Why Japan Failed at Pearl Harbor

Why Japan Failed at Pearl Harbor

Tokyo knew it was awakening a “sleeping giant.” So why did it attack?

The Pearl Harbor attack thus had a come-and-go character that Port Arthur did not. Both preemptive attacks were inherently indecisive. But the Japanese navy could keep up the pressure in 1904 where it could not in 1941.

That being the case, Nagumo’s airmen really had to make their shot at the Pacific Fleet count. As Admiral Nimitz noted when he arrived on Oahu to take command of the Pacific Fleet, the Japanese navy blundered egregiously by going after the U.S. battleship fleet instead of other targets. Yes, the American carriers were at sea, as is often pointed out. Hitting them would have hurt. But Nimitz believed the Japanese missed an opportunity by striking at the battle fleet but not its logistics. Japanese aviators could have taken out the dry docks that would refit most of the damaged vessels. They could have taken out the fleet’s fuel supply.

Take out a fleet’s logistical support, and it withers on the vine. Ships can’t steam without fuel oil. Planes can’t fly without avgas. Sailors can’t eat without regular food shipments. Had Japanese tacticians planned the strike wisely, they would have made infrastructure the main target, then hit the fleet with whatever munitions they had left after clobbering dry docks, fuel storage sites, and other support assets like oilers, ammunition ships, and destroyer, submarine and seaplane tenders. That would have set back the U.S. counteroffensive considerably, granting the Japanese Empire time to cement its conquests in Asia and the Pacific.

Before he met his maker after the war, wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo cited the U.S. Navy’s capacity for underway replenishment—and thus its capacity to remain constantly at sea—as a decisive factor in the Pacific War’s outcome. Indeed it was. Testament from high places.

Now, some might contend that the United States would have gone to war in the Pacific even had the Pearl Harbor attack never happened. Our allies were under assault, and we were honor bound to keep our commitments. The Japanese armed forces certainly would have attacked the Philippine Islands, which lay astride the sea lanes connecting the Japanese home islands with the “Southern Resource Area” in the South China Sea. The Philippines, of course, had been American territory since 1898. Tokyo could hardly let an American stronghold stand along this maritime thoroughfare remain intact—posing a constant threat to Japan’s economic lifelines. Nor could Washington overlook an attack on American soil.

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