Pearl Harbor; From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson.

Pearl Harbor; From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson. Scribners, 2017 paper.

            Craig Nelson argues that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Oahu) on 7 December 1941 was intended to keep the USA out of the Pacific Theater until Japan had occupied Europe’s resource-rich colonial territories and integrated them into the Japanese war economy. Japan was critically short on fuel supplies and looked with envious eyes at the oil rich Dutch East Indies. It had been diverted from its Imperial quest in the Pacific by its preoccupation with the Chinese theater.

We were also consolidating our position in the Pacific Ocean. Once based in southern California, our Pacific fleet had been moved to a forward base on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. By 1941 Oahu had a dozen installations and was our largest base in the Pacific. The Pearl Harbor Naval Base was the most important of those military installations, home port to battleships, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and miscellaneous service ships. Fortunately its aircraft carriers were out at sea on 7 December 1941. There were also several army units. An American territory since 1898, Hawaii must be protected from invasion like our other possessions in the Pacific.

            It was argued that the presence of our navy and army mid-Pacific would act as a constraint on Japanese ambitions. Hence Japan and the United States were exercising their versions of the Monroe Doctrine.

            Japanese military and civilian elites had been divided about the wisdom of the raid. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack, had toured the US a few years earlier and had decided that our industrial capabilities – and our ability to wage war in the Pacific – far exceeded existing and potential Japanese capabilities. Furthermore, the US would retain that overwhelming strength when both were fully mobilized.

 However, both the Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo had to be convinced of the wisdom of the Pearl Harbor attack. And much of Nelson’s account is about the dialogue between the Japanese high command and civilian politicians. Could there have been some resolution short of war? Nelson seems to think so.

The Japanese benefitted from the element of surprise. We had been breaking their Naval and Diplomatic Codes right along. Which meant that we often had information about fleet movements. Japan had concluded that we were reading coded messages exchanged by their diplomats in Washington and London. They began using a more sophisticated code, “Purple” which had not yet been broken.

Nevertheless there were indications of Japanese naval ships in the Pacific. Perhaps the most significant tip off about a surprise attack was the fact that the Japanese Embassies in London and Washington were burning their code books.

Nelson makes the point that there was little cohesion in the response of the various American agencies to what the code breakers were learning. This became obvious when various investigating committees after the Pearl Harbor raid looked into what amounted to an intelligence disaster.

Blame was spread around from President Roosevelt on down. The Pearl Harbor command was subject to the most criticism. It could not explain why there was no surveillance aircraft in operation and why the gates to the port facilities were left open allowing submarines and torpedoes to fire away at the docked ships.

The plan called for three waves of attacking aircraft. The third wave never happened. Nelson believes that it would likely have been a misfortune for the Japanese if it had been launched. By this time, the surprise was over and the American forces were beginning to respond. And the Japanese attacking force was running out of fuel.

A third raid might, however, have gotten around to destroying the oil storage tanks. Hence there remained a good supply of aviation fuel after the first two waves to power the American arsenal. 

Vengeance! FDR was good at reading the American public. Hence he immediately ordered the special mission led by Colonel James Doolittle in March 1942 to avenge Pearl Harbor. Pilots, navigators, and bombardiers were recruited to take off on sixteen carrier-based B-25 bombers on a mission that would target Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagasaki. They were to drop incendiary bombs, the idea being to destroy by fire large sections of these Japanese cities. The firebombing proved hugely successful against Japan’s wooden housing; sadly the death toll of non-combatants was shocking. 

Nelson tells various stories about their fates. Those captured by the Japanese in occupied China were either executed or left to starve in prisons. The Chinese hid some. Some died in crash landings.

The recruits asked to be allowed to go after the Emperor, but were ordered not to do so. It would only stiffen Japanese resolve.  And well that the Emperor survived the bombing. It was Emperor Hirohito who finally made the decision to end the war.

Down the road a lot of Americans wondered about the strategy of killing civilians with incendiaries. Hindsight is always better than decisions made in the heat of warfare. Our insistence on unconditional surrender may have kept the Japanese fighting longer. The Japanese Homeland would have been defended in the spirit of the samurai and involved huge casualties. All things considered, Nelson concludes that the Doolittle Raid was an acceptable alternative. 


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