The Buzz

Pearl Harbor: Why Japan Attacked (And Why It Was Such a Big Mistake)

No democratic leader—not even one boasting the rhetorical gifts of a Franklin Roosevelt—can wage war for long without fervent backing from the people. Absent the public fury that followed Pearl Harbor, chances are only a modest U.S. counteroffensive would have lumbered across the Pacific. Halfheartedness would have worked to Japan’s benefit—limiting the naval and amphibious challenge it had to contend with starting by late 1942.

Attacking Pearl Harbor stoked popular desire for vengeance. That passion—that terrible resolve—fueled the twin counteroffensives commanded by Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Tokyo may have had to awaken the sleeping giant to accomplish its goals in the Pacific—but it could have avoided filling him with rage and spite. It could have spared itself an all-out American onslaught.

Japanese war planners had long assumed the U.S. counteroffensive would remain limited in scope. They assumed Japanese forces would evict America from the Philippine Islands, and they assumed, rightly, that the U.S. Pacific Fleet planned to steam to the Philippines’ relief. They also knew the U.S. Pacific Fleet was stronger than their Combined Fleet—and thus had to be cut down to size for Japan’s navy to win.

Thus they embraced a doctrine they called “interceptive operations,” whereby aircraft and submarines stationed in the outer Pacific islands would pepper the U.S. battle fleet with small-scale attacks on its westward voyage. If successful, they would wear down the Americans before they even reached the fighting theater. An apocalyptic sea battle—a reprise of the victories over China’s and Russia’s navies decades before—would settle matters somewhere in Western Pacific waters.

Japan’s navy believed it stood a chance in action against a U.S. fleet enfeebled by attacks from the depths and aloft—and it was right. It is really, really hard to overcome a resolute antagonist on his own home ground, even if that antagonist is outmatched in terms of ships, planes and manpower. The Imperial Japanese Navy might deprive the U.S. Navy of the war-making implements on which it depended, as the strategy of interceptive operations envisioned. Or, in the best case from Tokyo’s standpoint, the price tag of entry into the Western Pacific might soar above the price America was willing to pay.

If so, the United States might do the rational thing. They might shrug at the loss of the Philippines. They might write off the Western Pacific—ceding it to Japan by default. Tokyo would win without hazarding a pitched fleet battle.

So the Pearl Harbor raid was fatally flawed as strategy. Japanese leaders could have gotten part or all of what they wanted by foregoing the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese leadership bartered away long-term strategic success for momentary gain. Attacking Battleship Row constituted “self-defeating behavior” of colossal proportions for the island empire.

And yet they did it anyway. Why?

Part of the reason comes from Japanese leaders’ reading of their own maritime history. Contending historical memories gripped different segments of opinion within the Japanese navy. Japan struck first—and before it declared war—to open the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. While the torpedo raid against the Russian fleet at Port Arthur did little permanent physical damage, it did far-reaching psychological damage. From then on, Russian commanders sheltered timidly under the guns of Port Arthur. And when they did venture out, they got pummeled by Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s Combined Fleet. Port Arthur made an appealing precedent for Pearl Harbor. A preemptive attack might intimidate American commanders the way it had Russians in 1904.

And then there was the Battle of Tsushima Strait, the climactic sea fight of the Russo-Japanese War and the bookend to Port Arthur. Having lost the Russian Pacific Squadron to Tōgō in August 1904, the czar ordered the Baltic Fleet to steam to the Far East. Because Britain denied the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, it was forced to circumnavigate Africa, transit the Indian Ocean and make its way into the China seas. That added up to a journey of eighteen thousand miles without significant repairs or maintenance. Tōgō awaited the Russians at Tsushima, the narrow sea separating Japan from Korea—and made short work of the czar’s dilapidated force.

In a sense, then, Japanese strategists were debating between the Tsushima and Port Arthur precedents as they shaped strategy against the United States. The Tsushima model gave rise to interceptive operations, while Yamamoto—a veteran of Tsushima—prevailed on the leadership to shift to the Port Arthur template in early 1941. The blow fell on Hawaii that December. We know it didn’t have the same impact the Port Arthur attack had.

But even if the strike was ill advised, Japan could have wrung value out of it. Let’s look at the tactics the Imperial Japanese Navy deployed on December 7. There are certain obvious differences between raiding Port Arthur, across the Yellow Sea from Japan on the Chinese coast, and raiding Pearl Harbor thousands of miles to the east. For one, Tōgō’s fleet could strike at the Russians, then stay to blockade them in port. It had Japanese seaports nearby to sustain the effort. Nagumo’s fleet, by contrast, had too little fuel and too few supplies to linger in the Hawaiian Islands’ vicinity for long—following up on its success. It had outrun its logistics—and then some.