And there’s no gainsaying this. In all likelihood President Franklin Roosevelt would have honored the U.S. alliances with Great Britain, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and with the Netherlands. But think about two things. One, popular sentiment in the United States may not have demanded offensive action in the Pacific following an attack on the Philippines. It certainly wouldn’t have demanded action as loudly as it did following December 7.
After all, the Pacific War was not the only show in town. The United States, an offshoot of the British Empire, had always faced eastward across the Atlantic. We were, and many argue still are, a Europe-first nation. The war against Hitler’s Germany may have had first claim on American loyalties absent a Pearl Harbor attack—and the Pacific War may well have remained a backwater until the Allies’ work in Europe was done. By that time, Japan may have locked in part—or all—of its gains in the Far East. Time would have been on its side.
And, two, even after the U.S. Navy, Marines and Army started their westward march across the Pacific, Japan would have been better-positioned to resist the U.S. offensive if the Japanese armed forces had stuck with their prewar game plan. Rather than the vengeful America that Japan faced by the evening of December 7, it may have faced a relatively halfhearted America, war-weary from fighting in Europe.
By consolidating and fortifying the islands it had wrested from their inhabitants, and by electing to protect a shorter island defense perimeter, it may have imposed higher costs on the United States than Americans were willing to bear. Washington may have accepted some sort of negotiated settlement that left Japan supreme in East Asia. Tokyo should have been patient, exercised self-restraint and stuck with its prewar game plan. Interceptive operations held far more promise than a one-off preemptive strike into the Eastern Pacific.
What can we learn from this today? Several things. First of all, the United States remains a Western Pacific power seventy-five years after Pearl Harbor, yet the U.S. Navy’s logistics remain frighteningly lean. What I suggested Japan’s navy should have done—strike at our navy’s capacity to deliver bullets, beans and black oil to ships at sea—remains an option for potential foes today. It’s the choice I would make if I were they. We must not expect a China or Russia to blunder as Japan did.
Second, we would find it hard to regenerate combat power quickly after a scrap with China or Russia. The incoming administration is on record favoring a 350-ship navy, up from about 272 today. Yet none of these ships has been approved by Congress. Still less have their keels been laid. No 2016 counterpart to the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 is yet on the books. We should press for a bigger navy and associated joint forces—a force robust enough in numbers and battle capability to take combat losses, fight on and win. More ships? Bring it on!
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