Key point: From a strategic perspective, attacking Pearl Harbor was a bad idea.
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, strike leader for Operation Hawaii and 20-year veteran of the Imperial Japanese Navy (Kaigun), strapped himself into the observer’s seat as his Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo bomber, piloted by Lieutenant Mitsuo Matsuzaki, and lifted off from the carrier Akagi on the black morning of December 7, 1941.
The top secret mission, he had been told, was to strike a crippling blow at the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, with the aim of gaining concessions from the United States and ensuring that America would not go to war with Japan.
There was not even a ghost of a dawn at approximately 6 am, but Fuchida and Matsuzaki gained altitude and circled in wait for the launching of the rest of the attack force of the 1st Combined Air Fleet (Kido Butai). Down below in the darkness, all six of Japan’s fleet carriers—the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku—were grouped 200 miles north of Hawaii.
The attack force included Val dive bombers, Kate level bombers, and Kate torpedo aircraft—all escorted by feared Zero fighters. As Fuchida watched and waited for his strike force to assemble in the air, his thoughts no doubt centered on the details of the coming attack and its prospects for success, and probably did not extend back to the decades of misunderstandings and miscalculations that had led to this fateful moment. It is worthwhile, however, to consider them here.
The history was a long one, extending back to the Meiji Restoration of the emperor beginning in 1868; the victory over the Russians at Tsushima in 1905; and more recently the bitter struggle between his commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and the Fleet Command Staff over the Pearl Harbor attack strategy.
Fuchida remembered the time he was present when the drunken Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, a Princeton University graduate and commander of the 2nd Carrier Division, physically attacked Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Kido Butai, for not including his division in the original plans for the attack force. Today would settle all arguments.
For more than 70 years, most people in the United States have regarded the December 7, 1941, attack on American military facilities at Pearl Harbor as a “sneak” attack, totally unprovoked and unwarranted—a completely incorrect view. A detailed analysis of the events that led up to the attack and America’s subsequent entry into World War II is important—even absolutely necessary—for understanding why the Japanese did what they did.
Mahan’s Decisive Battle Doctrine at Tsushima
It began in 1905 with the crushing Japanese naval victory over the Russians at Tsushima that paved the way for the development of a rigid naval doctrine that survived until World War II. Other critical elements were added, with the U.S. naval expert Alfred Thayer Mahan ironically becoming the center of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) doctrine.
Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and Naval Academy professor, was arguably the most influential naval thinker prior to World War I. His approach to naval warfare, with its emphasis on decisive battle fueled a large portion of the naval arms race up to and after the Great War. He was accepted and followed in the U.S. and Europe, but nowhere was he so closely followed and respected as in Japan. Indeed, worshipped is not too far from the mark.
Mahan’s doctrine was a mixture of naval dominance of the seas coupled with commercial expansion. His elements of sea power included geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, national character, and character of government. These generalized characteristics were supported by a view of naval combat as offensive, concentrated, navy-to-navy as opposed to commerce raiding, and supported by production and colonies.
The naval aspect of the Russo-Japanese War was critical to IJN doctrinal development for two primary reasons. First, the Japanese defeat of a Western power was important in the eyes of Japan and the world as a harbinger of a new age.
Second, the almost “miraculous” win at Tsushima not only fulfilled Japanese cultural expectations of divine help but supported the Mahanian concept of a single, decisive battle (Kantai Kessen). Additionally, the famous British naval theoretician Julian Corbett inadvertently added to this fixation when he declared, “Tsushima was the most decisive and complete naval victory in history.” The Japanese cemented the battle and its “lessons” into a rigid doctrine, and Mahan and Corbett’s analyses provided the very tenuous foundation upon which rested the balance of Japanese naval thought for the next 40 years.
The doctrine was summarized by David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie in their insightful Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941: “The concept of the decisive fleet engagement determined by big guns; the validity of a strategy of attrition against a numerically superior enemy; the preference for quality over quantity in naval weaponry; and the importance of nighttime torpedo tactics.”
The marriage of doctrine and experience was fully developed by the victory at Tsushima. The Japanese Navy did not widely explore other approaches to naval strategy after this but only continued the development of doctrine based on these principles. Little of material value was gained from their World War I experience, and generally elements that did not fit the preconceived doctrine were discarded, including commerce raiding and submarine warfare.
Only the 1916 Battle of Jutland was examined in great detail as the “decisive battle” of the naval war between Imperial Germany and the British Royal Navy. The lessons drawn were therefore aligned with their preconceptions.
A subtle but important distortion of strategy and tactics was also introduced at this point, which once again boded ill for future practice of the doctrine. Evans and Peattie described it as, “Faith in the decisive battle became dogma in the Japanese navy. In this way, the confusion of tactical doctrine (for fighting battles) with strategic planning (for winning wars) began with Tsushima and fatally limited Japanese naval strategy.”
In addition, Mahan posited complete control of the seas and the importance of the “decisive battle.” The Japanese naval historian Sadao Asada in his From Mahan to Pearl Harbor summarized this view as “The aim of a naval engagement was the total annihilation of the enemy fleet in a decisive battle.” In her new world position, this was a clear message that the Japanese Navy unhesitatingly accepted.
Mahan himself saw the connection between his thinking and the victory at Tsushima and expressed pleasure that his strategic doctrines were vindicated by the battle. The primary lesson to be learned from Tsushima, Mahan wrote in 1906, was never to divide the battle fleet. The Russian navy had made the fatal mistake of dispersing its battleship strength and suffered the consequences. This lesson, however, was largely ignored by the IJN, even though spoken by their doctrinal mentor.
The London Naval Treaty of 1930
After World War I, Mahan’s theories were increasingly called into question, but both the U.S. and Japanese navies generally continued to follow his lead. In Britain, Corbett and his more balanced philosophy of sealane protection, critique of the decisive-battle theory, and his holding the strong position regarding naval support for the army, introduced a new conceptual model more inclusive of modern industrial capability.
Additionally, this period saw Mahan’s plan for war against Japan rejected by the U.S. Navy. His textbook was discontinued at Annapolis. He continued to influence both navies, but criticism pointed to flaws in his doctrine. The effective use of submarine warfare in World War I influenced the United States but conversely did not raise concerns among the Japanese about their extended supply lines.
Airpower was well recognized by both navies but with different applications. Clearly the world in which Mahan had fashioned his theory was dramatically changing.
However, in Japan the emphasis on Kantai Kessen was retained without question. In the 1920s, the political world intruded on the naval with worldwide interest in disarmament. This reinforced rather than diminished the IJN’s belief in “big guns and big ships.”
The world reacted with horror to the carnage of World War I. This reaction embraced not only ground warfare, but also encompassed the naval arms race that had led up to the war. Public opinion and military concerns regarding future opponents and fleet sizes brought the U.S., Britain, and Japan, along with other naval powers, to a series of conferences (Washington 1922, Geneva 1927, and London 1930) in hopes of avoiding another arms race and another war.
Unfortunately, while intentions were generally good, the results infuriated and insulted the Japanese and confirmed that their future adversary would be the United States Navy.
The first and arguably only successful conference in terms of any sustained agreement was held in Washington during 1921-1922. The treaty that resulted established ratios for the relationship between the three major powers in battleships and other categories. The treaty also restricted the U.S. ability to fortify its island possessions in the western Pacific. The Japanese entered the negotiations with the intent of agreeing to a 70 percent ratio to the U.S. and Great Britain in capital ships; they eventually agreed to a 60 percent ratio with the addition of a non-fortification provision.