Appendices - Hirohito's War
APPENDIX G: COULD JAPAN HAVE WON THE PACIFIC WAR?
Strategies for Japanese Victory: After World War I, Japan had been forced to re-evaluate its naval and military strategies. At the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 the major powers agreed an arms limitation treaty relating to capital ships (battleships). Tonnage was limited on a 5:5:3 ratio for America, Great Britain and Japan respectively. Although Japan’s politicians were intent on joining the new Anglo-Saxon international system, its armed forces planned for the possibility of war with America, which had long been identified as a likely long term enemy after its annexation of the Philippines in 1898 and the anticipation of further expansion in the Pacific.
The limitations placed on Japan’s naval expansion after the Washington Naval Conference led to a rethinking of naval strategy and weapons. While the US Navy had to plan for a two navy, two-ocean war, thus giving Japan theoretical equality in forces available in the Pacific, Japan’s naval planners were not unaware that the Panama Canal would allow a rapid transition of forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
While Japan’s armed forces, particularly its Navy, had thoroughly rethought their weaponry requirements in the interwar year, strategic principles had remained largely unchanged. Just as at the Battle of Tsushima, where the Russian Navy had been drawn out to be attacked close to Japan, the Japanese Navy expected the US Navy to be drawn out to the mid-Pacific as they sought to relieve the Philippines. It was here that the Japanese Navy hoped to use their range-extending weaponry, their fleet air arm, their torpedoes, and the big guns of their super-battleships to deliver a devastating coup de main against the US Navy. But as Admiral Inoue, a lone Cassandra, pointed out, the US would likely resort to a war of attrition to defeat Japan – indeed this was the strategic concept of Plan DOG produced by Admiral Stark and accepted by the US Joint Chiefs. While Inoue’s analysis of the problem of Japanese strategy was correct, his recommendations were only partially correct. He advocated that Japan should plan for a war of attrition, emphasising the importance of building convoy destroyers to protect commercial shipping from US strangulation. It was a recommendation that failed to take into account America’s 10:1 economic size versus Japan. As long as America had the will to fight and to commit to mobilizing a war economy, it would be capable over the long term of bulldozing any Japanese plans for a war of attrition.
From a strategic point of view Japan’s only chance of success was battering the US so comprehensively early in the Pacific War that the US people and its government would opt for a negotiated modus vivendi. It is often thought that this was the strategy championed by Admiral Yamamoto that came to fruition at Pearl Harbor. It was not. Yamamoto’s plan was indeed to inflict a heavy defeat on the United States but it was a raid designed as a delaying tactic to allow Japan time to conquer south east Asia and most importantly the oil rich Dutch East Indies before the US Navy began its inexorable advance westwards. Yamomoto, in the traditions of naval strategy established after the Battle of Tsushima, still believed in the cataclysmic mid-Pacific naval engagement that would decide the outcome of the war. It was believed that the United States, after suffering a major naval defeat, would, like the Russians after the Battle of Tsushima, lose the will to continue the fight and sue for peace.
With hindsight Japan’s best chance of victory was indeed an overwhelming victory at the start of the war when it had significant advantages in weaponry and matériel. These advantages would begin to degrade rapidly after 1943 when America’s military mobilisation, begun in July 1940 as Japan was well aware, would start to bring torrents of new war material – including eighteen 27,000-ton fleet carriers starting with the USS Essex that was commissioned in December 1942. A further nine Independence Class light carriers also came on-stream at the beginning of 1943. Similarly military aircraft production would grow exponentially – from 3,600 planes in 1940 to 85,000 in 1943.
Possibly the only victory that could have given America a defeat large enough to dent its seemingly miraculously discovered appetite for war was the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet and the capture of Hawaii. It was a strategy envisaged at the time of the Operation MI (Midway) but later abandoned. Logistically, even just six months after the Pearl Harbor Raid, it was already too late. In December 1941 it would have been achievable. Hawaii with its naval harbor, its airfields, and storage facilities would have given Japan a base from which, using its submarines, could have interdicted US shipping on the west coast and resupply through the Panama Canal. Australia could in effect have been isolated and unsupplied, not only leaving MacArthur militarily impotent and his New Guinea campaigns stillborn but also posing America the problem of how to recover Hawaii. Nimitz central Pacific thrust must surely have been delayed by several years. With the acquisition of Hawaii, the Japanese armed forces could then have turned their attention to Southeast Asia at their leisure.
As with all ‘what if’ history, there are many layers of supposition in this scenario. However if the United States had been forced to begin its conquest of the Pacific from the West Coast of America, rather than from Hawaii, it seems unlikely that this could have begun before mid-1944 at the earliest. Without the pressures that were eventually brought to bear on Japanese resources in the Solomons and New Guinea in 1942-3, perhaps the Japanese Army could have focussed resources on disrupting the supply route of the ‘Hump’ the only tenuous means of keeping China in the war. When this strategy was finally adopted in 1944 with Operation ICHIGO, Japan’s air power had already diminished and Lieutenant-General ‘Bill’ Slim had wrought a transformation of the British Fourteenth Army.