The Buzz

5 Ways Japan Might Have Won World War II

-       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 Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

This first appeared in 2014.