Japan started its war with the United States knowing that it couldn’t win a prolonged war of attrition – at least those at the highest levels of the Imperial Navy knew they couldn’t win – yet they were confident of victory nonetheless. Though this isn’t a contraction, it might sound like one unless you understand that Japan learned the Right Lesson from the Wrong Wars. In looking at the United States as a potential adversary, they saw us settling for far less than total victory in the First World War – and if they looked further, they saw the same inclination to settle for less than the crushing defeat of their adversaries in the American defeat of Spain in 1898. What they should have done is look at the American Civil War, the War with Mexico or the American Revolution – if they had, they might have decided to attack a preoccupied Soviet Union (as the Imperial Army wanted) instead of what Yamamoto referred to prophetically as the “Sleeping Giant.”
Japan’s naval strategy against America was simple – quickly and decisively inflict such painful losses – then sustain those losses over such an extended period of time – that the U.S. would choose to negotiate an end to the Pacific War. America would do this either to focus on a war with Germany or merely because, as a “soft” democracy, we couldn’t stomach the ongoing losses in blood and materiel. After all, Japan reasoned, liberating the Philippines – a set of islands we’d already promised to give back to their inhabitants in 1946 – hardly seemed like a reason for America to bleed itself dry. As for fighting and dying in the vast reaches of the Western Pacific to help Europe hang onto its East Asian colonial empires seemed even more far-fetched – American was by nature anti-colonial, and no matter how much it might want to preserve the existence of European democratic trading partners against European fascism, there was little indication that we’d fight at all to preserve Europe’s colonial hegemony over East Asian peoples.
There might even be a measure of truth in that assessment. Perhaps, if Japan hadn’t attacked Pearl Harbor, perhaps if Japan had quickly offered to give back Guam and Wake in the peace negotiations (even as it was conquering those islands) – perhaps Japan had gone easy on the Philippines – and the Filipinos (including repatriating all the Americans captured in their victorious assault), this scenario might have actually worked. After all, for all the anger the American man-in-the-streets felt about Japan’s brutal subjugation of China, few US citizens were ready, in late 1941, to lay down their lives to protect the “freedom” of a remote and faceless people who had never in history been truly free. If we weren’t ready to help defend our “cousins” in England from Hitler, we were hardly ready to defend the Malays or Indo-Chinese or even the Filipinos against Japan.
This was a reasonable conclusion – at least as far as it went – and Japan had to look no farther than World War I to see America’s proclivity to end bloody and expensive conflicts at the conference table. Versailles was an armistice, after all, not a German surrender. The war ended before the first Allied soldier crossed the line into German territory, and while the German army in the West was broken, it had not yet been defeated when peace replaced war. This told Japan that Western-style democracies did not have the stomach for carrying war to its bitter end, especially in the face of extreme losses. And because, to Japanese eyes, “westerners” were as alike as Americans thought Asiatics to be, Japan might also have considered Czar Nicholas’ armistice-like peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
However, in reaching this conclusion, Japan drew on the wrong examples – and there were many of these examples to draw from. There were other wars in which America chose to end without victory – the Spanish-American war was fought for limited objectives, and during the entire war, Spain itself was never threatened. Even more, many of Spain’s overseas possessions were left in Spanish hands – something that would never have happened in a fight to the death, which was the Japanese style of warfare (or at least, that’s how the saw themselves).
The lessons were there to be learned, and – by equal measures of wishful thinking and ignorance, the Japanese learned these lessons, not realizing that they were wrong.
Instead of looking at wars in which America voluntarily participated without the extreme provocation of a pre-war attack attack, Japan should have looked at those three previous wars in which America felt it had been attacked: The American Revolution, the Mexican War and the Civil War. In those wars, the American reaction to attack laid the groundwork for our response to Japan in World War II. The outcome need not have been a surprise to those who studied American military history – and, because of the open nature of American democracy, those lessons were freely available to all who approached them eyes-open.
In the first of those examples, America believed that it had been attacked and was being occupied by a tyrannical imperial army – a belief that, thanks to the extreme measures put forth by King George, were not far from the truth. More important, America realized that any compromise would leave those hated British troops in place in the 13 colonies – the only way to rid North America of British military occupying forces was to win. This gave the American colonists something to fight for: a victory so comprehensive that no British soldiers would be standing on North American soil south of the St. Laurence River. Fight they did, and through a fortuitous mixture of remarkable generalship, French naval intervention, a few bad decisions by Cornwallis and more than a soupcon of raw good luck, America’s revolutionary patriots won the war, and the peace. It was no armistice that America signed with Great Britain, but an unequivocal statement that the Americans had won. In this war, America did not invade Great Britain nor did we occupy their capital – neither of these bold steps were necessary for victory to be achieved.
The lesson for history here is plain: When America feels its very survival as a nation-state is at risk, it will fight on without quarter, and it will keep fighting until it wins. Freedom is more important than the blood-price we may have to achieve to win and hold onto that freedom.
In the second example, roughly sixty or so years later, America believed that it was attacked by Mexican soldiers operating inside the boundaries of the American state of Texas (a former Mexican province whose departure from Mexico had never fully been accepted by that superb Mexican General (and “founding father” President) Santa Ana. Latter day historians – as well as many contemporary Whig politicians, including a young Abe Lincoln – believe that the attack on American soil was trumped up, or at least intentionally provoked. But that truth is immaterial to how we fought that war. Having been violated in such a fashion, America was not interested in an armistice, a negotiated peace. Long-term veteran General Winfield Scott – a 300-plus pound giant of a man nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers” – led a remarkably successful invasion of Mexico, following the route of Cortez 300 years earlier to capture the Mexican capital, Mexico City, where he dictated terms to a desperate and fearful government. This was a remarkable campaign, fought against great odds, winning for Scott the accolade from no less than Lord Wellington (the victor over Napoleon) that – as demonstrated in his campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Scott had proved that he was the best general of the age.
The larger conclusion here is simple: when America is attacked on its own soil, America will not rest until that enemy has been crushed in battle and his capital occupied.
Let’s now look at the final and most telling example of what the Japanese could have – and should have – expected from the United States. Barely 15 years after the Mexican War came the American Civil War. That agonizing four-year conflict offers nothing short of THE single most important lesson for Japan. The bloody Civil war – with more than 600,000 American army fatalities and an unimaginable cost in gold – was a conflict so terrible and decisive that it should have shown Japan this: America at war, when attacked, can and will be a formidable and implacable force, and will demand an unrestrained and unremitting outcome to that conflict. The American Civil War began with an unprovoked cannon shot at Ft. Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina – and from Day One, President Lincoln’s war goals had been simple and unambiguous:
• Defeat the Confederate ground armies decisively, completely and beyond recall
• Achieve the complete and utter elimination of the so-called government of the Confederate States of America
• Occupy the territory formerly part of the CSA and force the reintegration of that territory of the USA, eliminating once and for all any possible threat to America’s survival AS the United States of America
Lincoln was so adamant on the latter goal that he never even admitted that the CSA existed – he refused to “treat” with it’s officially-appointed representatives, including his personal friend and former Congressional colleague, who’d been sent North to establish ground rules for a “just peace” that would recognize the existence of the CSA. Lincoln would not bend on defeat – or even on the existence (let alone survival) of the CSA – and Japan should have paid attention
At other times, in other wars, America and American soldiers had expressed other goals far short of total victory – today, for instance, American troops seem more focused on infrastructure rebuilding following a forced regime change than they do on total victory in Iraq. But the Civil War was different, and the beginnings of the Pacific War mirror the Civil War far more than any war we’d fought for “limited objectives.”
In the four years from 1861-to-1865, the prevailing American will – the will for our nation to survive – had been found, largely because of the way that Japan initiated and initially fought the war. In World War II the thought of an armistice, while attractive to a minority of Americans, clearly left the majority of citizens cold. To an almost remarkable extent, Americans supported the war effort in World War II – and because it had the lesson of the American Civil War to guide it, Japan should have seen this result coming, and realized what it meant for them.
In the American Civil War, it was not enough for Lincoln (as it was for the Continental Congress) to gain a treaty recognizing America’s right to exist as a free nation. In that war, it was not enough for Lincoln to occupy the enemy’s capital city and dictate terms of the peace, as had been the case in the Mexican War. In the American Civil War, with our national survival at stake, for Lincoln and the Union Army, only the utter destruction of the Confederacy would be sufficient as an end to this war.
The war began when American Union forces were attacked, on undisputedly American soil (a Federal Fort in Charleston Harbor that had never been turned over to Confederate forces) – by surprise, without warning or a declaration of war – in the pre-dawn hours. That demonstrated a callous disregard for America, and Americans have never been a people to lightly forget that it had been sneak-attacked. The end result of that sneak attack was the total destruction of the nation-state of The Confederate States of America, the complete elimination of its army and the occupation of the total land-mass of enemy territory. Nothing short of this would be acceptable to the majority of Americans, no matter what the blood-price they’d be asked to pay.
THAT is the war the Japanese should have studied in assessing America’s martial policy – and THAT is the kind of outcome that Japan should have expected. No armistice was possible – if Japan couldn’t defeat America’s army and occupy the country’s territory, Japan should have known that American war planners would find a way of destroying Japan’s army, crushing its government beyond recall and harshly occupying Japan’s territory. No other, lesser, outcome could have been (or should have been) anticipated.
Japan knew it couldn’t win so decisively that it could wipe out all US armed forces, move it’s army half-way around the world, march across the continent and sack Washington DC, then occupy the entire land-mass of the United States until decisive regime-change had been achieved. Those goals were literally impossible to a country that had been unable to occupy and subjugate China across a short strait of sea miles. But Japan should have also known that if it could not inflict those harsh realities on America, then America would not rest until it had done all of that to Japan.
Japan’s military leaders had studied the wrong American war and learned the wrong lessons about how America fights wars. America was – as Yamamoto indicated – a “sleeping giant,” and Japan would have been wise to let her remain asleep, dreaming peaceful dreams about isolationism and the impenetrable sea barrier that protected America from potential enemies. The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by the brutal subjugation of the Philippines and the incredibly harsh treatment meted out to captured American soldiers, made it clear to all who’d care to look why Roosevelt – as leaders of the American people – could not and would not settle for anything less than the complete defeat of Japanese armed forces, the total destruction of Japan as a nation,, followed by a brutal and long term occupation of the Empire of Japan.
This, of course, has lessons for today. After 9/11, we imposed regime change on Afghanistan (the nation-state most closely linked with the terrorists), we destroyed the Taliban field army, and we occupied the nation itself. In Iraq, with no such smoking gun of responsibility, we stopped far short – and find ourselves in a position where an armistice would be most welcome. Yet if the terrorists strike again as they did on 9/11, they will awaken a sleeping giant – they will unite the country behind a war-leader and suffer the consequences. Perhaps the terrorists were smarter than the Japanese – perhaps they know this about America. After all, their few and feeble attempts since 9/11 suggest that they know the risks – right now – of giving American war leaders reason and opportunity to once again unite America in an unlimited war against the terrorists.