Five Ways Japan Could Have Won World War II

"Japan could never have crushed U.S. maritime forces in the Pacific and imposed terms on Washington. That doesn't mean it couldn't have won World War II."

Editor's Note: Please see our other "Five Ways" articles including: Five Ways D-Day Could Have Been  a Disaster and Five Ways a Nuclear War Could Still Happen

Let's face it. Imperial Japan stood next to no chance of winning a fight to the finish against the United States. Resolve and resources explain why. So long as Americans kept their dander up, demanding that their leaders press on to complete victory, Washington had a mandate to convert the republic's immense industrial potential into a virtually unstoppable armada of ships, aircraft, and armaments. Such a physical mismatch was simply too much for island state Japan -- with an economy about one-tenth the size of America's -- to surmount.

Quantity has a quality all its own. No amount of willpower or martial virtuosity can overcome too lopsided a disparity in numbers. Tokyo stared that plight in the face following Pearl Harbor.

So Japan could never have crushed U.S. maritime forces in the Pacific and imposed terms on Washington. That doesn't mean it couldn't have won World War II. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? But the weak sometimes win. As strategic sage Carl von Clausewitz recounts, history furnishes numerous instances when the weak got their way. Indeed, Clausewitz notes that it sometimes makes sense for the lesser contender to start a fight. If its leadership sees force as the only resort, and if the trendlines look unfavorable -- in other words, if right now is as good as it gets -- then why not act?

There are three basic ways to win wars according to the great Carl. One, you can trounce the enemy's armed forces and dictate whatever terms you please. Short of that, two, you can levy a heavier price from the enemy than he's willing to pay to achieve his goals. The value a belligerent assigns his political objectives determines how many resources he's prepared to expend on those objectives' behalf, and for how long. Taking measures that compel an opponent to expend more lives, armaments, or treasure is one way to raise the price. Dragging out the affair so that he pays heavy costs over time is another. And three, you can dishearten him, persuading him he's unlikely to fulfill his war aims.

A disconsolate adversary, or one who balks at the costs of war, is a pliant adversary. He cuts the best deal he can to exit the imbroglio.

If a military triumph lay beyond Tokyo's reach, the second two methods remained available in the Pacific. Japanese commanders could have husbanded resources, narrowing the force mismatch between the warring sides. They could have made the conflict more costly, painful, and prolonged for America, undercutting its resolve. Or, alternatively, they could have avoided rousing American fury to wage total war in the first place. By foregoing a strike at Hawaii, they could have enfeebled the opponent's resolve or, perhaps, sidelined the opponent entirely.

Bottom line, no likely masterstroke -- no single stratagem or killing blow -- would have defeated the United States. Rather, Japanese commanders should have thought and acted less tactically and more strategically. In so doing they would have improved Japan's chances.

Which brings us to Five Ways Japan Could Have Won. Now, the items catalogued below are far from mutually exclusive. The Japanese leadership would have boosted its prospects had it embraced them all. And granted, enacting some of these measures would have demanded preternaturally farseeing leadership. Foresight was a virtue of which Japan's vacillating emperor and squabbling military rulers were woefully short. Whether it was plausible for them to act wisely is open to debate. With these caveats out of the way, onward!

-       Wage one war at a time. Conserving enemies is a must even for the strongest combatants. It's imperative for small states with big ambitions to avoid making war against everyone in sight. Imposing discipline on the war was particularly hard for Japan, whose political system -- patterned on Imperial Germany's, alas -- was stovepiped between the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy (IJA and IJN), with no meaningful civilian political oversight. Absent a strong emperor, the army and navy were free to indulge their interservice one-upsmanship, jostling for influence and prestige. The IJA cast its gaze on continental Asia, where a land campaign in Manchuria, then China proper, beckoned. The IJN pushed for a maritime campaign aimed at resources in Southeast Asia. By yielding to these contrary impulses between 1931 and 1941, Japan in effect surrounded itself with enemies of its own accord -- invading Manchuria and China before lashing out at the imperial powers in Southeast Asia and, ultimately, striking at Pearl Harbor. Any tactician worth his salt will tell you a 360-degree threat axis -- threats all around -- makes for perilous times. Tokyo should have set priorities. It might have accomplished some of its goals had it taken things in sequence.

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