Early in 1941, the government of resource-poor Japan realized that it needed to seize control of the petroleum and other raw mater sources in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), French Indochina (now Vietnam and Cambodia), and the Malay Peninsula (now Malaysia). Doing that would require neutralizing the threat posed by the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The government assigned this task to the Imperial Navy, whose combined fleet was headed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The Imperial Navy had two strategic alternatives for neutralizing the U.S. Pacific Fleet. One was to cripple the fleet itself through a direct attack on its warships, or cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as the fleet’s forward base in the Pacific.
Crippling the U.S. fleet would require disabling the eight battleships that made up the fleet’s traditional battle line. But to be really successful, this alternative would also require disabling the two brand-new U.S. battleships then assigned to its Atlantic Fleet (which could be quickly reassigned to the Pacific), along with the three aircraft carriers in the Atlantic
It was quite a tall order.
The most effective way to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a naval base would be to destroy its fuel storage and ship repair facilities. Without them, the Pacific Fleet would have to return to the U.S., where it could no longer deter Japanese military expansion in the region during the year or so it would take to rebuild Pearl Harbor.
It soon became apparent that the basics of either strategy could be carried out through a surprise air raid launched from the Imperial Navy’s six first-line aircraft carriers. Admiral Yamamoto had a reputation as an expert poker player, gained during his years of study at Harvard and as an Imperial Navy naval attache in Washington. He decided to attack the U.S. warships that were moored each weekend in Pearl Harbor.
But in this case the expert poker player picked the wrong target.
The Imperial Navy’s model for everything it thought and did was the British Royal Navy. Standard histories of the Royal Navy emphasized its victories in spectacular naval battles like Trafalgar, during which Royal Navy warships attacked and destroyed opposing ships. Thus the Imperial Navy inevitably focused on attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s battleships while at Pearl Harbor.
Lost in the shuffle was any serious consideration of trying to cripple Pearl Harbor’s ability to function as a forward naval base. So it was that, in one of history’s finest displays of tactical management, six of the world’s best aircraft carriers under the command of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo furtively approached the Hawaiian Islands from the north just before dawn that fateful Sunday, December 7, 1941, launched their planes into the rising sun, caught the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its pants down and wrought havoc in spectacular fashion. On paper at least, this rivaled the British Royal Navy’s triumph at Trafalgar.
But so what?
The American battleships at Pearl Harbor were slow-moving antiques from the World War I era. As we know, the U.S. Navy already had two brand new battleships in its Atlantic Fleet that could run rings around them. And eight new ones the navy was building were even better.
More importantly, the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers weren’t at Pearl Harbor. American shipyards were already building 10 modern carriers whose planes would later devastate Imperial Navy forces in the air/sea battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf. Moreover, the Air Force program was moving quickly to produce the B-29 bombers that would burn down 66 Japanese cities and drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Most importantly, as the sun set on December 7 and the U.S. Navy gathered the bodies of its 2,117 sailors and Marines killed that day, all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities remained untouched by Japanese bombs, allowing Pearl Harbor to continue as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific.
So in reality, December 7 marked the sunset of Japan’s extravagant ambitions to dominate Asia. Admiral Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy’s other tradition-bound leaders chose the wrong targets at Pearl Harbor.
The dictates of tradition are usually the worst guides to follow when it comes doing anything really important. After all, if they survived long enough to be venerated, they’re probably obsolete.