"We had about 4.5 million barrels of oil out there and all of it was vulnerable to .50-caliber bullets. Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, it would have prolonged the war another two years." -- Admiral Chester Nimitz
Seventy-five years ago today, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched the most suicidal naval attack in modern history. It was strategically suicidal. It was also tactically suicidal. The fleet's commander, Admiral Nagumo, announced that it had been a great success, turned the fleet around, and sailed back to Japan. Six months later, the fleet's four largest carriers were sunk at Midway, including Nagumo's Akagi.
STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES
There were six crucial targets at Pearl Harbor: the fighter planes that had been conveniently lined up along the runways by General Short, who somehow feared sabotage from a ground attack; the oil storage tanks; the two oil tankers; the dry docks repair facility; the electrical power system; and the basement-based cryptography center. The Japanese knew about all except the last. They targeted only the planes and fighting ships.
Then there were the three aircraft carriers that operated out of Pearl Harbor: the Lexington, the Saratoga, and the Enterprise. They were not at Pearl Harbor that day. Tough luck for Japan, yet not strategically crucial. Only the Enterprise was among the three carriers that sank all four Japanese carriers at Midway.
If the Japanese Navy in 1941 had sent only two carriers, and had instructed the pilots to attack only the oil storage tanks, the two oil tankers, and the dry dock, the Japanese Navy would have had at least two years of smooth sailing. But then it would have been sunk. American mass production would have accomplished this, especially if Hitler had not declared war on the U.S. on December 11. That act completed Hitler's trifecta of military stupidity: letting the British Army escape at Dunkirk in May/June 1940; invading the USSR on June 22, 1941; and declaring war on the United States -- needlessly, since the Axis pact had been defensive only. Japan had started the war.
What was militarily crucial after December 7 was the fact that the U.S. Navy's HYPO cryptography unit in the basement soon cracked the Japanese JN-25 naval code by using IBM punch card tabulating machines. They knew where and when the Japanese naval attack at Midway would begin: June 4, 1942. Admiral Spruance provided Admiral Nagumo with a memorable lesson in surprise tactics. The Japanese government never informed the Japanese of this crippling defeat during the war. They did not tell Tojo for a month.
Things don't always work out the way military central planners expect.
Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor sank four battleships and damaged four others. All but two of the eight battleships were back in service before the war ended. All eight were old. Even new battleships were obsolete strategically as primary warships by 1941. Aircraft carriers were the heart of a modern navy by then. Japanese planes also sank or damaged 13 other support ships, which counted for nothing strategically.
What we are rarely told is that there were a hundred ships, not counting the carriers, at Pearl Harbor that day. So, the 353 Japanese planes failed to damage 79 ships out of 100.
'Twas a famous victory.
The entire operation had been premised on a strategy. This strategy rested on two assumptions. First, the United States would not be able to attack Japan for two years after Pearl Harbor. If the planes had taken out the oil storage tanks, this strategy of delaying America's response might have worked. Second, the Japanese military strategists believed that they could negotiate with the United States from a position of strength, which the government of the USA would recognize as a good reason to sign a peace treaty with the nation that had attacked its Navy on a Sunday morning. Three words describe this assumption: blind beyond belief.
UNIFORMED BLIND MEN'S BLUFF
How could the military strategists in Japan have been so blind? Because they thought that military conquest is economically efficient, whereas trade is for civilian sissies.
Japanese military leaders were building a military empire. They were using military power in China to set up the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." They had invaded French (Vichy) Indo-China the previous September. Then, on July 26, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt unilaterally froze all Japanese assets in American banks. A week layer, he unilaterally forbade oil exports to Japan, an embargo that he coordinated with Britain and the Dutch East indies. Japan instantly lost 90% of its oil supplies. The ultimatum was clear: back out of China and Indo-China or get no oil. The Japanese military controlled the government. It would not back off. So, it decided to go to war with the United States.
The main problem with military planners is they are central planners. They think through their plans from the top down. They assume that they can coordinate the intricate complexity of life. They face this inescapable problem: "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." Definition: No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. Then, once they have dragged the nation into war, they must finance it. They must plan to run a war from a top-down military command, but they must tax the market to pay for the war. As Hayek showed in his 1945 essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," no central planning committee has sufficient knowledge to plan the entire economy. Only individuals in a free market possess this kind of detailed local knowledge. The price system provides individual decision-makers with the information they need to allocate resources rationally, i.e., in terms of customer demand. In short, central planners are blind.
They are also arrogant. They think they have the ability to coordinate all aspects of production. Military central planners are the blindest central planners of all. They have guns. They shoot people who resist on both sides of the battle lines. Yet they can barely figure out how to coordinate a single battle plan.
A German diplomat stationed in Washington in April 1941 told his government that the Americans had cracked Japan's diplomatic code. This information was forwarded to Japan. The military did not believe this. They would not believe that Americans could crack their diplomatic code, let alone their naval codes. They retained the code. The best-laid plans . . .
The military delivered the final declaration of war -- Part 14 -- to the Foreign Office in Tokyo without accounting for the time required for the bureaucrats in the Japanese embassy in Washington to translate all 14 parts and deliver the declaration by 1 p.m. on Sunday to the Americans. First, it was not a formal declaration of war.
Japanese culture does not allow the use of direct confrontational language. Confrontations must be concealed by verbal fog. Second, the attack began before the note was delivered. It was a sneak attack. It was regarded as such by Americans. One word took over in the thinking of Americans: revenge. This culminated with atomic bombs. The best-laid plans . . .
Admiral Yamamoto sent two carriers to the Aleutians in early June of 1942. There, a pilot crashed his Zero into the mud. He was killed, but his plane was intact. Americans found it in mid-July, brought it stateside, repaired it, and flew it. This way, American fighter plane designers learned of its weaknesses. By 1943, the Zero was at a disadvantage. Japan never came up with significant improvements in design. The best-laid plans . . .
The Pearl Harbor attack may be the finest example of central planning blindness in modern history. The Navy's planners ignored American naval logistics altogether: oil, electrical power, and ship repair facilities. These were not regarded as relevant tactically or strategically. Attacking these logistical supports would not enhance military honor. They were not examples of warriors battling warriors. They were not matters of life-and-death confrontation in battle, which was basic to the Japanese military: the code of honor. Honor in combat was everything for the Japanese military planners. This outlook produced fanatical warriors and really stupid planners.
The planners were blinded by their military traditions. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools" (Romans 1:22).
They also did not figure out that American submarines could sink merchant ships and oil tankers used to supply the Japanese Navy. So, by late 1942, the Japanese Navy was fighting a defensive war. They could barely protect their interior lines. Here is one assessment.
The Battle of the Marus (term used to describe merchantmen) turned out to be a long, drawn out confrontation between American submarines and Japanese ships between the Southern Zone and the Home Lands. Having cracked Japanese codes, American submarines could easily detect convoy positions, and by 1944, the sinking rate outran new tanker construction rate. Of Japan's total wartime steel merchant shipping, about 86% was sunk, while another 9% was seriously damaged -- oil tankers were also a favorite target. The submariners, less than 2% of US naval personnel, were responsible for 55% of Japan's total loss.
This did not enter into pre-war Japanese strategic planning.
Japan's blind men bluffed. They thought they could do to the United States what they were doing to the Chinese. Yet even here, they were short-sighted. This was a familiar though possibly apocryphal story in World War II.
The American military brass was concerned about Chinese casualties, and met with Chinese military leaders during the war about it. The top ranking American officer asked his Chinese counterpart, "Do you realize you're losing 100 men for every Japanese soldier you kill? Do you know what that means?" The Chinese officer replied, "Yes, pretty soon, no more Japanese."
SAYONARA, MILITARY TRADITION
The second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. Still, the Army would not surrender. It took until August 15 for the government to play a recording by the Emperor of what sounded vaguely like a surrender. Yet even here, there had been one last attempt by a group of Army rebels to avoid surrender. They invaded the Imperial palace in order to find the recordings and destroy all copies. The coup failed. The invaders could not find the records after hours of searching. The leader and several troops then committed suicide.
This military act of suicidal honor turned out to be the final representative act. That was the end of Japan's military tradition. Overnight, it was gone.
The words of the Emperor, who was considered divine, were delivered in classic Japanese. The speech was mostly fog. There was no suggestion of guilt. It was a standard politician's speech after getting caught: "I made mistakes." When you think "Japanese communications," think "politician who just got caught." Think "Richard Nixon, 1974."
I add what would have been classic American responses, had Americans been listening to a major politician who just got caught. The cultural differences are obvious.
To our good and loyal subjects: After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in our empire today, we have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
What settlement? What are you trying to say? Get to the point, will you?
We have ordered our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration.
What joint declaration? This is the first time we have heard about it.
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which we lay close to the heart.
You're a god, right? Why didn't you tell the generals not to invade China back in 1931?
Indeed, we declared war on America and Britain out of our sincere desire to insure Japan's self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.
No infringement on national sovereignty in East Asia? Do you honestly think this is going to placate the Koreans and the Chinese? We've been running Korea at the point of a bayonet ever since 1910. It was in all the newspapers.
But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone--the gallant fighting of our military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100,000,000 people--the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
"Not necessarily to Japan's advantage." You've got that right, Emp!
We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia.
Cooperation. Right. The rape of Nanking comes to mind.
It ended with this:
Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith of the imperishableness of its divine land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibilities, and the long road before it. Unite your total strength to be devoted to the construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, nobility of spirit, and work with resolution so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.
The Japanese then did what the Emperor told them to do. They worked with resolution. They copied American manufacturing techniques. Pretty soon, no more American television manufacturing industry.
And what of Japan today? The glory of the Imperial State is long gone, but downtown Tokyo has a legendary night life.
The Emperor's speech placed a tombstone on Japan's military tradition. The Emperor was forced to crawl verbally on his belly before the Americans, who soon began their military occupation. The shame of this was not lost on the Japanese people. The honorable generals and admirals had caused this. They would not be given another opportunity to do it again.
Today, disarmed by the United States but defended by the United States, Japan is wealthy. It still has no domestic oil supplies. There is a greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere. Japanese investors own a big chunk of it, and plan to own more. Japan got rich trading. This was not a matter of military honor. It was a matter of offering competitive deals around the world.
It is a shame that they did not figure this out in 1932. Instead, they allowed the military to govern them. The standards of rule were military standards. It was central planning by honorable men.
The best laid plans . . .