Bernstein on Judge, 'The Turn of the Tide in the Pacific War: Strategic Initiative, Intelligence, and Command, 1941-1943'

Sean M. Judge
Lewis Bernstein

Sean M. Judge. The Turn of the Tide in the Pacific War: Strategic Initiative, Intelligence, and Command, 1941-1943. Edited by Jonathan M. House. Modern War Studies Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 296 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2598-7.

Reviewed by Lewis Bernstein (Independent Scholar) Published on H-War (June, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The first months of the Pacific War saw an unexpected set of Japanese victories. By June 1942, Japanese conquests stretched from the border of India to the Aleutian Islands; in six months they had conquered one-third of the globe. At that time, the decision to go to war against the United States, the British Empire and Commonwealth, and the Dutch must have appeared to be a stroke of genius. Allied strategy was defensive and based on securing the line of communication between the United States and Australia and New Zealand, as well as defending the Hawaiian Islands and the Panama Canal. The war the United States and its allies waged against Japan took place on mainland East and Southeast Asia and in the Central, South, and Southwest Pacific, all logistically austere regions of the planet.

After the battles of Coral Sea (stopping a seaborne Japanese seizure of Port Moresby, New Guinea) and Midway (blocking a Japanese advance toward Hawaii), Japan responded. The Japanese seized two of the Solomon Islands, Tulagi as a seaplane base and Guadalcanal for an airfield, to enable their bombers to interdict the supply lines to Australia. Simultaneously, they began an offensive over New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Mountains to capture Port Moresby and landed troops to support this action at Salamaua, Gona, and Buna. Despite their defeats at Coral Sea and Midway, the Japanese retained the strategic initiative, the ability to strike where and when they desired. The United States and Australia were forced to counterattack in areas their prewar plans had not envisioned them fighting. These opportunistic operations could be classified as defensive offensives. The ensuing campaigns in the Solomons and New Guinea (July 1942–February 1943) were attrition contests and led to the United States seizing the strategic initiative.

The Guadalcanal and Papua New Guinea campaigns are the focus of Sean M. Judge’s book. The Americans treated the South and Southwest Pacific as separate theaters of operations and subsequent American authors have followed this lead. This division was the result of interservice rivalry caused by a fundamental difference in the army’s and the navy’s strategies. Like the Japanese, Judge treats New Guinea and the adjacent island chains as a single theater of operations. This unity shapes his work, which is neither a monograph nor a narrative history. Instead Judge defines the concept of strategic initiative by breaking it down into its components, which include intelligence collecting and analysis, resource allocation, fighting effectiveness, and individual agency and luck. He uses the components to examine the Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal campaigns and to explain how strategic initiative shifted from the Japanese to the Americans.

Given the author’s untimely death, this book is a barely reworked and minimally edited version of his PhD thesis. The editor, Jonathan M. House, deserves a great deal of credit for preserving the thesis with minimal editorial changes. Nevertheless, this book displays all of the good and bad qualities of a doctoral dissertation. Had Judge lived to expand his dissertation into a larger book he surely would have gone into more detail about the Japanese and American national command structures, the divisions that were based on interservice rivalries in both countries, the multiplicity of foreign policies embraced by the Japanese Army and Navy, and the various civilian entities engaged in exploiting the fruits of conquest.

In fact, the United States and Japan faced different strategic and operational problems. During World War II, the US fought in a coalition engaged in a global war. Conferences with allies decided strategy based on plans and statistics concerning shipping and personnel; availability of shipping determined the extent of operations in many cases. Japan, on the other hand, fought an independent war without consulting with its Axis partners; disputes over strategy were between the army, the navy, and the civilian bureaucracy. The Japanese disputes resulted from too many conflicting strategies and mutual mistrust between these entities. The primary example was Japan’s China policies, which displayed the conflicting strategic views of the military and the civilian government as well as their inability to share bad news with each other.

These details would have deepened the analysis but their absence in no way detracts from Judge’s original and novel application of the concept of strategic initiative. Intimately entwined with this concept are the application of strategic acumen and political will. By applying all these concepts to these campaigns, he shows how they were mutually supporting and how strategic initiative shifted from one side to the other. Despite Japanese matériel superiority, the Allies wrested strategic initiative from them because their plans better reflected reality and balanced ends, ways, and means more effectively. He shows how the Allies fought in two logistically austere and resource-constrained but mutually supporting theaters. His conclusions, as counterintuitive as they may seem to some, are as valid today as they were in 1943.

In conclusion, both historians and planners will learn much from Judge’s original and inventive approach, proving once again that a historian’s most powerful tools are imagination and research skills. One can imagine that fighting in logistically austere and resource-constrained theaters will probably happen again. This book deserves a wide readership.

Citation: Lewis Bernstein. Review of Judge, Sean M., The Turn of the Tide in the Pacific War: Strategic Initiative, Intelligence, and Command, 1941-1943. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

occasionally I feel compelled to give a shout out to myself,
"I am indebted to...Kuehn, who gave me the benefit of his...understanding of the Pacific campaigns on which this study is based." last line of Jon House's editor's notes. 2017. Truth be told, I was a co-editor.

Okay, I've had my daily dose of self-promotion...

John T. Kuehn
Fort Leavenworth Kansas