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The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific

17 May 24

209 pages

John M. Jennings, PhD

Professor of History, United States Air Force Academy

The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific is a collection of seven articles edited by John H. Maurer, Alfred Thayer Mahan Distinguished Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the United States Naval War College, and Erik Goldstein, professor of international relations and history at Boston University. The articles, with one exception, deal with multifarious aspects of great power competition in Asia and the Pacific from the end of World War I to the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. In addition to editing the volume and writing the introduction, Maurer and Goldstein each contributed an article.

The first article in the volume, by Goldstein, recaps the attempts by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to develop a system of arms control and international cooperation in East Asia in the aftermath of World War I. Concerned with establishing international stability postwar and, coincidentally, re-establishing Britain’s dominant position in East Asia, Lloyd George was confronted with managing an emerging three-power rivalry with Japan and the United States. His diplomatic efforts played no small role in achieving a measure of success at the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Conference in 1922, which, as Goldstein describes, was a cornerstone of the new, if short-lived liberal world order after World War I.

Peter Mauch’s article, the next in the volume, examines the thinking of Japan’s naval leadership in the interwar years. As Mauch explains, Japanese naval leaders and their various media proxies were decidedly ambivalent about the results of the Washington Treaty. While one faction supported naval arms limitation because it provided security guarantees for Japan’s position in the western Pacific and prevented an expensive naval arms race, a second faction reflexively opposed the treaty on the grounds that it forced Japan into a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the United States and Great Britain. Ultimately, the latter faction essentially won the debate, which not only contributed to the failure of subsequent attempts at naval arms limitation, but eventually led to the collapse of the naval arms limitation regime by the mid-1930s.

One of the main causes of the growing tension among the three powers was Japan’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in China, which is the focus of the next article, by Grant F. Rhode. As Rhode explains, the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek was confronted with a growing two-front conflict in the 1930s: on one hand, he was continuing his attempts to defeat the communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong; on the other, Japanese aggression led to the outbreak of a full-scale war in July 1937. Eventually, the latter played no small role in provoking the tensions with the United States that led to the Pacific War in 1941.

Maurer’s article, the fourth in the volume, examines the strategic and political dilemmas confronting Winston Churchill as Great Britain’s wartime prime minister. Faced with an existential struggle against Nazi Germany and acutely aware of an overstretched Britain’s vulnerability in Asia, Churchill assiduously courted American assistance. This led him to support his close political ally President Franklin Roosevelt as United States-Japanese tensions worsened in 1940-1941, despite the risk to Britain’s position in Asia. When war with Japan came in December 1941, Churchill finally gained the unqualified American support, without which it would not have been possible to defeat the Axis powers.

The fifth article, by Walter A. McDougle, describes the evolution of Roosevelt’s strategic thinking in the interwar years. A supporter of the Washington treaty system, and by extension the postwar liberal order in the 1920s, Roosevelt realised that an increasingly aggressive Japan and Nazi Germany necessitated a buildup of American military power in the 1930s and strove to do so within a domestic political environment constrained by isolationism. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor finally eliminated that constraint. The sixth article, by Richard B. Frank, which deals with the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, follows up on McDougle’s contribution by emphasising Roosevelt’s linkage of the conflicts in Europe and Asia in his strategic thinking.

The final article, by Yoshihara Toshi, is an outlier in that it does not address the history of the interwar years, like the other six contributions. Instead, Yoshihara examines how present-day Chinese military leaders and commentators view the opening of hostilities in a potential war in the Pacific. Yoshihara explains that Chinese thinking reveals a considerable temptation to initiate hostilities in a future conflict with a pre-emptive strike against American and Japanese military assets, such as Yokosuka naval base. Whether the Chinese will succumb to this temptation and where it will lead of course remains to be seen.

On the whole, the raison d’etre for this volume is puzzling. It does not provide any new or original insights into the history of the interwar years in East Asia as the articles largely tend to be superficial rehashes of English-language secondary works, and its focus on political, military, and diplomatic leaders seems curiously archaic from a historiographic standpoint. Moreover, as indicated in the concluding article by Yoshihara, the editors seem to want to make the case that the current situation in Asia and Pacific parallels the interwar years in the sense that the breakdown of the liberal international order and return to great power competition sparked conflict, but they do so tentatively at best. History certainly does not repeat itself, and whether it even rhymes in this case is a debatable premise to say the least.