PEARL: DECEMBER 7, 1941

Reviewed by: ADMIRAL SIR NIGEL ESSENHIGH

The 7th of December 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an event which President Roosevelt in his address to both houses of Congress on the 8th described as “a date which will live in infamy”. So, it is timely to consider this recent account by Daniel Allen Butler which is remarkable for the ground it covers in only 354 pages, a very broad sweep, of which the few hours of the attack are but a part.  It is an engrossing piece of work which is divided into three clear sections.

The first six chapters, 180 pages, comprise a comprehensive review of the historical, political, economic, cultural and military developments in both Japan and the United States that led the countries to find themselves in a diplomatic confrontation which culminated in Japan’s surprise attack, even though there had not been a formal declaration of war.  Japan’s growth into an imperial power is charted as is her industrialisation and the way in which economic development became critically dependent on imports, particularly of oil from the US.  All but a tiny fraction of the country’s needs for raw materials lay geographically close at hand but outside Japanese control. Perhaps most notable is the increasing domination by the military of the Japanese government, particularly from 1931, and hence their overriding influence on the country’s foreign policy. Japanese military victories, particularly that over the Russian Navy at Tsushima, led to what the author describes as “a dangerous delusion for it encouraged military adventurism”. The Japanese Imperial Navy also developed a strategic doctrine of ‘the Decisive Battle’, posited on the idea that an enemy’s strength could be whittled away in a series of smaller tactical actions.  The enemy battle fleet would then be lured into a major engagement in which it would be decisively defeated, leading to the enemy negotiating for peace. This approach governed how the Imperial Navy was shaped and how most senior officers thought and planned.

In America’s case, we see how the inter-war period was dominated by economic woes which, when coupled with a widespread determination never again to be sucked into another European war, led to the armed forces being drastically reduced and starved of resources.  By 1929, the impact of the Great Depression caused America’s non-interventionist stance to morph into outright isolationism, with echoes of the Monroe Doctrine of a 100 years earlier.  The author cites the US approach to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, in flagrant beach of the Nine Power Treaty of 1922, as being the tipping point at which, in the unlikely event there would be any Congressional support for military action, the US Army and Navy did not have the capability to intervene.  Apart from expressing moral outrage and sending stiff notes to both China and Japan, America appeared impotent.  Subsequently, and as the situation in Europe was deteriorating, a succession of neutrality Acts passed through Congress in the 1930s, the aims of which were to restrict US businesses and citizens in supplying, funding, or taking part in the activities of belligerent nations.  However, when Japan invaded China in 1937, Roosevelt felt empowered to circumvent those acts through technicalities, enabling limited support to China.  Nevertheless, although the US underestimated the resilience of the Japanese economy to pursue the war in China, buoyed by their continuing expansionist successes, Tokyo failed to recognise that, even as America reeled under the impact of the Depression, the economic potential of the United States dwarfed that of Japan. In short, it would prove to be the costliest miscalculation in the history of the Empire.

The book then shifts focus and, in the following 170 pages, charts the lead-up to the attack and describes, largely through first-hand accounts, the events of that Sunday morning in Pearl Harbor.

With the opening of hostilities in Europe in 1939, the United States Navy was ordered to prioritise its activities towards the Atlantic leaving its Pacific Fleet at a distinct numeric disadvantage to the Japanese Imperial Fleet.  However, in response to Japanese adventurism, the bulk of the US Pacific Fleet had been transferred from the west coast of the USA to Hawaii.  There were then serious failures in dissemination of American intelligence in the period leading up to the attack. The author provides some interesting detail about how the Americans were able to break into Japanese diplomatic cypher systems from which numerous leading indicators could have been derived had the information been shared with those who absolutely needed to know but, for a variety of often petty reasons, were excluded.  Most significantly, the roles and activities of Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet, and Lieutenant General Walter Short, Commandant of the Hawaiian Military Department, are examined in some detail.  It is easy to allocate blame in retrospect but Short’s attitude towards the readiness of the islands’ air defences, for which he – not the Navy – was responsible, contributed in large part to the overwhelming success of the Japanese air attack. Short was convinced that the greatest threat to Hawaii was from amphibious assault, coupled with possible saboteur action against the various US airfields.  Virtually ignoring the possibility of a carrier-borne air attack, he gave orders that all aircraft were to be parked in serried ranks where they could better be guarded against sabotage, rather than dispersing them around the airfields to reduce their vulnerability to enemy air. In so doing, he presented the Japanese Air Fleet with juicy and virtually undefended targets. In the US Navy’s case, the assembled fleet was operating what the RN might call Sunday Harbour Routine. Battleships and cruisers were rafted up on trots in pairs with smaller vessels in multiple berths. Damage control states were relaxed, and orders had been given that only one, unspecified, anti-aircraft weapon was be kept at readiness. Many ships opted for the lowest manning option, machine guns with limited ammunition supplied.

Three things jump out from this section.  The first is the extraordinarily detailed planning of the Japanese mission, its huge scale, its flawless execution, and the masterly way in which they concealed the large carrier battle group from detection, achieving total surprise.  The second is, despite the US fleet’s unreadiness, the speed with which at least some of the American crews responded in bringing a measure of AA fire to bear on their attackers.  The third, which comes through very clearly from the numerous, first-hand accounts, is the scale of the carnage and the brave, resolute attempts by so many officers and men to effect damage control, firefighting and rescue, often against hopeless odds.

The final chapters describe some of the aftermath, the recriminations, and the almost instantaneous shifting of gear in Washington as America finally opened the industrial taps and made ready for war.  The author goes on to give a very brief account of the remaining, key phases of the Pacific war drawing out the point that 7 December 1941 was indeed the zenith of Japanese Imperial power. Despite fighting bitterly, they were gradually rolled back, island by island, over the next 4 years.  Pitted against the overwhelming industrial might of the USA, ultimate defeat was inevitable.  In short, Pearl Harbour was a notable tactical victory, but it was not and never would lead to the desired ‘Decisive battle’.  Only one senior Japanese officer, Admiral Yamamoto who had spent much time in America, appears to have recognised the potential folly of attacking Pearl harbour and awakening the “sleeping giant”.

This is a very readable book, and is strongly recommended to NR members, particularly those having only a passing understanding of the events that, 80 years ago, that finally drew America into WWII.