Japan’s greatest blunder in World War Two was in attacking the United States, most especially with it’s brilliantly executed but foolish opening maneuver…the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although a terrifying threat to Americans of the time, the Japanese Empire’s attack at Pearl Harbor, inaugurating World War Two, was insane.
It doesn’t take much consideration to realize that when it comes to great mistakes of World War Two, the biggest blunder ever made by the Japanese was to attack the United States, especially in the manner used at Pearl Harbor.
Why did they do it?
It helps to remember that everything the Japanese Imperial forces did in the Pacific was in support of Japan’s desire to replace Western nations as a colonial power in the region
Further, a persuasive argument can be made that nearly every action they took was in support of their war to complete the conquest of China.
In 1937, the Japanese military, without consulting the civil administration in Tokyo, invaded China with spurious allegations that they were attacked first. They’d had Korea since 1910, and at that point had already held Manchuria since 1931. Manchuria was, in fact, their springboard for attack. But despite their power and years of losses, they were never able to completely absorb the entire country.
When they attacked the United States, it was in support of operations planned against Malaya and the Dutch East Indies where they sought a source of oil and other strategic supplies to continue their war in China. The Japanese thought the United States might go to war over the expansion so the Pearl Harbor attack was intended to forstall that.
Short Term Goals
It was insanity. Japan had no stockpile of critical supplies and their military experience they had was based on their war in China against a very divided people.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reluctantly drew up his plan for the attack, well aware that the Japanese leadership didn’t appreciate American strengths.
Yamamoto knew the only chance was to strike a blow so massive that the Americans would seek peace. Japanese planners were heavily influenced by their war with the Russians in the earliest years of the 20th century when Japan achieved its goals through negotiations following a similar military victory gained through sneak attack.
They thought the United States could be forced into a similar negotiated back-down. They were partially motivatwed by a belief in their own propaganda about Western decadence and weakness. If you’ve seen the movie Midway, you may recall the Japanese officers on the ships’ bridge watching the doomed American air attacks on their fleet, quietly comparing the Yankee pilots sacrifice to that of samurai. Their propaganda had told them Americans were decadent push-overs and the ferocity of the suicidal attack on their fleet went against what they’d been led to expect.
Even after Pearl Harbor the attitude of negotiated victory persisted, ending at Midway. Under consideration after Pearl Harbor was a thrust into the Indian Ocean and an attack on Russia.
The third option targeting Midway won selection, partially in response to the stinging air attacks of the Doolittle raiders on the Japanese homeland, emphasizing their vulnerability from the east.
With the smashing defeat at Midway, the Japanese abruptly lost their momentum. With minor exceptions, the Japanese immediately reverted to a defensive posture they retained for the rest of the war. The invasion at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands where a Japanese airbase was being built that would interrupt the supply line from the United States to Australia, marked the actual beginning of the reversal.
The Greatest Blunder
Much has been made of the intention of the Japanese consul to hand over to the US government before the Pearl Harbor attack began a document that formally ended relations with the US – not a declaration of war although tantamont to that. The document was delayed by a typist’s lack of skill until after the attack had begun.Despite the attention that failure has received, it is difficult to imagine a half hour jump on the attack would really have made any difference in the public’s feelings of criminal betrayal to the sneak attack.
The Japanese regarded the attack from an alien viewpoint. It reflected the ideals of their legends of the 47 Ronin (freelance samurai) who avenged the murder of the lord to whom they owed allegiance through a crafty plan. The plan required they lay low, even to the point of becoming the town drunk, to allay suspicions until the moment to strike when they killed the lord who had ordered the hit. After that, they gathered around their victim in a circle and committed sepuku, ritual suicide, in atonement for their failure to protect their lord. Just prior to the war, a movie called The 47 Ronin was a propaganda hit in Japan, spelling out the values of loyalty, duty, honor, and sacrifice that the militarists promoted in their adoption of the bushido code of conduct.
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was not unlike the strategy used by the 47 Ronin, one they’d used with success in securing their goals in the war with Russia.
Strike from Desperation
At the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were operating with only a few months oil supplies left. The US had earlier that year cut off its oil exports to Japan, the last of the exports to be banned, including aircraft, aviation parts, and even scrap metal for weapons manufacture.
The Japanese aircraft replacement rate was very slow, even without the pressure of a world war. They had a good navy but not one big enough to take on a fully mobilized United States. The Japanese would ultimately be equipped with 30 aircraft carriers. several of them actually only under construction while the US would at its peak be turning out one of those a week.
To say the odds against success were long is a mind-sizzling understatement. The Japanese at least knew that in the long run they could not win, but they were unwilling to change their course, and were pressured to strike out of desperation and calculation and faith in deliverance.
No Knock-Out Blow
Without a knock-out blow at Pearl Harbor, Japan was doomed from the beginning of the war. Yamamoto said it himself. He observed that he would be able to do what he wanted for six months, but after that he couldn’t predict. And that’s pretty much how it played out.
The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor at 7:55am, Sunday, December 7, 1941, did what no one in the United States was able to do. It united the American people, even the anti-war isolationists, in what became not a war but a crusade against the Japanese, ending at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.