Appendices - Hirohito's War
APPENDIX G: COULD JAPAN HAVE WON THE PACIFIC WAR?
Mobilization, Logistics, Isolationism and the Will to Fight: It is inconceivable that anyone in 1936 could have predicted that within nine years the then fiercely isolationist United States would have built an Army of 6m men, an Air Force with over 50,000 aircraft and a Navy with 22 fleet carriers. Spending on defence amounted to US$2.2bn (2.5% of GDP) in 1937. It was a smaller sum that America, a few years later, was prepared to spend on the development of a single aircraft, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. At this time it must have seemed highly improbable that within eight years an American government would increase military spending by 4,100% to US$93bn (43% of GDP) and would send armies to Europe and to Asia that would humble both Germany and Japan. Furthermore while an alliance with Great Britain might not have been seen as outlandish, a fiercely anti-communist America went on to ally with the Soviet Union but also provided it with almost 20 per cent of its armaments. Even Stalin would later acknowledge this debt.
In Europe, America, having provisioned Great Britain with food and munitions, had a secure base from which to attack Nazi controlled Europe. But this was not the case in Asia, where Australia was 4,000 miles distant from Japan. In Asia and the Pacific oil, munitions and troops had to be transported halfway round the world not only to sustain the British in India but also China, via ‘the Hump’ airlift to Kunming. From here American supplies were used to build General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell’s Chinese Y-Force into a formidable fighting unit. US supplies also supplied General Claire Chennault’s US Fourteenth Airforce based in southern China. Indeed supplies of Aviation fuel and other oils to Chennault’s force consumed up to 80% of the capacity of the airlift over the Himalayan ‘Hump’. Together with Chiang Kai-shek’s armies they pinned down 1.5m Japanese troops in eastern and central China.
Moreover having committed himself to the unconditional surrender of Japan during his Casablanca meeting with Churchill in January 1943 (the SYMBOL Conference), Roosevelt had to lay the foundations for an invasion of Japan which by the summer of 1945 involved the sustenance of some 1.5m troops in Asia at distances of over 6,000 miles from the west coast of America. As pages 328-338, 847, 884-886 in Hirohito’s War demonstrate, this was by far the largest logistic exercise ever undertaken by a country’s armed forces – and one never likely to be repeated. The resources being planned in Operation OLYMPIC for the invasion of Japan, calling for an armada of over 1,000 ships exceeded by several times the Normandy D-Day landings in Europe. The dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, a program along with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that together cost US5.0bn – more than double the entire US defence budget in 1937 – was a logistical exercise requiring the building of vast new secret industrial towns at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford in Benton County, Washington as well as the atomic scientific research and development facility at Los Alamos in the semi-desert mesa of New Mexico. Thirty other establishments around the country contributed to the building of the atom bomb, a project that employed over 500,000 people during the course of the war. Militarization of the US economy would absorb over 30m American workers in the war effort.
In viewing how far America travelled from its isolationist stance in 1936, it would be absurd to consider this path inevitable in any determinist sense. Indeed, in 1936 the eventual outcome of both the scope of America’s military engagement in world affairs, and its outcome, could only have seemed highly improbable. In characterising America’s victory against Japan as inevitable, historians have viewed the war through the prism of a post-war world in which American military power and it willingness to use it has been an axiomatic fact of geopolitics.
In hindsight most historians have viewed Japan’s aggressive path to expand its war from China to an attack on the world’s greatest economic power, America, and its greatest Empire and maritime power, Great Britain, as foolhardy bordering on suicidal. Yet was it such a risk at it has subsequently seemed? Acceptance of the terms of America’s rescinding its oil embargo, complete withdrawal from China, guaranteed national humiliation for Japan and the likelihood of a coup d’état by ultranationalists within the military. By contrast Japan’s leaders, fully aware of US military ill preparedness and isolationist bent, believed, erroneously as it turned out, that Americans lacked the will to fight. If the Japanese made an error of judgement, it was at least an understandable one. By defeating the United States in a single crushing victory, as they had done to the Russians in the Battle of Tsushima, the defining engagement of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, Japan’s leaders hoped to encourage America to come to an accommodation with Japan’s imperial conquests. What Japan’s leaders had not reckoned on was America’s will to fight to the finish. But would America have fought to a finish if its carrier fleet had been destroyed at Midway in 1942 as might easily have happened?
When asking the question therefore ‘Could Japan have won the Pacific War?’ it would be well to start with the answer that Japan would have won or at least fought to a negotiated draw if America, contrary to the expectations of many, had not demonstrated a will to fight for control of its existing Pacific Empire but also for control of Asia, an area that it had previously considered to be significantly less important than Europe. As it turned out America was willing to defend its empire by completely reconfiguring its economy and geopolitical outlook. It was also prepared to fight for the rights to self-determination of the nations of Asia and in the process prepared to expand its Empire of influence in the region. Given America’s isolationist starting point in the 1930s, this was hardly an inevitable process.