by opening a secondary theater in the Solomon Islands, in a vain effort to interrupt sea routes connecting North America with Australia. It's incumbent on the weaker combatant to ask itself whether the gains from secondary enterprises are exceptional, and what it risks in the most important theaters, before undertaking new adventures. Japan, which had fewer resources to spare, raised the costs to itself -- more than the United States -- through its strategic indiscipline.
Wage unrestricted submarine warfare. Inexplicably, the IJN neglected to do what the U.S. Pacific Fleet set in motion while Battleship Row was still afire: unleash its submarine force to sink any ship, naval or merchant, that flew an enemy flag. By 1945, American boats dismembered the island empire by severing the shipping lanes connecting its parts. Japanese submarines were the equals of their U.S. Navy counterparts. IJN commanders should have looked at the nautical chart, grasped the fact that U.S. naval forces must operate across thousands of miles of ocean simply to reach the Western Pacific, and directed sub skippers to make the transpacific sea lanes no-go zones for American shipping. It's hard to imagine a more straightforward, cost-effective scheme whereby Japan's navy could exact a heavy toll from its opponent. Neglecting undersea warfare was an operational transgression of the first order.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.