The Disaster that Shortened World War II
Yesterday marked the 64th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The day was filled by the usual rememberances--and concerns that Americans will eventually forget the day's significance, as the last survivors of the Japanese surprise attack pass on.
Pearl Harbor clearly represents a watershed in American histoy. From that day, U.S. isolationism disappeared forever. Less that four years later, the United States emerged victorious from World War II, having built the most powerful military in the history of the world, leading the defeat of facisim in Europe and the Pacific, and ushering in the the nuclear age.
The debacle at Pearl Harbor remains a source of speculation and conjecture. Day of Deceit, the 2001 best-seller by journalist Robert Stinnett presents a compelling case that FDR (and other senior officials) "allowed" the attack to occur, believing it was necessary for Japan to provoke U.S. entry into World War II. If you buy Stinnett's argument, FDR and his military commanders were reading secret Japanese messages months before the attack occured. They postulated that the strike would occur elsewhere (probably the Philippines), and that our military forces could surive the strike with minimal damage. Such conspiracy theories have been roundly rejected by other historians, including the late Gordon Prange and Donald Goldstein, who believe that no one in the U.S. government had advanced knowledge of the Japanese attack.
Other elements of the Pearl Harbor story also invite historical scrutiny, including the question of whether the disaster actually shortened the war. Consider this: U.S. strategy for fighting Japan in 1941 was based on the outdated War Plan Orange, first developed in the 1920s. The plan was based on a number of faulty assumptions, including the idea that the war would develop slowly, giving the U.S. time to fully mobilize its fleet, then sail across the Pacific and defeat the Japanese forces somewhere between the Philippines and Japan's home islands. War Plan Orange made little provisions for the impact of aircraft carriers, submarines, or long-range, land-based aircraft. It envisioned a decisive, "Jutland of the Pacific," fought by opposing lines of battleships.
In retrospect, it seems likely that the United States would have lost such a battle. Surface engagements fought during the first year of the Pacific War, notably the Naval Battle of Guadacanal and Savo Island demonstrated that the Japanese were better a long-range gunnery and night-fighting than their American counterparts during the early stages of the war. Additionally, the American battleships that would have sortied from Pearl Harbor in 1941 lacked radar, and were out-gunned by Japanese dreadnoughts, putting them at a disadvantage in a surface battle. U.S. carrier aircraft of the pre-war era were also antiquated, and were not effectively integrated into the battle plan.
Exploiting American weaknesses, the Japanese could have easily won a "decisive" naval battle fought on the high seas in 1941. After neutralizing the U.S. carrier force, Japanese commanders would turn their attention to the American battle line, probably attacking under the cover of darkness. In the ensuing melee, it is likely that the U.S. would have lost several capital ships, forcing it to retire to the east. Decimated in the engagement, the Pacific Fleet would have been forced to retreat to bases in California, leaving key U.S. positions (including Hawaii) exposed, and cutting off the Philippines and Australia. Under that scenario, the Australia, Midway and Hawaii might also have fallen (along with the Philippines), forcing the U.S. to literally fight its way from the West Coast to Japan, prolonging the war by at least another 2-3 years, and possibly compelling the U.S. to develop (and begin using) atomic weapons much earlier.
Given our military deficiencies in 1941, the disater at Pearl Harbor may have well averted an even greater disaster at sea. Executing Plan Orange might have resulted in a catastrophic naval defeat, on the scale of Trafalgar or the Spanish Armada. And,as a consequence, the war in the Pacific would have lasted much, much longer, and resulted in hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions of additional casualties. As tragic as Pearl Harbor was, it may have actually saved us from an even greater military disaster that would have profoundly alterted the war, and possibly, its outcome.