The Buzz

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

And third, let’s not expect prospective foes to be as reckless as Imperial Japan. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a diplomat who was forever on the go: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Sometimes inaction—or less ambitious action—represents the wisest strategy. Sometimes old methods are best. Never miss a chance to do nothing.

China, unlike Japan, appears content to build up naval and air power along its periphery in hopes of rewriting the rules of the Asian order—the liberal order of seagoing trade and commerce over which America has presided since Japan’s downfall in 1945. While sometimes bellicose and always assertive, Beijing does not appear eager to pick a fight. It doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to fulfill its maritime destiny.

In short, this is a rival who seems to have learned from Yamamoto: don’t jab a sleeping giant, and if you do, don’t steel his resolve. Let him slumber until it’s late in the contest, and you may prevail. China may have learned the true lessons of Pearl Harbor. Let’s do the same—and get ready. If we do, those who fell here seventy-five years ago will have rendered good service once again.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and a recent recipient of the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Medal. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: USS Arizona burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

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