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Counterfactual or alternative history is useful if it sheds light on the cause and effect of actual events. Given that the Japan themselves thought that it would be possible to win the war, albeit knowing it to be a risky adventure, it seems worthwhile to pursue the idea that their victory was a possibility. In 1941 Hirohito and his ministers were not looking to suicide the nation. In this respect looking at the Pacific War in an ‘alternative’ way’ is particularly useful because of the overwhelming post-war consensus that American victory was inevitable. It was a consensus based on the fact that America’s population in 1939 (130m) was almost double that of Japan (71m) and that its economy was over ten times greater: $85bn versus $7.5bn. Even a Great Britain in decline had a GDP four times greater than that of Japan.

Economic rationalism based on size is not the only determinant of outcome in war however. Goliath defeated David; the puny city-states of Greece defeated the mighty Persian Empire of the Achaemenid dynasty and the poor upstart 17th Century Kingdom of Prussia had by the end of the 19th Century defeated the Hapsburg Empire. Having unified the states of Germany, Bismarck’s armies humbled France at the Battle of Sedan and the Siege of Paris in 1871, leading to the crowning of Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I at the Palace of Versailles. Americans, inhabiting a few mainly agrarian colonies on the eastern seaboard of America defeated a mighty European power, Great Britain, in the War of Independence. Japan itself had shocked the world when it destroyed the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima and the Russian Army at the Battle of Mukden. Size is an important but not a single arbiter of power – otherwise logic would dictate that the world by now would have been united by a single nation.

Distance, Logistics and Extension of Power: Historically the sea has been a limiting factor in the extension of sovereignty of even the greatest of powers. Caesar may have crossed the channel to conquer Britain, just as Scipio Africanus crossed the Mediterranean to conquer north Africa and Gustavus Adolphus crossed the Baltic to conquer northern Europe but successful overseas expeditions have been relatively rare. Often they have been disastrous. The mighty Persians failed miserably to subdue the Greeks when they were heavily defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC and ten years later their invasion fleet was crushed at the Battle of Salamis. The Athenian Empire collapsed in 415BC after the Great Sicilian Expedition to Sicily to conquer Syracuse ended in the complete annihilation of its army; Great Britain failed to defeat America in spite of the support of almost 30 per cent of the American colonists – the Loyalists; Hitler failed even to get his armies across the 20-mile wide Channel to defeat the British in 1940. In the face of historical precedent it seems clear that the defeat and conquest of Japan almost 5,500 miles away across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean should not be dismissed by historians as an inevitability.

Exerting power over long distances is not easy. Both the Korean War and the Vietnam War would underline this difficulty. Because of the need for a country to be able to exert power over long distances and over seas, the only time a country was ever in a position to exert total global power was in the period immediately after the Second World War ended in 1945. As the world’s only atomic power, America could conceivably have ruled the world; but sticking closely to the principles of the Atlantic Charter it chose not to in spite of its increasing suspicions about Soviet intentions. This brief moment of possibility ended when the Soviet Union became the world’s second nuclear power on 29 August 1949.

However America’s ability to extend power on a global scale did not exist when the prospect of a major war developed after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Far from being a global military power, America was not even in a position to defend its homeland let alone its Empire – an Empire that stretched from the Caribbean to the frozen wastes of Alaska with tendrils of the Aleutian chain stretching into the north Pacific, the conquered nation of Hawaii in mid-Pacific and countless islands therein, its trading concessions in China and its most important imperial asset, the Philippines.

In 1939 America had an army of little more than 100,000 combat troops, fewer than Spain, Portugal, Belgium or Holland. While Germany had 136 divisions in the field and 70 in reserve, America was not capable in 1939 of putting a single division into the field. The US Army did not have enough bullets for a single day of fighting. It was entirely deficient in rifles let alone tanks and artillery. In spite of America’s lead in the aerospace industries, the US Air Force was threadbare – its planes were far too few and technologically out-dated. Even the Navy fell well short of the levels that were allowed under the terms of the 1930 London Naval Treaty. Furthermore American sentiment, after the experience of World War I was keenly isolationist and hostile to the villainous ‘merchants of death’ (arms dealers) that New Deal liberals conjured up as the enemies of the principal American people. In addition America’s President Roosevelt had sworn to the electorate before winning a second term of office in 1936 and again in 1940 that he would eschew foreign involvements.

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.

Weapons that could have won Japan the War: In the aftermath of the Washington Naval Conference [1922], new weapons were developed by Japan to overcome what they saw as its unfair and strategically critical numerical disadvantage in capital ships. The Type 93 torpedo, which became known as the ‘long lance’ after the war, was developed to provide an attack range that would give the Japanese Navy an advantage in the anticipated decisive battle between battleships. By devising a fuel feed-in system that changed from compressed air on firing to pure oxygen, Japan’s torpedo designers were able to increase the range of their torpedoes by 500 per cent as well as the size of their warhead. [See Appendix A Submarines] For Japan’s destroyers and cruisers the torpedo became the primary weapon of attack. In surface engagements such as the Battle of Savo Island and the Battle of Tassafaronga, the ‘long lance’ proved a devastating weapon. For the Japanese navy the ‘long lance’ torpedo, rather than guns became the main weapon of attack. It was an advantage enhanced by Japan’s abilities in night fighting, which had been honed during the interwar period. It was potentially a war-winning weapon.

In tandem with the development of the Type 93 torpedo for aircraft, the Navy also developed the similar though slightly smaller Type 95 for submarines. Indeed in the interwar period the Japanese Navy put a high degree of emphasis on submarine development, which was not controlled by the limits of the Washington Conference. However while the Japanese Navy produced numerous innovative designs, particularly for cargo submarines and aircraft carrying submarines that dwarfed in size those produced by the United States, they suffered from relative structural weakness, which made them more susceptible to depth charges. Most importantly the Japanese Navy failed to come up with a design, which could be mass-produced. [See Appendix A Submarines]

Japan’s super-battleships, Musashi and Yamato (along with two others planned but never built) were also designed to be war-winning weapons when their keels were laid in 1934. Their size enabled them to carry larger guns that could project shells some five miles further than their US counterparts – a considerable advantage in a classic surface action. Unfortunately for Japan many of their own Admirals, including Yamamoto and Inoue, considered them ‘white elephants’ for a future they believed belonged to the aircraft carrier. That is not to say that aircraft carrier development was ignored. Indeed Japan’s carriers were a match for those of the United States – at least in attack. In defence it would later become apparent that there were defects in Japanese carrier design, notably their enclosed hangar decks, their fuel tanks, their failure to install self-sealing fuel lines and their relatively scant fire fighting drills.

However the development of the Mitsubishi Zero as a carrier fighter gave Japan a significant advantage at the start of the war. Furthermore the development of long-range aircraft, both bombers and torpedo planes would give their carriers first strike advantage in any carrier-on-carrier battle. Perhaps most importantly Japan had given consideration to operational techniques in terms of coordination of aircraft for mass attack, which were vastly superior to those of the US Navy. By Nimitz’s own admission his carriers were completely outmatched at the beginning of the Pacific War by the superiority of Japan’s flyers and their weaponry.

At the beginning of the war Japan had distinct advantages in key areas of naval weaponry, submarines, torpedoes, battleships, carrier aircraft as well as important operational advantages including flying ability, coordination of air attack, range advantage and night fighting. These advantages, combined with US technical deficiencies, particularly in night fighting, aircraft and torpedoes could have enabled Japan to achieve overwhelming naval victories at the start of the Pacific War – victories possibly decisive enough to force an advantageous peace treaty on the United States.

As I conclude in Appendix A: Submarines: Japan was ‘undone by the failure of the Japanese Navy to develop war-winning tactics for their underwater weapons. Stuck between defensive and offensive priorities, the Imperial Japanese Navy developed a conservative, preservation oriented command strategy that negated their submarines’ devastating offensive potential. The emphasis on the overly cautious pursuit of US warships, meant that Japan’s submarines never fully exploited their potential to disrupt the long supply routes from America through the Pacific Ocean. Poor strategic thinking also undermined a building program, which was too scattergun in its approach, producing technologically innovative designs without consideration of the advantages of mass production of a few types of submarine. One can only imagine how the Pacific War might have been different if Japan, instead of wasting vast resources on the outdated battleship behemoths, Musashi and Yamato, had concentrated resources instead on the mass production of long distance submarines designed to sink US commercial ships.’

Even these failures may not have mattered if Japan rather than the United States had achieved the first overwhelming naval victory of the war at the Battle of Midway. In large part Japan’s failure in this battle can be attributed to failures of strategy and to one important area of weaponry in which it failed completely – namely intelligence. Given Japan’s belief in the importance of surprise it is curious that they failed to develop either good offensive intelligence or good counter-offensive intelligence. For all their superiority in weaponry at the start of the Pacific War, Japan’s failure to adequately protect or change their communication codes doomed them to be the surprised rather than the ‘surprisers’ in almost every engagement after Pearl Harbor.

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.

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.

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