Appendices - Hirohito's War
APPENDIX G: COULD JAPAN HAVE WON THE PACIFIC WAR?
Conclusion: In looking at weaponry and strategy, it is certainly conceivable that Japan’s military leaders could have done better. Paradoxically, Japan’s war plan, usually considered to have been exceptionally aggressive, was not aggressive enough. Japan started the war with advantages of weaponry, training, battle experience and matériel but it was clear to most that their edge in these departments would be short-lived. In the early months of the war Yamamoto needed a naval victory decisive enough to bring America to the negotiating table. The Pearl Harbor raid, even if the US carriers had been there, was simply not aggressive enough to do the job. The conquest of Hawaii could, theoretically at least have given Japan a better chance of stretching out the war for longer and thus given Americans time to lose heart – to lose the will to fight. Given that Japan did not have the logistical wherewithal to invade and conquer America, this was probably their only chance of achieving a strategic if not total victory against America.
In looking at the hypothetical question as to whether Japan could have won the Pacific War, the main issue of uncertainty is – Did America have the will to fight? Japan’s premise that its troops alone had the will to fight and that decadent Americans did not possess this quality was thoroughly disabused during the Pacific War. However if the American economy had been running at full capacity and full employment in 1941, would Americans at home have been content to make the sacrifices in living standards to conquer Japan and recover its Asian Empire some 6,000 miles across the Pacific? Because of the extent of spare capacity in America after the Great Depression, apart from those who were wounded or died in combat, the militarization of the US economy on such an unprecedented scale, because of its pump-priming effect, was virtually cost free to its citizens.
The state of the US economy is an important consideration. The post war examples of American war making – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that American public opinion has tended to shift against war within 3 - 5 years of engagement. By contrast after four years of war in the Pacific, the American public was still overwhelmingly in favour of forcing Japan’s unconditional surrender. But would that have been the case if living standards had been under threat or the expected loss of American lives in the military conquest of mainland Japan had started to come to fruition? Some American newspapers, as early as the Battle of Tarawa, the first engagement of the Central Pacific campaign, were already agitating about the level of casualties. Would American public opinion have been so forgiving if the close run battles of Midway, Kokoda, Buna or Guadalcanal had been lost? If America had not had the will to fight, it seems very possible that Japan could have achieved its immediate Pacific War objectives of forcing Roosevelt or his successor to negotiate a deal that would have allowed it effective suzerainty over China.
There is no such thing as certainty in the outcome of war. The conquest of Japan and its forced acceptance of unconditional surrender by the United States were very far from being certainties in 1941. Given the isolationist background to American sentiment in the interwar years, any reasonable observer, the Japanese included, would have assumed that America did not have the will to fight a major war involving the conquest of a country as expertly and fully armed as Japan at a distance of 6,000 miles. In the mid-1930s America’s likely commitment to fight a war on such a scale, and at such as distance, was diminishingly small. It was a view on which Japan gambled and lost. To the surprise, possibly even of the Americans themselves, it turned out that they did have the will to fight. With a vast underutilised economy behind it, which prevented any diminution of living standards, America sustained its will to win to the end. However it was far from being the inevitable outcome that is sometimes supposed.