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Japan's Decision for War in 1941: Some Enduring Lessons

Authored by Dr. Jeffrey Record. | February 2009

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(Caveat: The below excerpts from the study do not contain endnotes found in the full study)

Summary

The Japanese decision to initiate war against the United States in 1941 continues to perplex. Did the Japanese recognize the odds against them? How did they expect to defeat the United States? The presumption of irrationality is natural, given Japan's acute imperial overstretch in 1941 and America's overwhelming industrial might and latent military power. The Japanese decision for war, however, must be seen in the light of the available alternatives in the fall of 1941, which were either national economic suffocation or surrender of Tokyo's empire on the Asian mainland. Though Japanese aggression in East Asia was the root cause of the Pacific War, the road to Pearl Harbor was built on American as well as Japanese miscalculations, most of them mired in mutual cultural ignorance and racial arrogance.

Japan's aggression in China, military alliance with Hitler, and proclamation of a "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" that included resource-rich Southeast Asia were major milestones along the road to war, but the proximate cause was Japan's occupation of southern French Indochina in July 1941, which placed Japanese forces in a position to grab Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. Japan's threatened conquest of Southeast Asia, which in turn would threaten Great Britain's ability to resist Nazi aggression in Europe, prompted the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to sanction Japan by imposing an embargo on U.S. oil exports upon which the Japanese economy was critically dependent. Yet the embargo, far from deterring further Japanese aggression, prompted a Tokyo decision to invade Southeast Asia. By mid-1941 Japanese leaders believed that war with the United States was inevitable and that it was imperative to seize the Dutch East Indies, which offered a substitute for dependency on American oil. The attack on Pearl Harbor was essentially a flanking raid in support of the main event, which was the conquest of Malaya, Singapore, the Indies, and the Philippines, Japan's decision for war rested on several assumptions, some realistic, others not. The first was that time was working against Japan--i.e., the longer they took to initiate war with the United States, the dimmer its prospects for success. The Japanese also assumed they had little chance of winning a protracted war with the United States but hoped they could force the Americans into a murderous, island-by-island slog across the Central and Southwestern Pacific that would eventually exhaust American will to fight on to total victory. The Japanese believed they were racially and spiritually superior to the Americans, whom they regarded as an effete, creature-comforted people divided by political factionalism and racial and class strife.

U.S. attempts to deter Japanese expansion into the Southwestern Pacific via the imposition of harsh economic sanctions, redeployment of the U.S. Fleet from southern California to Pearl Harbor, and the dispatch of B-17 long-range bombers to the Philippines all failed because the United States insisted that Japan evacuate both Indochina and China as the price for a restoration of U.S. trade. The United States demanded, in effect, that Japan abandon its empire, and by extension its aspiration to become a great power, and submit to the economic dominion of the United States--something no self-respecting Japanese leader could accept.

The Japanese-American road to the Pacific War in 1941 yields several enduring lessons of particular relevance for today's national security decisionmakers:

   1. Fear and honor, "rational" or not, can motivate as much as interest.

   2. There is no substitute for knowledge of a potential adversary's history and culture.

   3. Deterrence lies in the mind of the deterree, not the deterrer.

   4. Strategy must always inform and guide operations.

   5. Economic sanctioning can be tantamount to an act of war.

   6. The presumption of moral or spiritual superiority can fatally discount the consequences of an enemy's material superiority.

   7. "Inevitable" war easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Introduction: A "Strategic Imbecility"?

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, continues to perplex. American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison called Tokyo's decision for war against the United States "a strategic imbecility." How, in mid-1941, could Japan, militarily mired in China and seriously considering an opportunity for war with the Soviet Union, even think about yet another war, this one against a distant country with a 10-fold industrial superiority? The United States was not only stronger; it lay beyond Japan's military reach. The United States could out-produce Japan in every category of armaments as well as build weapons, such as long-range bombers, that Japan could not; and though Japan could fight a war in East Asia and the Western Pacific, it could not threaten the American homeland. In attacking Pearl Harbor, Japan elected to fight a geographically limited war against an enemy capable of waging a total war against the Japanese home islands themselves.

Did the Japanese recognize the odds against them? What could possibly prompt such a reckless course of action as the attack on Pearl Harbor? Fatalism? Delusional reasoning? Madness? Was there no acceptable alternative to war with the United States in 1941? And if not, how did Tokyo expect to compel the United States to accept Japanese hegemony in East Asia? Did the Japanese have a concept of victory, or at least of avoiding defeat? Or were they simply, as New York congressman Hamilton Fish declared the day after Pearl Harbor, a "stark, raving mad" people who, by attacking the United States, had "committed military, naval, and national suicide"?

What lessons can be drawn from the Japanese decision for war in 1941? From U.S.-Japanese policy interaction during the months leading to Pearl Harbor? Are there lessons of value to today's national security decisionmakers?

Conclusions

Japan's imperial ambitions in East Asia inexorably collided with Western interests in the region, and Japan's alliance with Nazi Germany, though of little operational significance, further alienated the Western powers. The Pacific War arose out of Japan's aggression in Southeast Asia, which was presaged by its occupation of southern Indochina in July 1941.

Had Tokyo confined its aggression to Northeast Asia, it almost certainly could have avoided war with Britain and the United States, neither of which was prepared to go to war over China. The U.S. insistence, after Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina, that Japan evacuate China as well as Indochina, as a condition for the restoration of trade relations, thus made no sense as a means of dissuading the Japanese from moving south. On the contrary, the demand that Japan quit China killed any prospect of a negotiated alternative to Japan's conquest of Southeast Asia (e.g., restored trade in exchange for Japan's withdrawal from Indochina). In effect, the United States went to war over China rather than Southeast Asia -- a volte-face of enormous strategic consequence since it propelled the United States into a war with Japan over a remote country for which the United States had never been prepared to fight. The fate of China, even of Southeast Asia, did not engage core U.S. security interests, especially at a time when Europe's fate hung in the balance. A war with Japan was, of course, a war the United States was always going to win, but Japan was not the enemy the Roosevelt administration wanted to fight. The United States could have settled its accounts with Japan after Hitler's defeat had been assured. Was denying Japan an expanded empire in Southeast Asia more important, in 1941, than defeating Hitler?

The roots of Japan's decision for war with the United States were economic and reputational. The termination of U.S. trade with Japan that followed Roosevelt's freezing of Japanese assets in July 1941 threatened to destroy Japan economically and militarily. A small, resource-poor, and overpopulated island state, Japan in the 1930s sought economic self-sufficiency and great power status via the acquisition of empire--just as Great Britain had done. (The United States could preach about the evils of imperialism and "spheres of influence" because, as a huge, resource-rich, continental state, it had no need for an overseas colonial empire; nor was its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere effectively challenged by other great powers. Indeed, the Japanese viewed the Monroe Doctrine as justification for their imperial ambitions.) Kenneth Pyle, in his masterful assessment of modern Japan's behavior in the evolving international system, identifies "a persistent obsession with status and prestige--or, to put it in terms Japanese would more readily recognize, rank and honor." From the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, "Japan strove and struggled for status as a great power. Other countries in Asia were aware of their backwardness, but nowhere else was this awareness so intense and so paramount that it drove a people with such single-minded determination. It became a national obsession to be the equal of the world's great powers." A fusion of state-centered honor and popular nationalism occurred in Japan that prompted "an instinctive need for recognition of its status in the hierarchy of nations, and the values of hierarchy provided a behavioral norm that focused and intensified the realist drive for national power. Establishment of Japan's honor, of its reputation for power in relation to other nations, became a goal sanctioned by inherited values and norms."

Yet the end result of this drive for power, honor, and reputation was Japan's complete destruction and subsequent occupation by the United States. There can be no justification for a foreign policy that consciously propels a state into a war against an inherently undefeatable enemy. By the late 1930s, a fatal abyss had opened between Japan's imperial ambitions and its material capacity to fulfill them. Japan simply did not have the resources to police Korea and Manchuria, conquer China, invade Southeast Asia, and defeat the United States in the Pacific. Japan lacked the necessary industrial strength, and what modest manufacturing base it did possess critically depended on imported oil and other commodities from the United States. Indeed, Japan's expanding war on the Asian mainland made it more dependent on imported U.S. commodities and finished goods. Japanese leaders refused to recognize the limits of Japan's power, despite the warnings of Nomohan and a continuing war in China they could never bring to a satisfactory conclusion. The very fact that Japanese leaders would consider sequential wars with the United States and the Soviet Union at a time when Japan was already militarily overstretched in China testifies to a fatal blindness to the strategic necessity of maintaining some reasonable harmony between political ambitions and military capacity. Like the Germans in both world wars, the Japanese seemed to believe that superior prowess at the operational level of war could and would--somehow--redeem reckless strategic decisions. And again like the Germans, the Japanese, in the celebration of their own nationalism, were utterly insensitive to the nationalism of others.

Honor may have dictated the Japanese decision for war in 1941, but "suicide before dishonor" was a policy choice the Japanese might have avoided had Tokyo been willing and able to temper its imperial ambitions and accept some measure of economic dependence on the United States. For Japan, the prosperous and relatively democratic 1920s and the postwar decades as an economic powerhouse and ally of the United States demonstrate 20th-century possibilities other than the path of autarky through aggression. The 1930s and 1940s were a tragic and--for Japan's victims--murderous detour from what might have been--and later was. For Japan in the 20th century, good relations with the United States were always a prerequisite for a secure Japan, whereas war with the United States was always going to be a disaster.

Still, it cannot be denied that, in threatening Japan's economic destruction (and consequent military impoverishment), the United States placed the Japanese in a position in which the only choices open to them were war or subservience. "Never inflict upon another major military power a policy which would cause you yourself to go to war unless you are fully prepared to engage that power militarily," cautions Roland Worth, Jr., in his No Choice But War: The United States Embargo against Japan and the Eruption of War in the Pacific. "And don't be surprised that if they do decide to retaliate, that they seek out a time and a place that inflicts maximum harm and humiliation upon your cause." Roosevelt called the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor "unprovoked." Was it?