The Buzz

What If Japan Had Never Attacked Pearl Harbor?

Suppose Robert E. Lee had laid hands on a shipment of AK-47s in 1864. How would American history have unfolded? Differently than it did, one imagines.

Historians frown on alt-history, and oftentimes for good reason. Change too many variables, and you veer speedily into fiction. The chain connecting cause to effect gets too diffuse to trace, and history loses all power to instruct. Change a major variable, especially in a fanciful way—for instance, positing that machine-gun-toting Confederates took the field against Ulysses S. Grant’s army at the Battle of the Wilderness—and the same fate befalls you. Good storytelling may teach little.

What if Japan had never attacked Pearl Harbor? Now that’s a question we can take on without running afoul of historical scruples. As long as we refrain from inserting nuclear-powered aircraft carriers sporting Tomcat fighters into our deliberations, at any rate.

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When studying strategy, we commonly undertake a self-disciplined form of alt-history. Indeed, our courses in Newport and kindred educational institutes revolve around it. That’s how we learn from historical figures and events. Military sage Carl von Clausewitz recommends—nay, demands—that students of strategy take this approach. Rigor, not whimsy, is the standard that guides ventures in Clausewitzian “critical analysis.” Strategists critique the course of action a commander followed while proposing alternatives that may have better advanced operational and strategic goals.

Debating strategy and operations in hindsight is how we form the habit of thinking critically about present-day enterprises. Critical analysis, maintains Clausewitz, is “not just an evaluation of the means actually employed, but of all possible means—which first have to be formulated, that is, invented. One can, after all, not condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative.” The Prussian sage, then, scorns Monday-morning quarterbacking.

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That demands intellectual self-discipline. “If the critic wishes to distribute praise or blame,” concludes Clausewitz, “he must certainly try to put himself exactly in the position of the commander; in other words, he must assemble everything the commander knew and all the motives that affected his decision, and ignore all that he could not or did not know, especially the outcome.” Critics know how a course of action worked out in retrospect. They must restrict themselves to what a commander actually knew in order to project some realistic alternative.

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It doesn’t take too much imagination to postulate alternative strategies for Imperial Japan. Indeed, eminent Japanese have themselves postulated alternatives. My favorite: the high naval command should have stuck to its pre-1941 playbook. The Pearl Harbor carrier raid was a latecomer to Japanese naval strategy, and it was the handiwork of one man, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Had Yamamoto declined to press the case for a Hawaiian strike, or had the high command rebuffed his entreaties, the Imperial Japanese Navy would have executed its longstanding strategy of “interceptive operations.”

In other words, it would have evicted U.S. forces from the Philippine Islands, seized Pacific islands and built airfields there, and employed air and submarine attacks to cut the U.S. Pacific Fleet down to size on its westward voyage to the Philippines’ relief. Interceptive operations would have culminated in a fleet battle somewhere in the Western Pacific. Japan would have stood a better chance of success had it done so. Its navy still would have struck American territory to open the war, but it would have done so in far less provocative fashion. In all likelihood, the American reaction would have proved more muted—and more manageable for Japan.