To show offRobert E. Lee lent a handwhen transmittingAK-47s in 1864. What would American history have been like? Different than you think.
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Historians frownalternative history, and often for good reason. Change too many variables and you will quickly fall into fiction. The chain connecting cause and effect becomes too diffuse to follow, and the story loses all power to teach it. Changing an important variable, particularly in an imaginative way, for example, postulating that the Confederates took up arms with machine guns against the army of Ulysses S. Grantjungle battle– and the same fate befalls you. A good narrative can teach little.
What would happen if Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor? Well, that is a question that we can ask ourselves without falling into historical scruples. As long as we refrain from hittingNuclear powered aircraft carrier with Tomcat fightersat least in our considerations.
If we study the strategy, we havegenerally assumesa self-disciplined form of ancient history. In fact, ourCoursesin Newport and related educational institutions address this. This is how we learn about historical figures and events. Military scholar Carl von Clausewitz recommends, or rather requires, that students of strategy take this approach. Rigor, not fantasy, is the standard that guides efforts in Clausewitz's "critical analysis." Strategists criticize a commander's course of action and suggest alternatives that may have more advanced operational and strategic goals.
Discussing strategy and operations in hindsight is how we get into the habit of thinking critically about business today. According to Clausewitz, critical analysis is “not only an evaluation of the means actually used, but of all possible means, which must first be formulated, that is, invented. After all, you can't condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative." Thus, the Prussian wise man rejected the field marshal on the morning of this Monday.
This requires intellectual self-discipline. “Whether the critic wants to dole out praise or criticism,” Clausewitz concludes, “he must certainly try to put himself in the place of the commander; in other words, he must gather everything that the commander knew and all the reasons that influenced his decision, and ignore everything that he could not or could not have known, especially the outcome”. The critics know this, as if an afterthought worked. You must stick to what a commander actually knew to design a realistic alternative.
It doesn't take much imagination to come up with alternative strategies for Imperial Japan. In fact, the eminent Japanese themselves have raised alternatives. My favorite: The Naval High Command should have kept their pre-1941 manual. The carrier attack on Pearl Harbor was a setback in Japanese naval strategy and the work of one man, Alm. Isoroku Yamamoto. If Yamamoto had refused to push for an attack on Hawaii, or if the high command had refused his pleas, the Imperial Japanese Navy would have implemented its longstanding strategy."interception operations.“
In other words, it would have driven US forces out of the Philippines, captured and built airfields on Pacific islands, and used air and submarine strikes to reduce the US Pacific Fleet westward in support of the Philippines. The interceptions would have ended in a naval battle somewhere in the western Pacific. Japan would have been more likely to succeed if it had. Her navy would still have attacked the American continent to open the war, but it would have done so in a far less provocative manner. In all likelihood, the American response would have been calmer and more manageable for Japan.
Yamamoto's Hollywood version sums up the outcome of Pearl Harbor well,prophesynoTorah, Torah, Torah!that "we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled it with terrible determination." That is a rich, and more Clausewitzian, way of saying it. Clausewitz defines a fighter's strength as the product of skill and willpower. Yamamoto alludes to America's vast industrial and natural resources, portraying it as a lurking giant. He also predicts that the attack on Battleship Row will infuriate this giant and cause it to mobilize these resources en masse to crush Japan.
The attack on the Philippines may have woken the sleeping giant, but it is doubtful that it left him in such a ruthless frame of mind. He would have been stunned. Here it is Clausewitz again: The "value of the political object" governs the "magnitude" and "duration" of the effort a belligerent makes to acquire that political object. How much a belligerent desires his political objectives, that is, determines how many resources (lives, national treasures, military equipment) he invests in a company and how long it sustains the investment.
He pays a heavy price for the targets he covets. Lower goals justify lower spending.
The Philippine Islands formed a minor target. The archipelago formed US territory after it was annexed after the Spanish-American War of 1898. But the islands also lie on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles off the US coast. And they have been absent since the days when imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt made headlines.publicly disputedwith anti-imperialists like Mark Twain on the wisdom of annexation. On December 7, Americans reportedly had to consult their atlases to find out where Pearl Harbor was located. The Philippines has barely registered in the popular consciousness, period.
Retaking the Philippines, then, would have been a political objective of mediocre value at best, especially when full-scale war broke out in Europe and adjacent waters, drawing in an America that had been Eurocentric from the start. Most likely, the US effort in the Pacific would have remained completely on the defensive. The US leadership would have concentrated resources and war energy in the Atlantic theater:To keep in action and spirit his pre-war promise to the Allied leaders..
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In short, bypassing the Hawaiian Islands would have saved Japan a world of damage, just as Admiral Yamamoto had predicted. Patience would have given Tokyo time to consolidate its gains in the western Pacific and perhaps allow Japan's navy and army to defend those gains against the tepid, belated American counteroffensive that was likely to follow.
Now let's give Yamamoto his part as maritime tactician. His strategy was neither reckless nor stupid. Japanese sailors were avid readers of the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the pursuit of the enemy fleet represents sound Mahanian doctrine. Crush the enemy fleet and you will get "Naval Domination". Get naval command and disputed real estate attached to the vine that you can harvest later.
Foto: Creative Commons.
And indeed, for the Imperial Japanese Navy, Mahanian's approach paid off, for a while. Japanese warriors went berserk for six months after Pearl Harbor, conquering conquest after conquest. But a vengeful giant can regenerate his power given enough time. As Yamamoto himself predicted, Japan would have "no chance of success" if the war lasted more than six months or a year.
Doing less, or doing nothing at all, is always a sensible strategic choice. Doing nothing was an option that Japan should have exercised rather than attack Pearl Harbor. That is the lesson of alternate history.
The USS West Virginia battleship sank and burned at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The USS Tennessee battleship can be seen in the background.
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. USS California (BB 44) after the attack. Official US Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. (9/9/2015).
Pearl Harbor 2. Crédito: Creative Commons.
james holmesis the first holder of the J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy in the USA. Naval War College.