Admiral Yamamoto, aircraft carriers, battleships, CRT, Japan, Musashi, naval gunnery, Nazi Germany, Pearl Harbor, victor davis hanson
Tuesday, December 7, 2021 is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pear Harbor, Hawaii. Like so much of our history, so little is remembered about that attack, and so much of what is remembered is, at least in part, wrong. With Critical Race Theory—Marxist, anti-American propaganda—replacing actual history, it’s important to get the truth where and where we can. Perhaps we can provide guidance for the upcoming generation.
Invaluable historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson does yeoman service in his December 7th American Greatness article. I’ll provide excerpts and a bit of commentary, but by all means, gentle readers, take the link and read the whole thing.
Most Americans once were mostly in agreement about what happened on December 7, 1941, 80 years ago this year. But not so much now, given either the neglect of America’s past in the schools or woke revisionism at odds with the truth.
The Pacific war that followed Pearl Harbor was not a result of America egging on the Japanese, not about starting a race war, and not about much other than a confident and cruel Japanese empire falsely assuming that its stronger American rival either would not or could not stop its transoceanic ambitions.
Far too many don’t realize just how arrogant and cruel the Japanese of 1941 were. Absolutely certain of their own racial superiority and invincibility, they eventually forced us to use two atomic bombs to end the war in the Pacific.
On an early Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a tactically successful, but strategically imbecilic, surprise attack on the U.S. 7th Fleet—while at peace and without a declaration of war. The assault—synchronized with subsequent bombing and invasions of the Philippines and British-controlled Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and some Pacific Islands—did not just ensure an existential Pacific theater war between Japan and America. It also prompted the entry of the United States on December 11 into the European theater of World War II, after both Italy and Nazi Germany first declared war on America. Had the latter not done so, it is arguable that the United States would have instead concentrated on Japan alone and might have knocked it out of the war even earlier.
This is classic Hanson: direct, to the point and unassailably accurate.
Revisionists often cite conspiracy theories that the Roosevelt Administration lured Japan into the war by previously limiting oil exports to Tokyo (a mere five months before Pearl Harbor) or by foolishly moving the 7th Fleet from San Diego to a deliberately exposed and not so well defended Pearl Harbor.
Such contrarian views fail to persuade because the one-sided source of tensions had been clear to all for a decade. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. It resumed its war with China by invading the mainland in 1937. In September 1940, it absorbed French colonial Indochina. The idea of a Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was informally circulating by 1940, as a blueprint of consolidation of the planned Japanese imperial wartime acquisitions of China, and the former British, American, French, and Dutch colonial territories.
The mercantile system was envisioned as a sort of Asian version of a would-be Napoleonic Europe but based on the supposed racial superiority of Japan and the propagandistic and cynical notion that even harsher Japanese imperialism would be less resented by Asians in the Pacific than then current nation-building colonialism of Western powers. Such crude propaganda was never taken too seriously outside of Tokyo, given the Japanese mass civilian killings of conquered Asians in Nanking, China and the massacres that followed from the takeover of Singapore.
As I fear we’re about to learn again—they that will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it—weakness invites attack.
In more realist terms, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor because it could. Its fleet was larger than the American Pacific 7th fleet (though not by any means the entire U.S. Navy). And in many categories of fighter aircraft, torpedoes, and ships, the Japanese Imperial Navy in late 1941 was temporarily superior to that of the Americans.
The United States had further lost deterrence in Japanese eyes because it did nothing when its chief allies Britain and France were attacked by Nazi Germany in 1940, the former bombed in autumn 1940 and spring 1941, the latter conquered in seven weeks by the Wehrmacht in May 1940.
Sadly, we may no longer have this capacity:
Tokyo had no real appreciation that the United States was already building a second fleet of modern carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines that would soon make the American navy larger than all the world’s fleets combined. Indeed, the Americans would launch over 145 aircraft carriers, including over 20 Essex fleet carriers, the most advanced in the world.
Tokyo had no inkling that the anemic Depression-era American economy was capable of rapid expansionary growth. More specifically, the American gross natural product by late 1944 would outpace all five economies of the major combatants—Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—combined.
And now we stand on the brink of losing that economic and military strength and superiority.
As far as the December 7 surprise attack itself, it is best seen as the worst of both worlds—conducted expertly enough to ensure damage and thus incur American furor, but not so much as to cripple America’s war-making ability or to frighten the American public into submission.
This is particularly insightful:
Again, if tactically brilliant, the Pearl Harbor attack strategically would prove a colossal disaster for Japan. It failed even to shut down the port at Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese fleet vetoed ideas of critically needed third and fourth air strikes—necessary to destroy U.S. oil storage and repair shops in the Pacific harbor facilities. Within days, Pearl Harbor was receiving 7th Fleet shipping.
More disastrously for the Japanese, the Pacific fleet’s three American aircraft carriers based at Pearl—Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga—were out to sea on December 7 and therefore safe. Lexington’s dive bombers would soon help sink a Japanese carrier and damage others just six months later at the Battle of Coral Sea, before itself being lost at the battle. Both Enterprise and Saratoga would fight in several key Pacific battles and survive the war.
As far as the relatively old and slow American battleships of Battleship Row (most were built well before 1920), had their captains received advanced word of the Japanese approach and steamed out to meet the attackers without air cover, American fatalities might have been 10 times higher—given all eight battleships likely would have been sunk on the high seas well before reaching the Japanese fleet.
Even if it was not immediately understood, the Pacific war quickly taught an essential lesson: the days of the Battleship, and naval gunnery, as the decisive force in naval combat, were over. The wave of the future—the immediate future—was the aircraft carrier.
The largest, most heavily armored and most powerful battleship the Japanese ever built was the Musashi. On October 24, 1944, the Musashi was attacked by about 260 aircraft from four US carriers. After sustaining 19 torpedo hits and at least 17 bomb hits, the battleship sank, having never used its guns in combat against enemy ships.
Several American battleships survived the war, but were mothballed, though several were reactivated during the Vietnam War and for a time thereafter, but they too were never again used for the purpose for which they were designed: ship to ship combat.
Here’s a correction of another common misunderstanding:
Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, is often romantically portrayed as a mythical almost reluctant warrior who supposedly all along knew that he would awaken a sleeping giant by the attack. Thus, he accepted the reality that he could only run wild for six months before he was overwhelmed by American industry, technology, and righteous furor. In this historically incomplete view, the taciturn Yamamoto was a tragic hero ordered to find some impossible strategy of defeating a much larger and stronger United States.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yamamoto himself agitated for the surprise Pearl Harbor attack. And he even threatened to resign if a skeptical General Tojo and Emperor Hirohito did not grant him a blank check to bomb the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Hawaii, a diversion of resources many in the Japanese military felt was unjustified, especially with the ongoing and increasingly expensive quagmire in China.
Yamamoto successfully argued that while the Japanese army lacked the firepower, armor, and mobility of Western land-based forces, Tokyo’s imperial air and naval power had already achieved parity—both in the quality of their arms and numbers of ships, planes, sailors and airmen.
And in the case of 1941-era arms, Japan was often superior to both the Americans and British—at least if it struck quickly before the two Western powers were fully rearmed. Or so Yamamoto believed in arguing his victory would discourage the ensuing demoralized Americans from challenging a new vast Japanese Pacific empire. Supposedly Washington would sue for a truce, recognizing Japanese prior colonial acquisitions.
There’s a lesson here for us, circa 2021:
In sum, it was largely Yamamoto’s enormous ego, his tactical genius, and his strategic ineptitude, along with Japanese hubris, that explain the strategic idiocy of a brilliant but short-lived victory at Pearl Harbor. But to be fair, no student of military preparedness, economic resources, or social organization could have ever believed that a relatively vulnerable and isolationist United States, still reeling from recurring cycles of depression, in less than four years would have fought simultaneously across the Pacific and Europe with a 12 million person military, the largest economy in history, and the world’s most formidable weapons such Essex class fleet carriers, Balao submarines, B-29 long-range bombers, Hellcat and Mustang fighters and the world’s first atomic bombs.
All that was unleashed some 80 years ago this December—once a sophisticated Japanese Empire foolishly attacked the United States at peace.
We may soon find out if it remains foolish to attack the United States at peace. May we be no less the land of the free and the home of brave than we were in 1941.
Phil Strawn said:
My father had been at Pearl just a week when it was hit; coming from boot camp in San Diego CA. He wasn’t stationed on a ship as of yet but lived in a Quonset hut on the base. He stayed on in Honolulu after the war and had a few businesses. He also was the founder and editor of the Pearl City News, which he started during the war. If he had not come back to Texas in 1947, I wouldn’t be here writing this. Our second Pearl Harbor still came from Asia, via Wuhan China and we didn’t do a damn thing about it.
Mike, Amen! And if someone is foolish enough to attack us under our temporary president Biden and his congress, I believe they will find out just how quickly we will change things and come after their sorry asses.
You mean like our “decisive” and “victorious” response to having been attacked on 9/11.. a true “Pearl Harbor” metaphor?
Then there’s the Russian invasion of Ukraine that’s threatening to have another round.
China’s belligerence over Taiwan.
We are in a far different world than the complacent post-WW2 Depression years.
No… the “new” Pearl Harbor will come from the cyber world… and could equally come from “terrorists” in some garage (where most tech advances are started) or a nation state. It won’t be some idiotic “Red Dawn” scenario where you all get an excuse to use your guns.
Yes, Doug. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was all about the 2nd Amendment.
And here I thought it was all about… “Critical Race Theory—Marxist, anti-American propaganda—replacing actual history”.
Very well done Mike. One small correction. The IJN ship pictured is either Nagato or Mutsu, not Mushashi.
My moms oldest brother was in the Navy. He was a plank owner of the deck crew of USS Hornet, CV-8. He watched Doolittle take off and Torpedo 8 at Midway and not come back. He survived the sinking and served in sub chasers till the end of the war.
My dad’s oldest brother was a lieutenant in the divisional engineer battalion of the 104th Infantry Division “Timberwolves”. They were the first division to enter France through a port, Cherbourg. Before that all had come to the UK first.
VDH is a national treasure and always worth the time to read.
Phil Strawn said:
Good article Mike. One other thing to add. In 1980 my parents went to Hawaii for a vacation, and for my father to visit his old base. A young sailor at the gate wouldn’t let them in until my father told him he was stationed there during the war. The guard let them in for a quick visit to his old barracks etc. Visiting the USS Arizona, my parents were shocked at the number of Japanese tourist present at the memorial. As you would expect, Dad started visiting with other men and vets his age that had been in the attack. The memorial was the main place to visit if you had served. Most were American, but he spoke to a few older Japanese men also. One in particular said he was not a pilot during the attack, but was on a carrier that the planes came from. The man, much older than Dad, said he came here out of respect for the Americans that died during the attack, not to gloat.
One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to take the view that the US (FDR specifically) wished to go to war. One only has to look to the letters between Churchill and FDR to acknowledge that reality. The US sanctioning Japan, embargoing goods and oil, freezing Japanese assets, and then deploying our own military pilots and American planes in the form of the flying Tigers to China to fight the Japanese did precisely what FDR hoped it would – encouraged the Japanese to attack a nation that had declared themselves an opponent but was clearly too stupid and weak to actually prepare for war except by proxy. We had “economic interests” that meant we had to oppose the Japanese manifest destiny.
Re: Yamamoto, his personal inclination (along with that of the IJN) was towards gunboat diplomacy and avoiding open warfare with the US. The faction that wished war with the US was the IJA, which had risen in prominence and influence and were behind the landwar in China, and were also behind the plans for forcible military expansion in SE Asia. When the Japanese ruling council decided to go to war, Yamamoto’s plan wasn’t even on the table. He agitated for an attack on Pearl Harbor precisely because it would be the most effective, crippling attack possible. Half hearted opening attacks on US bases in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific would tactically accomplish little while opening hostilities in earnest. If war was inevitable, Yamamoto wished for his country to be in the best position possible, which meant an effective first strike. He was personally opposed to attacking the US. As he wrote to one Japanese ultranationalist, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”
I normally enjoy VDH’s stuff, but this was not well written. Yamamoto was not even slightly as VDH is portraying him, and I despise revisionist history, regardless of it’s source.
On another note, It has circulated the internet, but perhaps not here. America has never changed Presidents during wartime. The Deep State and the Democrats will readily go to war if it means maintaining their grip on power.
Correct on VDH. So now we get to argue which “revisionist” history is true or not. Same old divisive debate.
The there’s this…. “logic”…
“The Deep State and the Democrats will readily go to war if it means maintaining their grip on power.”
Back to the land of Oz.
I mean I could change that to “politicians will readily go to war if it means maintaining their grip on power” and it doesn’t really change anything. Democrats made similar observations around the time of the invasion of Iraq. War is a racket, the Democrats and the Republican establishment have both lined their pockets in the various wars/nation building escapades the US has engaged in, and if it keeps your side in power AND allows you to profit then why on earth wouldn’t you?
Really I’m looking for an explanation for why the Democrats (historically chummy with the CCP) are suddenly pretending to care about human rights violations, refusing to send a US delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics, as well as exhibiting a general cooling of relations with Xi’s regime through various sanctions and blacklisting of chicom corporate entities.
The other Phil said:
Regarding FDR provoking the attack in order to get into the war in Europe, it was mentioned in the post that had Germany not declared war on the US, there’s a very good chance that the US would have focused solely on Japan.
You raise an interesting point, ‘the other Phil.’
As long as one doesn’t recall that FDR had already been arming Britain for a year prior to Pearl Harbor
The other Phil said:
I simply fail to see how FDR provoking Japan helps Britain or Russia. Had Germany not declared war on the US, as I said, it’s highly likely that the US would have focused on solely on Japan.
Russia and Japan had a tentative peace, and 2/3 of Japan’s army was tied up in China. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with Russia.
The US failures leading up to Pearl Harbor are most easily explained by arrogance. MacArthur’s dismissive attitude toward the Asians was still clouding his decision making when the Chinese handed him his a$$ in North Korea in 1950-1.
Here’s a 3 min blurb about Pearl Harbor and comparing our current divide. Some interesting tidbits.
In general, I am suspicious of conspiracy theory based/alternative history narratives.
On the other hand, here I go.
I think the truth about FDR was that he was far more “red” inside than he ever let on. I think a primary motivation of his during the war period was help the USSR to survive. Remember, the USSR looked like it was on the ropes for the 5-6 months between the German invasion and the Pearl Harbor attack and it was during this time that he pushed hard on every kind of sanction including the oil embargo – which he had to have understood to be a virtual existential threat to Japan.
I do not think he was messing with Japan to get the US into a war with Germany (although he very much wanted that). That would take Hitler declaring war on the USA,
which was a bit of a non sequitor regarding what Japan might do in the Pacific ocean.
Stalin had good human spy info that Japan did not intend to engage the USSR in the East, but Stalin kept that totally to himself, for all kinds of reasons. FDR likely at least suspected the opposite. And remember, Japan was explicitly allied with the Nazis and the far eastern part of the USSR was very rich in resources. If Japan had attacked while Soviet forces were in such desperate straits it is hard to see how Stalin would have stripped the East of nearly all its troops, etc. and sent them 5,000 mile to the west to stop the Germans in front of Moscow – which is exactly what happened.
I am not saying that FDR had fore-knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. I believe he had a general notion that something was to going to happen somewhere in the East that would light off a war with Japan, and I think he was good with that because, in his mind, it would help the USSR to survive.