Wednesday will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the seminal events in American history. It stands with the fighting at Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the 9/11 attacks as an event that marked a sharp dividing line in the course of our nation's story.
The event is so well-documented and so burned into the American psyche that it scarcely needs to be retold here. The Japanese government, dominated by its military, had decided to make a play for imperial domination of East Asia and the Pacific. They had been launched a war of conquest against China a decade earlier, had occupied French Indochina, and were flexing the muscles of their naval power over the American, British, and Dutch possessions to the south. The United States had imposed economic sanctions against Japan, cutting them off from vital imports of oil and various raw materials necessary to continue prosecuting their war in China. Deciding that the direct approach was the best, Japan elected to launch a wide-ranging offensive throughout the Western Pacific, starting with a preemptive strike against the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Across the distance of time, even a patriotic American like me can acknowledge that the attack was a masterful military operation. It was extremely well-planned and executed, with the two waves of attacking aircraft arriving over their designated targets almost exactly on time. The logistics involved with fueling and provisioning such a large fleet so far from Japanese bases was a considerable achievement. And the fact that the Japanese achieved complete tactical surprise testifies to their ability to maintain operational secrecy.
Flying from six aircraft carriers, roughly three hundred and fifty Japanese aircraft blew the Pacific Fleet to pieces in a matter of hours. Eight battleships were destroyed or rendered inoperable, along with a number of cruisers and destroyers. Nearly two hundred American aircraft were destroyed. More than 2,400 American personnel were killed. From a military standpoint, it was one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the United States of America.
President Franklin Roosevelt was correct when he called December 7 "a date which will live in infamy." After all, at the moment that the first Japanese bombs and torpedoes were dropped at Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at peace. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a cowardly, dishonorable act and it has rightly been remembered as such by history.
The United States, of course, took its revenge. Despite the success of its attack and several months of whirlwind victories across the western Pacific Ocean, Japan could never hope to prevail in a war with the United States, whose industrial power utterly outmatched that of the Japanese. Within six months, the Japanese advance had been halted and the Americans, aided by their allies, began to drive their enemies back. The ended with an unconditional Japanese surrender in the summer of 1945, with its cities reduced to smoking ruins by relentless Allied bombings, including the only two instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.
There has been much discussion of how the events surrounded the attack on Pearl Harbor might have gone differently. Let's a look at some of these scenarios.
1. What if the Pacific Fleet had not been caught by surprise?
As with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor generated intensive self-examination on the part of the Americans to comprehend how such a failure of intelligence had been possible. It was subsequently revealed that there had been many chances to have discovered the coming Japanese attack. American radar picked up in the incoming swarms of Japanese bombers, but it was dismissed by inexperienced and poorly trained operators as friendly aircraft. A Japanese midget submarine was sunk by an American destroyer near Pearl Harbor an hour before the attack, but the base was not put on alert.
These warning signs should have been quickly passed up the chain of command, so that fighters could have been scrambled to intercept the incoming attackers and anti-aircraft defenses of Pearl Harbor could have been manned and ready. Had this happened, the damage inflicted by the Japanese attack would have been considerably lessened and the number of Japanese aircraft shot down would have been substantially greater than was the case historically.
This would have been very good news for the United States, which spent the first few months of the Pacific War reeling from the loss of its battleships. If, say, the USS Arizona or the USS California had not been destroyed, they could have served as the main capital ships of a much more powerful Pacific Fleet, which could conceivably have sortied towards the Philippines to rescue their beleaguered comrades. In any case, considering the enormous time and cost required to drive the Japanese from the territory they gained in the opening months of the war, any improvement in the American situation vis-a-vis the historical reality would mean that Japan would be defeated earlier and at a lower cost in American lives.
On the other hand, if the Americans had obtained knowledge of the attack several days in advance, rather than a few hours, the situation oddly could have turned out worse for them then it historically did. For the Pacific Fleet would clearly have sortied to meet the Japanese on the open sea. The Japanese would have had a numerical advantage and events would prove that, in late 1941, they were simply more skilled and experienced in naval fighting than their American counterparts. It could therefore be expected that the Americans would have the worst of any such encounter.
What would make this situation more dire that the actual attack on Pearl Harbor is the fact that any ship sunk on the high seas would plunge to the bottom of the ocean, rather than the shallow waters of the naval base. Of the eight battleships put out of action in the attack on December 7, six were eventually raised and put back into service. Had the battle been fought on the high seas, any American battleship sunk would be gone for good.
2. What the American aircraft carriers had been present at Pearl Harbor on December 7?
While the death and destruction wrecked by the Japanese in their attack was terrible and costly, in truth it could have been much worse. The primary targets of the Japanese attack were the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet: the USS Enterprise, the USS Lexington, and the USS Saratoga. Had they been in port, they surely would have been blasted to pieces, as aircraft carriers made easier targets than battleships.
As chance would have it, however, none of three carriers were in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. The Enterprise and Lexington were ferrying aircraft to American bases farther west, while the Saratoga was near San Diego. All were so far away that they never were in any danger from the Japanese attack. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, these three carriers would be the only effective force contesting control of the Pacific with the Japanese. They played crucial roles in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May (in which the Lexington was severely damaged and had to be scuttled) and the epic Battle of Midway in June, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Had the carriers been in dock at Pearl Harbor, they would have been destroyed and the American war effort in the Pacific over the next few months would have been much less effective than it was historically. It would have allowed the Japanese to solidify their positions in the Pacific and perhaps extend their conquests (although suggestions that they might have invaded Australia seem too far-fetched to be taken seriously). Historically, the American counter-offensive began at Guadalcanal in August of 1942 with the landings on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Had the American carriers been lost at Pearl Harbor, any American attempt to drive back the Japanese probably would not have been able to begin until sometime in 1943 and would have much more ground the retake.
3. What if the Japanese third wave had been launched?
The attack on Pearl Harbor consisted of two waves of attacking aircraft, both of which had targeted the warships of the Pacific Fleet. It was proposed that a third wave be launched, focusing its attack on the facilities of the Pearl Harbor base itself. These vital machine shops, drydocks, and fuel storage sites later proved crucial not only to repairing the warships that had been damaged in the attack, but maintaining the Pacific Fleet when it fought the Battle of Midway and organized the great counter offensive against the Japanese.
Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, in overall command of the Japanese task force, elected not to launch a third wave. There were several logical reasons for this decision. He did not want to risk having his returning airmen land on the carriers during darkness, something in which the Japanese were not well-practiced. He did not know the location of the American carriers and was afraid that they might be nearby and able to launch a counter strike. Finally, his fuel situation was becoming critical. For all these reasons, Nagumo decided to play it safe and head home without launching a third wave.
Many people on both sides of the conflict, including Admiral Chester Nimitz, later stated that the failure of the Japanese to launch a third wave targeting the port facilities was a crucial mistake. Had the dock facilities been destroyed or several damaged, it might have been a more crushing blow to American operations in the Pacific even than the loss of the warships themselves. At the very least, the later counter offensives would have had to be launched much later, with similar historical results as the hypothetical loss of the carriers.
One thing has to be remembered above all. No matter what changes one could envision in the events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they would not have affected the ultimate outcome of the war. There was no conceivable way in which Japan would have emerged the victor over the United States in the Pacific War, for the industrial power of America The oft-repeated statement (which is probably apocryphal) of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that all Japan had achieved at Pearl Harbor was to awaken a sleeping giant was all too true.
The United States had an economy seventeen times larger than that of Japan and its level of industrial production was perhaps seventy or eighty times as large. There was no conceivable way to defeat such odds in the age of industrial warfare. To give an idea of the disparity, consider this. Between 1941 and 1945, the United States produced ten battleships, forty-eight cruisers, and thirty hundred and forty-nine destroyers. Japan, by contrast, produced only two battleships, nine cruisers, and sixty-three destroyers. Counting small escort carriers as well as large fleet carriers, the United States put out one hundred and forty-one carriers of all types, while Japan built only seventeen. Between 1939 and 1945, the United States build more than 324,000 aircraft, while Japan built only 76,000. In the same time frame, the United States built nearly thirty-four million tons of merchant shipping, while Japan achieved a paltry four million.
How on Earth did Japan's war planners expect to have a chance against such long odds? Granted, a large proportion of America's war production was geared towards the defeat of Germany in Europe, but there was more than enough left over to crush Japan into rubble sooner or later.
If the Americans had been alerted to the incoming Japan attack a few hours ahead of time and taken immediate action, the damage to the Pacific Fleet would have been greatly reduced. We could then expect the defeat of Japan to occur considerably earlier than it did historically, perhaps in 1944 or even 1943. This raises a fascinating if troubling question, for the atomic bomb would not have been ready for use by that date. Would the end of the war have seen an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands themselves? If so, the war might have turned out to be both more successful for the Americans, yet also more costly and horrific.
Had the American carriers been in base and destroyed, or had the third wave destroyed the port facilities so vital to the war effort, the Japanese would have enjoyed a much more successful 1942 than they historically did. In such a case, we might expect them to conquer all of New Guinea and more of the islands west of it, and perhaps Midway Island as well. The defensive perimeter envisioned by the Japanese war planners would have been complete and made as strong as possible. The overall war plan of Japan was to create such a strong barrier to an American counter offensive that the United States would have sought some sort of peace agreement rather than endure the cost in lives and treasure required to break it.
By underestimating the political will of the United States and the social cohesion of the American people, the Japanese committed one of the great miscalculations in world history. Even had the attack on Pearl Harbor been more successful than it was historically, the United States still would have built an unstoppable navy and then they would have gone on to win the war. Even if Pearl Harbor had been utterly destroyed and the Americans had had to start from the coast of California, they would have done so and there was nothing Japan could have done about it. The war would have been far longer and far bloodier, but the end result would have been the same.
The moment that the first Japanese plane dropped the first bomb on Pearl Harbor, the fate of Japan was completely and utterly sealed.