Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War 1941-1945

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9780671792176: Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War 1941-1945

Dan van der Vat's naval histories have been acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic as “definitive,” “extraordinary,” and “vivid and harrowing.”

Now he turns to the greatest naval conflict in history: the Pacific campaign of World War II. Drawing on neglected archives of firsthand accounts from both sides, van der Vat interweaves eyewitness testimony with sharp, analytical narration to provide a penetrating reappraisal of the strategic and political background of both the Japanese and American forces, as well as a major reassessment of the role of intelligence on both sides. A comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of the war in the Pacific, The Pacific Campaign promises to be the standard work on the U.S.-Japanese war for years to come.

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About the Author:

Dan van der Vat is the author of The Atlantic Campaign, The Ship That Changed the World, Gentlemen of War, and The Grand Scuttle. He lives in London, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

THE VIEW FROM THE EAST

Japan's southward advance, even though it was in the opposite direction from all its previous expansion, derived directly from its military adventures, political scheming and economic ambitions on the Asian mainland. This is not to say that the move south was immutable fate, either for Japan or for its victims: the Japanese were and are as responsible for their own actions and choices as everyone else, regardless of foreign provocations and errors. Nevertheless, the short but brutish and nasty story of Japanese imperial expansion has features only too familiar to the students of past empires, whether the ancient Roman or the modern Russian. A power on the make begins to expand by "absorbing" its immediate neighbor (in Japan's case, Korea in 1910); to protect its acquisition, it conquers its neighbor's neighbor (Manchuria), sets up a buffer state (Manchukuo), creates another buffer (northern China), and uses that as a base to move against its next victim (China), and possibly its most deadly rival (the Soviet Union). We see imperialism imitating scientific principles such as Newton's first law of motion whereby movement continues unless halted (imperial inertia); the abhorrence of nature for a vacuum is parodied by imperialist opportunism, which drew Japan first into China, then down upon the Asiatic empires of the European powers involved in the war with Hitler's Germany.

It is not customary to refer, in the context of the Second World War, to "Tojo's Japan," or even Hirohito's; nor do we equate the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, formed in 1940 to absorb all Japanese political parties, with the National Socialist party, the only legal one in Hitler's Germany, even though the former was in some respects a conscious imitation of the latter. The truth is that the Japan which took on the world at war and lost was run by a military junta of no fixed composition -- a shifting, authoritarian oligarchy rather than a totalitarian dictatorship.

It came to the fore in Manchuria in 1928, when the "Kwantung Army," as the Japanese garrison was called, killed an intractable local warlord by causing an explosion on the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway (SMR). The junta won the support of most Japanese admirals in 1930, after the perceived "humiliation" of Japan at the London Naval Conference, about which more later. Japan was easily humiliated: rejection of any of its demands was enough. Aggravated by Japan's severe suffering in the Slump, which helped to undermine moderate, civilian influence in government, the rising junta's Kwantung branch staged another explosion on the SMR at Mukden in September 1931 as an excuse for conquering the rest of Manchuria in a few months. This euphemistically named "Manchuria Incident" led to the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the "Emperor" Pu-yi, scion of the deposed Manchu dynasty, which had ruled China until 1911. Encouraged by this cheap success and undeterred by international condemnation, which merely provoked Japan to flounce out of the tottering League of Nations in 1933, the junta ran off the rails altogether in 1937. At the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking, the Japanese "China Garrison Force," in place since the international suppression of the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1900, engineered a clash with a Chinese Army patrol. This was then used as an excuse to attack northern China -- all without consulting civilian or military superiors in Tokyo. The latter managed, however, to do what was expected of them: they sent reinforcements. The ensuing war, unwinnable for either side, spread across China; to the Japanese it always remained simply "the China Incident." It is not unreasonable to see in the manufactured clash of July 7, 1937, so similar to Hitler's ploy against Poland two years later, the true start of the Second World War, because these two participants fought each other continuously from then until 1945.

In its bid to become the USA of the western Pacific (a strictly economic ambition), Japan classed itself as a "have-not" nation with a legitimate grievance. What it really "had not," like Germany and Italy among the larger powers, was territorial acquisitions to exploit -- the only contemporary yardstick of greatness, even more important than a big navy. The rest of the world soon came to see Japan as an acquisitive aggressor, inordinately ambitious and completely ruthless. Japan came late -- indeed, last -- to old-style colonialism, but chose to learn nothing from its predecessors in this pursuit. Like them, it cared little for the feelings of the colonized; unlike them, it was never deterred by the views of the other powers, which it either ignored or used as grounds for more aggression while it built up its own empire. In this outlook it was very similar to Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, and even more under Hitler: unable or unwilling to distinguish between its needs and its wants, Japan helped itself to what it fancied and was quite often genuinely perplexed by the hostile reaction. Like Germany, where almost everyone who could walk and talk hated the Treaty of Versailles, Japan had an almighty bone to pick with the rest of the world. Most Japanese people regarded anyone who questioned their country's ambition as hostile and did not try to understand any other party's point of view. Where the rest of the world went wrong was in foolishly underestimating the unique capacity for self-sacrifice with which ordinary Japanese supported their country's aim to be a first-rate power.

There was much less disagreement among the Japanese (or in Germany) on the end than on the means of achieving the fulfillment of their country's "just demands." Hitler came to power on the back of the German national sense of grievance, and was as conscious as the Japanese military of the lessons of 1918. Like the Japanese, he thought his country was overcrowded and needed more territory, a rationalization of imperial ambition throughout the ages. The Nazis, like the Italian fascists, were a mass movement that rose to power from the grass roots under a populist leader, whereas the Japanese junta manipulated a complaisant emperor to impose its will from the top. But each Axis regime drew the same conclusion from Germany's defeat in 1918: the next war would be long, and therefore autarky, economic self-sufficiency, was the key to national security, military success and world domination. That was the only way to avoid a repetition of the blockade by sea and land which defeated Germany in 1918.

So, while Hitler schemed to acquire Lebensraum and Mussolini concentrated on empire-building in northeastern Africa, the Japanese were busy inventing the "New Order in East Asia" (1938) and the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (1940), both designed to subordinate the region to the perpetual benefit and glory of a self-sustaining, greater Japan. Tokyo had some success at first in presenting this as a crusade against Euro-American domination of Asia. It won over many indigenous nationalists in British, French and Dutch colonies -- at least until the Japanese Army arrived and lent new vigor to the old military customs of rape and pillage. The Germans made exactly the same error in the Soviet Union: each army behaved as the master race in arms; each used the stratagem of surprise attack without declaration of war, and then Blitzkrieg tactics, to get its way. But whereas Hitler dominated his generals and admirals the Japanese general staffs dominated Japan. The consequences for their victims were remarkably similar. There was, for example, not much to choose, except in such matters as climate and language, for the doubly unfortunate Dutch between life in the Netherlands under Nazi rule and in the East Indies under the Japanese.

Small wonder that Reich and Empire were to become allies regardless of reciprocal racial disdain. The first concrete sign of things to come was Japan's decision to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in November 1936 (the Comintern -- Communist International -- was the Soviet mechanism for controlling foreign communist parties). A secret provision required each signatory not to help the Soviet Union if the other went to war against it; the published text was a vague commitment to oppose communism and all its works wherever they might be found. The future Axis partners had identified their overwhelming common interest: the Soviet Union, principal potential enemy of each.

For Japan this was just one of many fateful decisions that led to its disastrous war with the United States. The Slump became a time for taking tough measures at home -- and taking sides abroad. The Pacific Campaign cannot be properly understood unless it is seen in the context of Japan's prewar domestic and foreign policies and the links between the two, as summarized below.

Foreigners had (and have) great difficulty in understanding how Japan worked as a state and who was really in charge. The Japanese had gone so far as to imitate the West in having a symbolic head of state and an executive, a legislature, a judiciary, an army, and a navy all formally answerable to him. The fact that the Army and the Navy were, as centers of power in the state, at least equal to the civilian organs of government rather than subject to their authority was not outside Western experience. In making this ultimately disastrous arrangement in the constitutional changes of 1889, the Japanese were only copying the Prussians who dominated Europe as the world's strongest military power for more than half a century, until 1918, on just such a basis (the Japanese chose to copy the British in establishing a House of Lords and a battle fleet and imitated the French in such areas as law and education). The independence of the military dated from the creation, in 1878, of general staffs for Army and Navy directly under the emperor and outside the control of the Diet (parliament) or even the Cabinet. The paradox was that the emperor, unlike the Kaiser, did not feel free to intervene in government. He exercised his influence through his personal advisers or in private meetings with those, such as key ministers and chiefs of staff, who had the right of access to the throne. Thus his divine status was protected by noninvolvement in day-to-day policy with all its disputes, errors, and corruption; by the same token, those with real power could hide behind the façade of imperial rule whenever convenient, an excellent incentive for irresponsibility on all sides.

This gave very broad latitude indeed to leaders whose actions were rendered immune from challenge by the simple device of being declared as done "in the name of the emperor." A general could tell Hirohito, with the customary groveling and outward respect, what he was planning; the emperor had no power to stop him, so the general could then inform the Cabinet of what he was about to do, overriding any objections by laying claim to imperial sanction. From the turn of the century, the ministers responsible for the Army and the Navy had to be officers from the relevant service. After 1936 they had to be on the active list, to prevent the appointment of men from the retired list as a means of getting round the wishes of the serving generals and admirals. This gave the general staffs not only the decisive say (or veto) on individual appointments to these posts but also the power to prevent the formation of a new government, simply by refusing to supply serving officers to fill them. If they did not like a prime-ministerial nominee, they would decline to provide a general (as the Army did in 1940, for example) or an admiral as Army or Navy minister -- even if the would-be premier had found favor with palace advisers and been recommended by them to the emperor. The three key men in each service -- minister, chief of staff, and inspector-general of education and training -- were thus free to pick their own successors without consulting any outsider, whether emperor, prime minister or the rival service.

The two armed forces were not required to inform the Cabinet of their strength and dispositions, in peace or even in wartime. Thus the claims by such as ex-Prime Minister Tojo and ex-Foreign Minister Togo at the Tokyo war-crimes trial that they were not told in advance of the Pearl Harbor plan (or of the great American victory at Midway for weeks after the event) are not as ludicrous as they seemed when they were first made. With this kind of contemptuous conduct as the norm in the highest ranks, it is hardly surprising that the Japanese forces were more Prussian than the Prussians, not to say medieval, in their approach to discipline. Brutality was institutionalized to a degree probably unparalleled anywhere in the modern world. Boy officer-candidates were put in harsh premilitary academies and cadet schools with narrow curricula, hard physical routines and very little intellectual training (something the Germans did not neglect). Free discussion and intelligent questioning were forbidden on pain of severe punishment, ensuring that the Japanese military elite was unimaginative, rigid, undemocratic, inflexible and totally lacking in initiative. This goes a long way toward explaining the sheer, all-embracing inadequacy of the Japanese leadership, overwhelmingly military in background as it was, before and during the war.

Training was aimed at producing in all ranks total, unquestioning obedience to orders, including standing prohibitions against retreat, surrender, and being taken alive. If captured wounded or unconscious, the Japanese officer or enlisted man was expected to kill himself for shame when he was able to, even if he had managed to return to his own side. Such was the "Japanese spirit" inculcated at all levels, the mind-over-matter approach which persuaded hundreds of thousands to fight on beyond reason and throw their lives away. This, the unimportance of the individual in Japanese society at large and the psychic and physical explosion which took place when the constraint of total obedience was lifted from victorious troops licensed to rape and pillage after a victory, goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar horrors inflicted by the Japanese upon the troops, civilians and even the children of the enemy. Life was cheap in Japan; those in its services were as unlikely as anyone else to place greater value on an enemy than they did on themselves.

Japanese military leaders chose to believe that Germany's 1918 defeat was overwhelmingly caused by lack of raw materials. The idea that constitutional flaws such as overexaltation of the Kaiser or the assignment of undue weight to the opinions of the general staff might have contributed to driving Germany into an avoidable war did not occur to them. It was one of those errors Japanese officers were not intellectually trained to identify. Officers accepted no blame for their actions because they were obeying orders or executing the emperor's will (theoretically the same thing). There was nobody in a position to correct them, even if the emperor occasionally would not conceal his displeasure over military mistakes. But failure, if identified and made public, meant shame, and shame entailed ritual suicide in the samurai's Bushido code. Further, generals and admirals, exhausted in late middle age by a lifetime of repression and out of touch with the lower orders, fell under the influence of the younger, more vigorous middle-rankers. The captains, majors and colonels commanded the individual ships, battalions and squadrons or did all the work on the staff; they often came from rural backgrounds and were in touch with the peasants in uniform who constituted the majority of their men. These officers too were unable to act on their ow...

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