Flanagan on Myers, 'The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable'

Author: 
Michael W. Myers
Reviewer: 
Owen P. Flanagan

Michael W. Myers. The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. x + 198 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2087-6.

Reviewed by Owen P. Flanagan (Monmouth) Published on H-War (November, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54447

The Pacific War and Contingent Victory presents a staunch challenge to the widely accepted notion that Japanese defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies in World War II was inevitable. The thesis presented by author Michael W. Myers, a faculty member at Washington State University's School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, is that the Japanese war effort was not in fact doomed from the beginning. Rather, Myers contends that Japanese defeat in World War II was anything but inevitable. A fascinating, challenging, and beautifully written work, The Pacific War and Contingent Victory holds the door open for continued debate on World War II in the Pacific. Myers presents his argument through the idea of a paradigm shift, stating, "the view that Japan had no chance to win the Pacific War is the cornerstone of a historical paradigm that doesn't work anymore" (p. 1). He pointedly contends that caution is thrown to the wind regarding Japan's role during World War II. Through this contention, he seeks to pull the rug out from under what he describes as the inevitability thesis: the school of thought in which Japan's defeat in World War II was inevitable due to US economic/industrial superiority and the ability of the US military to dictate the direction of the war against the Japanese.

With thorough research and a succinct dissatisfaction with the conventional historiography of World War II in the Pacific, Myers presents evidence throughout the book to prove his point. He wastes no time before diving into his analysis of Japanese strategy for the conflict and how some of the most famous battles of World War II reflect it. The Battle of Midway and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, are cited by Myers as contributing to the overall Japanese strategy in the Pacific. That is, the Japanese Imperial Navy, rather than depending on one decisive victory against the enemy, was looking to bring the United States to the negotating table by demonstrating its strength and ability to achieve victory.

A central part of Myers’s argument concerns the contingencies of war and their effect on the success of Japanese strategy. He claims that overall, the contingencies of war played the largest role in influencing Japanese strategy as the war went on, causing reactionary measures to be taken. Myers also contends that the Japanese defeat was not inevitable but rather a great accomplishment by the United States, as the Americans and their allies proved better able to adapt to the unpredictability of war. To Myers's credit, his logic is very difficult to fault throughout. Myers is contending that the course of World War II in the Pacific was dictated by a series of contingent events and reactions by both sides. With this in mind, it is difficult to accept the thesis that Japanese defeat was inevitable in World War II. Myers further adds to his argument by claiming that while victory over the Japanese was a great feat for the United States, it was certainly not preordained.

It is on this point that The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is at its strongest, as it presents Japanese strategy to the reader while simultaneously challenging the given historiography of the subject. Throughout the book, Myers questions the historians tied most closely to the inevitability thesis, includingH. P. Willmott (The Barrier and the Javelin, 2008) and former RAND employee Roberta Wolhstetter (Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 1962). He claims that these works, among others, tend to paint Japanese victories during the war as US or Allied intelligence or military failures rather than Japanese feats. This critical analysis of the historiography of World War II in the Pacific sprinkled in throughout presentation of Japanese strategy is a testament to Myers's wonderful writing skills. Additionally, it is during its critical review of the historiography that The Pacific War and Contingent Victory reaches its high-water mark, as it allows the reader to grasp the challenge that Myers believes his argument is facing, while simultaneously driving home his point.

As strong as The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is in its writing, argument, and presentation, it does go on somewhat of a downward spiral in its latter half. Myers spends the second half of the book presenting the inefficiencies and hardships that the United States and its allies endured during the war. Whether it was overall strategy, economics, bureaucracy, or leadership, Myers contends that the Japanese did not figuratively wake a sleeping giant and ensure its own defeat when it decided to attack the United States, and that the United States and its allies faced many logistical struggles in preparing for and fighting the conflict. While the argument is compelling, it feels rushed and would have benefited from further development.

Despite its hurried conclusion, The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is a well-researched, beautifully written, and very useful study. Myers proves his point that Japanese defeat was not inevitable in World War II. Challenging the accepted wisdom on the subject, he introduces a fascinating and careful thesis that forces a reexamination of World War II in the Pacific. The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is a must-read for anyone looking to broaden their own understanding of World War II in the Pacific, and just how fluid that theater of the conflict was as a whole.

Citation: Owen P. Flanagan. Review of Myers, Michael W., The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54447

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

I, too, have read this book and found that Myers believes history unfolds in a logical progression based on contingent actions taken by the participants. The book is a strange mixture of wishful thinking and ignorance of scholarship in the field, although Myers believes the latter is not a handicap since specialist scholars do not have the benefit of his logical training. However, serious historians have concluded Japanese strategy was flawed but do not consider their defeat inevitable. They have shown it was caused by a flawed strategy based on an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities and an underestimation of enemy capabilities.

Myers successfully shows the Japanese had multiple possibilities they could pursue. However, these were possibilities and not operational plans designed to be executed. The speed and the decisive nature of their initial operational victories stunned the Japanese military as they had expected long and hard fights in Malaya and Java. Given inter-service rivalries and they had been unable to liquidate the China Incident and were fearful of Soviet activity, especially after their defeats in 1938 and 1939, they could not marshal the resources needed for a single offensive plan. Their tactical failure to control New Guinea by seizing Port Moresby and their strategic failure at Coral Sea put the Japanese on the defensive in the Southwest Pacific and allowed the Americans to launch an opportunistic offensive in the Solomon Islands and draw the Japanese into a war of attrition in the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese did not have the military and economic wherewithal to launch offensive operations after 1943. In fact, the 1944 Japanese offensive into India had as its logistical premise using British supply points as they were overrun.

Myers fundamentally misunderstands the nature of maritime warfare, with its emphasis on occupying islands for air fields and ports at crucial geographic locations to project air and sea power as a navy advances across the ocean. He places too much emphasis on armies. The Japanese experiences in the Pacific show relying on easily bypassed fixed garrisons are weights around the neck of a drowning man. Fixed garrison have no offensive potential without sea and air power. In a maritime war the navy and air force role is to insure free sea and air passage to allow land forces to strike against an enemy at will. Myers shows the Japanese and American navies were mirror images of each other and notes both started with similar naval strategies but fails to understand the Americans were forced to create new tactics in the face of the initial Japanese successes. While the aircraft carrier emerged as the centerpiece of naval operational art, the majority of naval battles were surface gun battles. While the author's observation that superior economic resources do not guarantee victory, superior resources make recovery from semi-disastrous tactical mistakes possible.

I believe Professor Bernstein is being far too kind Michael W. Myers's work.

There is no logical way for one to argue that the Imperial Japanese had a ghost of a chance given the material disparity that American economy could, and historically did, generate.

"Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway" author Jonathan Parshall's Combined Fleet web site has an article that makes clear.

See:

Why Japan Really Lost The War
http://www.combinedfleet.com/economic.htm

And in particular the planned carrier fleet build table above this text passage, which describes the material reality of it thus:

"In other words, even if it had lost catastrophically at the Battle of Midway, the United States Navy still would have broken even with Japan in carriers and naval air power by about September 1943. Nine months later, by the middle of 1944, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed a nearly two-to-one superiority in carrier aircraft capacity! Not only that, but with her newer, better aircraft designs, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed not only a substantial numeric, but also a critical qualitative advantage as well, starting in late 1943. All this is not to say that losing the Battle of Midway would not have been a serious blow to American fortunes! For instance, the war would almost certainly have been protracted if the U.S. had been unable to mount some sort of a credible counter-stroke in the Solomons during the latter half of 1942. Without carrier-based air power of some sort there would not have been much hope of doing so, meaning that we would most likely have lost the Solomons. However, the long-term implications are clear: the United States could afford to make good losses that the Japanese simply could not. Furthermore, this comparison does not reflect the fact that the United States actually slowed down its carrier building program in late 1944, as it became increasingly evident that there was less need for them. Had the U.S. lost at Midway, it seems likely that those additional carriers (3 Midway-class and 6 more Essex-Class CVs, plus the Saipan-class CVLs) would have been brought on line more quickly. In a macro-economic sense, then, the Battle of Midway was really a non-event. There was no need for the U.S. to seek a single, decisive battle which would 'Doom Japan' -- Japan was doomed by its very decision to make war."

That pretty much demolishes everything Michael W. Myers says right there.

About a year ago the you tube channel "Military History Visualized" did an extremely useful video showing why Parshall's point "Japan was doomed by its very decision to make war" was spot-on with a simple time line with comparative fleet bar charts on the left and the names of the Japanese or US ship being commissioned over time that visually shows the power curve the Imperial Japanese were ground under.

See link & title:

Why Japan had NO Chance in WW2
Dec 4, 2018
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9ag2x3CS9M&t=8s

IMO, the video, without sound, would be a useful teaching visual to run in the background during a lecture on the Pacific War,

Your mileage may vary.

It is interesting to compare this thoughtful review with the MiWSR review by Grant W. Jones republished in May 2016 on H-War. Both reviews are penetrating, yet each misses some important perspectives, in my view.

It is not often that conflict outcomes are truly completely foreordained, and surely there was some chance that Japan might have "won" her war with the United States and its allies, depending on one's definition of victory. Yet, as I have calculated, the economic capacity of the United States to build and supply combat forces outweighed that of Japan by about 7:1, taking all resources into account. [“Military Transformation as a Competitive Systemic Process: The Case of Japan and the United States Between the World Wars” (Alexandria, Virginia: Center for Naval Analyses, January 1, 2003.] Thus after mid-1942, when Admiral Yamamoto committed his country to what was largely an economic contest, Japan's chances, already dim, darkened very substantially. With a more conservative approach the Japanese might have some chance of persuading the United States to accept an armistice and negotiated peace in preference to continuation of the conflict, somewhat as Germany had in the autumn of 1918.

Yet this only brings us to the question of the basis for negotiations. The Japanese had counted on Hitler to force the United States to give in (much as Hitler had counted on Japan to do the trick). If Hitler had somehow defeated the Americans then Japan probably could have secured acceptable terms, at least for as long as a victorious Nazi regime was prepared to share the spoils with an "Oriental nation." But if, as actually happened, the US-led alliance succeeded in knocking Germany out of the war, it is hard to see how a peace acceptable to the politically dominant Imperial Army could have been obtained. It seems that it would have required either an anti-military revolution in Japan, or the replacement of FDR with someone of the character of Charles A. Beard.

All of which is to say that Japan's path to avoiding defeat was a very steep, narrow and tortuous one, and accordingly very unlikely to have been successfully traversed.

As either Voltaire or Napoleon famously said (or may not have said), "God is on the side of the big battalions." Said or unsaid, it's usually true and military history can offer a lot of evidence to support this proposition and a lot less evidence to support a contrary proposition. I just submitted to the Journal of Military History a review of Jeremy Black's latest, The World at War, and with regard to both world wars of the last century he opines "The resource-based explanation of success is clearly pertinent."

An itemized list of what the Japanese had and did not have as they launched a trans-Pacific war is sobering. Long Lance torpedoes were incomparable but let's face it -- they were a niche weapon. American submarines were launching lousy torpedoes early in the war but we eventually got better and eviscerated the Japanese navy and merchant marine, on which their ramshackle "Co-Prosperity Sphere" utterly relied. The IJN began the war with ten aircraft carriers mounting something like 550 aircraft but with only about 650 carrier-qualified pilots, thanks to a training program that was far too exacting. Attrition steadily reduced the numbers of competent pilots. By 1943 the USN carrier fleet had more than equal numbers of ships and an abundance of carrier-qualified pilots with far more flight training hours, and the Japanese, with POL stocks rapidly declining, were sending their pilots into action with fewer flight hours and laughably inadequate training, only to be slaughtered. The Japanese Army had wholly inadequate divisional fire support compared to the Americans, and was doctrinally overmatched, except for defense of fortified, fixed positions -- which could be bypassed. I will certainly try to get my hands on Myers' book and look forward to reading it -- even as I admit to an excess of prejudgment. I do appreciate a well-written review that pulls out all the stops to give an author's controversial thesis a fair hearing.

O’Neil’s post points to the facts that Germany and Japan were loose co-belligerents at best, the Anti-Comintern Pact only gives the appearance of unity, the Axis Powers were in not a serious alliance with a common strategy anyway comparable to that of the three major Allied powers. Further, Germany and Japan harbored suspicions about the other, keeping secret their respective biggest decisions, attacks against the USSR and Pearl Harbor. How one can say that, in this vacuum, either nation had any inkling what the other could, would or intended to do is a mystery to me. A couple of U-boats sailing to Japan, the Japanese ambassador to Berlin sending messages to Tokyo for all of Allied intelligence to read, etc hardly counts as a serious, coordinated and obtainable strategy.
Taken together with the similar book review thread going on now about the possibility of Japan not losing (“winning?”) WWII, we can add Axis success to your “not a snowball’s chance” list.

I think it is well worth noting that while in Germany , the end objective came down to one bunker in Berlin , where as in the Pacific in August of WWII, the Japanese had about 7 million troops in uniform all the way from the Solomon's to Manchuria, with the majority outside of the Japanese mainland . They still had a great deal of capability for mischief. Over 5000 officers and men joined the Viet Minh in Indochina for example.
\
Walter McIntosh
Former Chief Vietnam Operations , CIA.

Yet, as I have calculated, the economic capacity of the United States to build and supply combat forces outweighed that of Japan by about 7:1, taking all resources into account. 

Given that a similar ratio probably existed between the United States and North Vietnam in 1965, I think we probably want to be careful about concluding the Japan's defeat in World War II was inevitable.

All of which is to say that Japan's path to avoiding defeat was a very steep, narrow and tortuous one, and accordingly very unlikely to have been successfully traversed.

This I agree with.

Japan could have achieved its war aims in World War II, if it had better calibrated its capabilities and strategies to those aims. It wished to keep the United States, and the major European Powers, out of the eastern Pacific, which it saw as its domain, and it wanted no interference with its expansion in China and/our the Pacific as it sought to remedy its lack of natural resources.

If a war was required, those aims paired with the relative resources meant that Japan had to bring the United States to the negotiating table. There was no reason, especially in the 1930s, to think that the United States would NOT be amenable to a negotiated settlement. They US had shown a remarkable preference for negotiations over the previous half century, at least, regarding foreign affairs. But the Japanese learned all the wrong lessons from Mahan (see Sadao Asada's work) and chose a strategy that seemed designed to keep the Americans from the negotiating table - the opposite of Japan's goal.

Japan could have certainly of achieved its war aims in the 1940s, but it would have required a great more clear strategic thinking then the Japanese miitary demonstrated during the war.

What Paul Westermeyer wrote is on target. Japan's war aims were too expansive, and directly challenged the US, which made it a self-defeating strategy. Had they restricted their war aims to, say, China, there is every likelihood that the US would have stayed out the war in the Pacific. But they wanted it all, the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

And yes, as was pointed out, the massive US superiority in resources availed us nothing against North Vietnam, in the long run. Hanoi had a single objective, "limited" by comparison to Japan's in the 1940s, and the NVA was skilled at minimizing our tactical advantages and maximizing their own capabilities with skillful use of terrain and organizational ability. Terrain, in particular -- creating and defending the Ho Chi Minh Trail was an exceptional military accomplishment that too often slips below our radar.

Externally, Japan sought autarky. This was not a realistic or feasible goal, but it was the chimera of Japan's choice, which led it into Manchuria and then into China. Finding that it had dug  itself into a hole it pursued the classic strategy of digging more.

Internally the Imperial Army (Kogun) sought to dominate Japan's politics. Its chief obstacle was the Navy (Kaigun) which also had a strong internal position and on which the Kogun depended for logistical support as well as for protection of its maritime flanks. This led the two services to cooperate politically, albeit rather grudgingly.

Bogged down in China, the Kogun became quite paranoid about western support for the Kuomintang (KMT) government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, fantasizing that it was somehow the machinations of the west that stood between them and their rightful victory over the KMT forces. The Kogun was historically very close to the German Army, and the rise of Hitler and resulting German rearmament excited them greatly. They pressed for an alliance and in the wake of the Fall of France won the support of key civilians for the Tripartite Pact with Hitler and Mussolini, with acceptance by the Kaigun. With one foot on Hitler's victory express Japan was ready to swing aboard as soon as it really got steam up. The moment arrived of course in 1941.

Although negotiations had been underway with Washington intermittently for years these had never been conducted in good faith on Tokyo's part. While the Japanese were prepared to accept any American concessions they always dodged giving up any of their own. Herbert Hoover essentially shrugged of Japanese aggression. When FDR came into office he was fully occupied with the Depression for his first term and much of his second. After late 1938 he became increasingly concerned about the threat of Nazi aggression, acutely so after the Fall of France. In this context, Japan's adherence to the Axis was the absolute worst possible basis for any meeting of the minds.

Aided by success in breaking the high-level Japanese diplomatic cipher, FDR came to recognize by mid-1941 that Japan meant to make war on the western powers. Since 1931 first the Hoover and then the Roosevelt Administrations had weighed restricting oil sales to Japan. (The US was then the world's leading producer and was in a position to strongly influence other significant producers.) Nothing had been done for fear of provoking Japanese action, but with war clearly in the works it made no sense to continue to supply the oil Japan needed to fight so in July 1941 Japanese access to oil and to western markets generally was cut off. The Japanese had counted on buying oil up to the moment of attack and the cutoff presented problems they were ill-prepared for. Accordingly they began to demand that the cutoff be reversed, adding demands that the US help them to subdue China and give them a free hand elsewhere. As talks plodded on into and through the fall the Japanese showed some softening on insisting that the US help in China but their terms otherwise remained the same: if the US wanted peace it needed to provide oil and a free hand.

The Japanese saw their position as having been strengthened by their alliance with Hitler; if the US was unaccommodating it would have to deal with their big friend. But FDR had already concluded that Hitler was a mortal threat that had to be faced and defeated. As a faraway nuisance Japan might have been able to get a dollop of appeasement to keep it quiet, but as an ally to Hitler it had made itself an integral part of the mortal threat. In late summer of 1941 the US repeatedly made it clear that something could be worked out if Japan denounced the Tripartite Pact and agreed to sheer off from the German ship. Tokyo did get the message but having made their deal with Hitler the leaders felt bound by honor to keep it. That's why no meaningful terms could be offered to Washington in 1941.

So now it's 1942 and Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, conquered the Philippines and raised Cain in Southeast Asia and the Indies. About 20% of the US population are "divisionists" who in general do not support FDR's war policies. (They are almost all former isolationists.) But by no coincidence they among the most xenophobic of Americans and the one thing they do approve of is fighting the "Yellow Peril." FDR is 100% committed to defeating Hitler and devoting as little attention as possible to the Japanese diversion--once Hitler is gone all his allies will fall easily, he figures.

In this environment does anyone truly imagine that there are realistic options for a negotiated peace? On what conceivable basis?

(For more on this topic and citations to relevant literature see the appendices of my Undefending Pearl Harbor: How America's Strongest Bastion Became Its Most Weakly Defended, 2nd edition, (Fairfax VA: Peter Press Publishers, 2016).)

Regards David Silbey's note here:

>>Given that a similar ratio probably existed between the United States and North Vietnam in 1965, I think we probably want to be careful about concluding the Japan's defeat in World War II was inevitable.

The War in Vietnam was a proxy war between the USA on one side and both the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China on the other. Any economic calculation that fails to include the economic/military/and in-kind physical contributions of both major power's to North Vietnam's war effort is flawed at best.

Strategy is about aligning political ways and economic/military means with national interest.

Japan in the Pacific War and America in Vietnam were both pursuing politically flawed strategies because of irrational domestic politics.

What both the Pacific War and the Vietnam war teach is bad strategy can only be fixed in the next war.

And the strategy of every American president involved in the Vietnam conflict was "Make sure RSVN does not fall on my watch, so I wan't be blamed like Truman was for the Fall of China."

An old statement by the late Jerry Pournelle, on a conversation he had with an anti-War Democrat, pretty much cover the American political reality of Vietnam:

"He told me, 'Jerry, you want to win and get out. Me, I just want to get out. But the LBJ administration wants to stay in and LOSE.' I was speechless. He was right."

Trent Talenko is right, my critique was restrained. Myers wrote a fundamentally silly book that is a strange mixture of wishful thinking and ignorance of scholarship in the field, although Myers believes the latter is not a handicap since specialist scholars do not have the benefit of his logical training. Somehow the author has missed several scholarly generations of spilled ink over this subject in Japan and the West.
However, I would submit the most important lessons drawn from any war are usually found in the events preceding hostilities. Important decisions are made before the first shots are fired; that is when the nature of the war to be fought is determined. I suggest the genesis of the conflict is to be found in the wreckage of the imperial systems left after World War I concluded.
To understand the evolution we would have to read and reflect on works by authors who have examined the interwar period. I am referring to the scholarship of people like Dorothy Borg, Takehiko Yoshihashi, Michael Barnhart, Akira Iriye,. Mark Peattie, Sadako Ogata, Nobuya Bamba, James Crowley, James Morley, Robert Butow, Michael Hunt, David Bergamini, and Herbert Bix, among others. I apologize for appearing a pedant.
Unless we understand the diplomatic and military background of Japan's decision for war in summer-fall 1941 we risk not understanding the ways in which strategy is formed. Unless we try to understand the timing involved in all this - the Japanese inability to bring the China Incident to a conclusion, the reactions to their undeclared war with the Red Army in 1938-1939, their knowledge of the implications of the American naval building program that began in 1937 and accelerated as well as the time it took to construct and man ships, the influence of Nazi victorines in spring 1940 spring 1941, and the initial successes of Barbarossa, we won't understand why the Japanese chose that particular moment to go to war as well as their amazement at their early victories against the British, Dutch, and the Americans.
It is best to understand that while the casus belli with the US was the Pearl Harbor attack and the overall goal was to end Western influence in Asia and replace it with Japan. The ultimate prize in the conflict was China. One could say the Americans and Japanese fought a war over which power was to influence China. This was a contest between the American, the Russians, and the Japanese. Ultimately the Chinese won. The ramifications of the Pacific War still reverberate but Myers does nothing to clarify any issue

Trent Telenko said:

The War in Vietnam was a proxy war between the USA on one side and both the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China on the other. Any economic calculation that fails to include the economic/military/and in-kind physical contributions of both major power's to North Vietnam's war effort is flawed at best.

Sure, and you’re making my point for me.  Any simplistic economic calculation used to analyze something is likely to have so many exceptions, complications, and caveats as to be useless for prediction:  “flawed at best” is a good way to put it.

Strategy is about aligning political ways and economic/military means with national interest.

Absolutely.  Which is a much more complex statement than (paraphrasing) “the American economy was much larger than the Japanese, therefore American victory was inevitable.”

An old statement by the late Jerry Pournelle, on a conversation he had with an anti-War Democrat, pretty much cover the American political reality of Vietnam:  "He told me, 'Jerry, you want to win and get out. Me, I just want to get out. But the LBJ administration wants to stay in and LOSE.' I was speechless. He was right."

It’s a slightly odd quote to invoke, because Pournelle goes on to say that this was the right strategy to suck the Soviets into pouring more and more material into Vietnam, thus depriving them of the material for their own economy, and helping to end the Cold War.

Also, interestingly, Pournelle recalls this as being part of a 3-way TV debate he had with Allard Lowenstein and McGeorge Bundy in the 1960s, but I can’t find any record of it except from Pournelle himself.  Anybody have a link to an independent transcript or video?

Regards this:

>>It’s a slightly odd quote to invoke, because Pournelle goes on to say that this was the right strategy to suck the Soviets into pouring more and more material into Vietnam, thus depriving them of the material for their own economy, and helping to end the Cold War.

What Jerry Pournelle said decades later, after the Cold War ended and the economics of the conflict were clear, was a different kettle of fish than what he was blind sided with in 1969.

Whatever the long term economic strategy of the Cold War Mr Pournelle wanted to project ex post facto on to Vietnam.

The American people were not going to waste their sons in a needless and non-vital military war of attrition. That was the flaw in American presidential strategy.

The flaw of Japanese strategy was 180 degrees out from that of America in the late 1960's. It boiled down to a complete inability to gage the American people's involvement in WW2 as a perceived vital interest.

Tyrannies are like that.

Presumed racial superiority biased both reporting and analysis both in Japan and in Vietnam . Both the U.S, Army & Navy had been planning for a war in the Pacific since at least the early 30's . For example , Clair Lee Chennault had long been sending detailed reports on Japanese Aircraft and tactics but as Chennault had created a great deal of ill will in the Army Air Corps he was widely regarded as a maverick hence his reports were disregarded as unreliable , or ignored by those who disliked him. Hence the Zero and Japan's mid-range bombers and their fighter planes were no secret , Military attaches in Tokyo were quite effective in getting around both Japanese and American restrictions , sent many technically detailed and photographic reports on Ait and Navel capabilities.By 1933, Japan had made operational powerful long range torpedo's Their 24 inch oxygen -fueled torpedo had a range of 24 miles at 39 knots, whilev in USA by as late as 1941, the best they had was a 21 inch'r with a range of 4500 yards. But due to arrogance and racial superiority, ONI responded to the report by saying " no torpedo could travel at such spped over that range".Much of the same Much of the same presumed racial superiority biased both reporting and analysis during WWII and In Korea and yet still in Vietnam . The people on the ground fighting the war , should at least be armed with unbiased and accurate information about the people they are fighting . USA failed in that regard and continues to do so IMO. Odd that during WWII, almost any military capability would be credited to the Germans no matter how far fetched but none to the Japanese.
Walter McIntosh
Former Chief Vietnam Operations , CIA
Bluff, New Zealand .

I agree with most of your post but would like to add a caveat. Both the US Army and Navy had been considering plans for a possible war with Japan since 1908, as you know this is part of the planning function. In the 1930s as the US Marines were preparing to abandon the role of colonial policemen, the began extensive investigation of amphibious operations. In 1934, the Marine Corps identified the 6 essential elements in a successful landing using historical and contemporary examples. By 1937, given the observed Japanese skill in landings in China, the Marines understood how far behind they were and began searching for ways to catch up. By 1940, they had the idea for attack transports and amphibious tractors, and the Higgins boat.
The racism that downplayed the Japanese before the Pacific War was transformed by their string of victories - they were then regarded as superman. The Navy's ordnance experts continued to assert until 1943 there was nothing wrong with the US Navy's torpedoes.

What Jerry Pournelle said decades later, after the Cold War ended and the economics of the conflict were clear, was a different kettle of fish than what he was blind sided with in 1969.

Of course -- nonetheless, it does suggest that he's not a particularly reliable observer.

I still can't find a record of the debate anywhere except in Pournelle's writings from much later.  Do you have a link to something that talks about the debate at the time?

The American people were not going to waste their sons in a needless and non-vital military war of attrition. That was the flaw in American presidential strategy.

The flaw of Japanese strategy was 180 degrees out from that of America in the late 1960's. It boiled down to a complete inability to gage the American people's involvement in WW2 as a perceived vital interest.

Sure.  And both continue to highlight my original point, which is that a simple economic reductionism about what side is going to win is not useful.

Pournelle's argument that the Vietnam War seriously weakened the Soviet Union, by draining off Soviet resources, might make sense if the Soviet Union had put even a fifth as much resources into Vietnam as the United States did. But the Soviet Union did not put in even a tenth what the US did.

If the Soviet Union had been so weak that its very modest commitment to Vietnam had been a serious strain, it would have been too weak to be much threat to the United States, with or without Vietnam.

I wonder why the remarks of an outspoken science fiction writer are being given such attention in a discussion about Japanese strategy in World War II? The original post mentioning Mr. Pournelle addressed a secondary issue, whether American failure in Vietnam has a bearing on the idea that economic predominance ensured American victory in World War II. At best, the Pournelle quote brought forward the idea that American strategy in Vietnam was the worst choice: expensive sacrifice, but not enough to win. Thus, this discussion of Pournelle's views is a digression from a digression.

Dav Vandenbroucke
Senior Economist (no, not historian)
U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development

Ed, I don't think the Soviet's commitment to Vietnam was at all weak. Brezhnev, started a program of silo building and ICBM build that managed to achieve nuclear parity by 1967 far ahead of intelligence estimates. He also managed to achieve unquestione3d hegemony over eastern Europe .Wiz kid McNamara recognized that Nuclear parity greatly limited US options regarding Vietnam . Also the Soviet Union spent more on supporting the International anti-war movement than it did on direct aid to North Vietnam , And IMO thos funds were more effectively spent.

Walter McIntosh
Bluff, New Zealand .

Lewis , Basically I think we are on the same page, in addition to presumed racial superiority a big part of the problem IMO is that consumers of intelligence do not like to received information that contradicts their own views and biases. . For example in 1925 Winston Churchill was chancellor of the exchequer he protected the British Navy's estimates justifying the development of navel bases in the Far East saying " A war with Japan! I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in my lifetime." Sort of like Stalin telling his intel chief, :\" You can tell your source to fuck off." when told that Germany was about to attack Russia. Just as LBJ characterized pessimistic intel reports on Vietnam as " Same Old Shit!"
The intelligence failure by design that was U.S. intelligence regarding Japan in WWII, may well have been Congresses main rational in creating the CIA , in order to have a coordinated flow of unbiased intelligence to policymakers. In fact , Larry Huston the Agency's General Counsel told that to the 2nd DCI in repose to factions trying to move the Agency into covert action and paramilitary activities.
Walter McIntosh
Bluff, New Zealand

Walter, I think we do agree almost completely. You make an interesting statement about Congressional rationale. If I recall the CIA was created as part of a new national security apparatus that included the NSC and a Department of Defense. In fact Congress had been considering (off and on) some form of a unified defense establishment since the early 1920s as a result of the US military performance in the late war. However, in the discussions, which got serious in 1943-1944, it seems Congressmen were more interested in the savings to the military budget that would accrue with some form of unification or closer cooperation.
This was part of a larger trend in "management science" toward rational and functional organizations highlighting centralized authority and decentralized execution with the goal of Imposing greater efficiency and control over previously autonomous activities and heeding the wartime lessons that dictated close coordination of land, sea, and air forces.
The promise of functional centralization was in Increased efficiency (25% savings in personnel) and Increased effectiveness (one family, not three) which would theoretically eliminate competition for scarce resources and result in a better match in strategy, policy, and resources.
There wold be integrated plans and budgets as well as the ability to take advantage of economies of scale. The new structures would be able to coordinate military and foreign policies and result in unified weapons research, development, testing and evaluation and better civilian control of military establishment. However, the resulting structure made no provision to integrate military budgets and national strategy. The resulting Department of Defense was characterized as a confederacy of sovereign military units; a loose unmanageable aggregation.
We still have not been able to balance our domestic agenda and our foreign policy responsibilities.
Sometimes I tend to natter on.

I wonder why the remarks of an outspoken science fiction writer are being given such attention in a discussion about Japanese strategy in World War II? The original post mentioning Mr. Pournelle addressed a secondary issue, whether American failure in Vietnam has a bearing on the idea that economic predominance ensured American victory in World War II. At best, the Pournelle quote brought forward the idea that American strategy in Vietnam was the worst choice: expensive sacrifice, but not enough to win. Thus, this discussion of Pournelle's views is a digression from a digression.

I think it is in H-War's DNA that, often, digression is piled upon digression.  For me personally, I became interested in the Pournelle quote because I wanted to read or watch the actual exchange he recounted (between him and Allard Lowenstein and McGeorge Bundy) but I can't find any record of it except in his own online writings (the earliest being 2001).  

That's making me wonder if it actually happened the way Pournelle represented it.

On the inevitable/not inevitable discussion of the Pacific War, to a certain extent, I think that I find it a bit sterile because there's no real way to prove definitively one way or the other.  We can't re-run the Pacific War 10,000 times to see if the US always wins.  We can come up with plausible arguments on both sides -- America's overwhelming economic advantage!  Other cases where economically inferior nations have won wars! -- but nothing that really proves the case beyond a shadow of a doubt.

 

Mr. Silbey,

Regards this --

>>I still can't find a record of the debate anywhere except in Pournelle's writings from much later. Do you have a link to something that talks about the debate at the time?

It was a late 1960's California political debate. I don't know if it was televised.

I originally got the quote from a decades long acquaintance who was a low level California Democratic Party activist at the time.

That Jerry Pournelle also mentions it simply shows the hurt the anti-Vietnam war activist put on Pournelle.

Mr. Moise,

The problem with this particular thought --

>>Pournelle's argument that the Vietnam War seriously weakened the Soviet Union, by draining off Soviet resources, might make sense if the Soviet Union had put even a fifth as much resources into Vietnam as the United States did. But the Soviet Union did not put in even a tenth what the US did.

...boils down to the fact that most 1950's -1960's era Soviet surface to air [The S-25 / SA-1 Guild, S-75 / SA-2 Guideline / 5V21/5V28 SA-5A/B/C Gammon missiles] and all surface to surface missiles used storable propellants. [1]

All had things like inhibited red fuming nitric acid and/or hydrazine.

These fuels turn the aerospace grade aluminium and the associated electronics of a missile into hazardous toxic waste worth far less than the economic inputs to build them after the corrosion of a few dozen fuel/defuel cycles.

Everything having to do with those weapons systems was dead economic, loss over and above their inputs and labor, on a Soviet economy that was a small fraction the size of the American. Which was Pournelle's argument vis' a vis the comparative economic costs of Vietnam for the USA versus the Soviet Union.

FYI, those storable propellants are why Russia still launches so many liquid fueled ballistic missiles to this day. It is how they dispose of the toxic waste.

Canada is less than thrilled by this. [2]

[1] See:
S-25 SA-1 GUILD - GlobalSecurity.org
https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/s-25-history.htm

SA-2 GUIDELINE
HQ-1 / HQ-2 (Chinese versions)
Tayir as Sabah (Egyptian versions)
https://fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/airdef/v-75.htm

SA-5A/B/C Gammon
https://www.ausairpower.net/APA-S-200VE-Vega.html

[2] Michael Byers: Canada — Russia's toxic waste dump
https://nationalpost.com/opinion/canada-russias-toxic-waste-dump

Mr Vandenbroucke,

Topic drift happens.

In my experience, discussing and comparing the issues of whether and how a particular war's strategic ends and means match leads to such drift, .

Mr McIntosh,

Regards pre-WW2 Allied and especially American intelligence, this:

>>Presumed racial superiority biased both reporting and analysis both in Japan and in Vietnam . Both the U.S, Army & Navy had been planning for a war in the Pacific since at least the early 30's

...is an increasingly obsolete historiography.

I’ve always cast a gimlet eye on this “Racism was the sole cause for intelligence failure" historiography as being an easy and far too simplistic approach that does a disservice to both history and the the people involved.

Yes racism played a role. But to say it was the _Sole Reason_ for Intelligence failure denies the Imperial Japanese agency. (Which is another form of racism, when you think about it.)

The competence of the Imperial Japanese military and state had a whole lot to do with their success at Pearl Harbor, and everywhere else, until the Battle of Midway and the Guadalcanal campaign.

In short: The enemy gets a vote. That’s why they are called “the enemy.”

So, if Racism was neither the sole nor the primary cause of American intelligence failures of that time. You have to ask the question “What was the cause of this intelligence failure?” Or perhaps more appropriately, “What did American intelligence know about the Japanese, when did it know it, and why did it get so much wrong by Dec 6th 1941?”

There is a historiography doing just that. [1]

In chronological order, see the following articles of this emerging historiography:

o Ralph Lee Defalco III “Blind to the Sun: U.S. Intelligence Failures Before the War with Japan” (2003),

o R.J. Hanyok’s “Blinded by the Rising Sun: Japanese Radio Deception Before Pearl Harbor” (2006), “Catching the Fox Unaware”—Japanese Radio Denial and Deception and the Attack on Pearl Harbor” (2008) and “How the Japanese Did It” (2009),

o Bob Bergin’s “Claire Lee Chennault and the Problem of Intelligence in China,” Studies in Intelligence (2010), and

o Justin Pike’s “”Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41” serialized in three parts on the Balloon’s to Drones web site in August and September 2017

Defalco’s and Bergin’s works cover the sole American who got it right about Imperial Japanese air power pre-WW2 — including the capabilities of the A6M Mitsubishi Zero fighter — then retired captain and future USAAF General Claire Chennault. General Chennault’s memoir “Way of a Fighter” makes clear he was as much a racist towards the Japanese as any other American military officer of his times…but he was also right about their aerial war making capabilities. [2] When everyone else in American pre-war intelligence was wrong. Defalco and Bergin explain why that was.

Hanyok’s works are on how Imperial Japanese naval intelligence determined what Anglo-American signals intelligence capabilities were. How the IJN planned the denial and deception measures to blind them as to the movements of their Kido Butai carrier fleet and how well they executed that plan up to Pearl harbor. Taken together, they paint a picture of Imperial Japan as a fell “high tech” foe, an enemy fully versed in the latest in electronic intelligence…and the means to deceive it.

Pike’s serialized work does a forensic analysis of classified American intelligence on the Japanese from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II. Pike finds little if any outright racism. What he does find is that American intelligence was highly accurate in the 1920’s to early 1930’s, when the Imperial Japanese allowed open access to their society.

This is how he closed part one of his series:

--
"Taken as a whole, American intelligence assessments of Japanese air power during the 1920s were highly accurate from the strategic and industrial spheres down to the tactical and technological level. Lax information security measures within Japan provided American observers with a remarkable level of freedom. American reports assessed the ability of Japan to fight a protracted war in the air, where aircraft production figures, industrial efficiency, innovative aircraft design, strong pilot training programs, and sizeable pilot reserves were critical to achieving success. The correct conclusion was Japan did not yet possess air power that could seriously threaten the Western powers, but this would begin to change in the 1930s."
--

When the Imperial Japanese Military closed that access in the early-1930’s due to the war in China. American military intelligence work increasingly diverged from the changing Japanese reality and started filling the lack of intelligence with regurgitated open source articles that repeated the 1920’s tropes of Japanese "lack of originality in design" and "backwardness in tactics and equipment."

In time, the weight of old and incorrect “conventional wisdom” meant saying saying anything else became threat to an intelligence officer’s opportunities for advancement. Thus, by 1937, when the Imperial Japanese were making truly original and innovative aircraft a generation past anything they previously copied. And when Claire Chennault started providing the naval attache’ at the US embassy with accurate reports and captured Japanese aircraft components from downed planes. American military intelligence officers simply could not go there. Bucking the “conventional wisdom” — group think — was too professionally dangerous given the decade and a half of ingrained and by then horrid intelligence reports that had become the belief systems of the flag rank patrons above them.

In short, issues of elite political/military/intelligence clientelism and following conventional wisdom group think for career reasons in the face of a systematic Japanese denial and deception campaign were far more important factors than "Racism" in those intelligence failures.

[1] Full article citations and links listed below:

Ralph Lee Defalco III (2003) Blind to the Sun: U.S. Intelligence Failures Before the War with Japan, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 16:1, 95-107, DOI: 10.1080/713830379 | Published online: 15 Dec 2010
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/713830379?journalCode=ujic20

R.J. Hanyok “Blinded by the Rising Sun: Japanese Radio Deception Before Pearl Harbor” World War II Magazine, December 2006
https://www.historynet.com/blinded-by-the-rising-sun-japanese-radio-dece...

Robert J. Hanyok (2008) ““Catching the Fox Unaware”—Japanese Radio Denial and Deception and the Attack on Pearl Harbor,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 61 : No. 4 , Article 10.
https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol61/iss4/10

Robert J. Hanyok “How the Japanese Did It” December 2009 Naval History Magazine Volume 23, Number 6
https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2009/december/how-...

Bob Bergin, “Claire Lee Chennault and the Problem of Intelligence in China,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 54 No. 3 (June 2010) Pages 1 – 40. https://archive.org/details/DTIC_ADA523664

Justin Pyke “Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s”
August 24, 2017
https://balloonstodrones.com/2017/08/24/blinded-by-the-rising-sun-americ...

Justin Pyke “Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937”
August 29, 2017
https://balloonstodrones.com/2017/08/29/blinded-by-the-rising-sun-americ...

Justin Pyke “Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41”
September 6, 2017
https://balloonstodrones.com/2017/09/06/blinded-by-the-rising-sun-americ...

[2] Claire Lee Chennault (Author), Robert Hotz (Editor), Richard Edes Harrison (Illustrator) Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault (History United States Series) 1st Edition, G. P. Putnam’s Sons; 1st edition (1949), ISBN-10: 0781248132 ISBN-13: 978-0781248136
https://www.amazon.com/Way-Fighter-Memoirs-Chennault-History/dp/07812481...

I think it is worth noting that it was the Japanese expansion into South EAst Asia, particularly Indochina that put USA on a war path. Wlater LaFeber commented in his Roosevelt, Churchill & Indochina" " Japan's decision to changev the status quo in nSoutheast Asia by invading Indochina was perhaps the crucial factor that caused war between the United States and Japan>"It was on 25 July 1941 when FDR decided to freeze Japan;s assets in USA because Japan was making demands for air bases and the right to station 50,000 troops in Vietnam.
Walter McIntosh
Bluff, NZ

Walter,
I think you're correct in that we are thinking along the same lines. As for intelligence consumers, I would go further in that once powerful people have made up their minds concerning a course to follow it is very hard to change, especially if ego and pride figure into the decision.
In terms of Congressional rationale, I think that part of the post-1945 overhaul of the national security/defense system was determined by the desire to rationalize and cut the defense budget. I believe this was the general rationale before the start of the Cold War - when neither of the major parties considered the defense budget a jobs program.
In fact, Congress had been thinking about armed services unification in a desultory way since the Army's logistical system failed in the winter of 1917-1918. It picked up in 1944-1946. The idea, as I understand it, was to make the military a rational and functional organization. The goal would be to impose greater efficiency and control over previously autonomous activities as wartime lessons dictated close coordination of land, sea, and air forces.
The goal was to integrate plans and budgets and take advantage of economies of scale and result in unified weapons research, development, testing and evaluation, coordinate military and foreign policies, and lead to better civilian control of military establishment.
The plan and its revisions, as they were carried out mad no provision to integrate military budgets and national strategy. On the military side, this resulted in a confederacy of sovereign military units; a loose aggregation that was unmanageable.
This was rather long winded, but I think I amplified your points.
Lewis Bernstein
Marana, Arizona

Lewis : I think Burton Hersh's book " The Old Boys" covers these issues and the players involved beet than most. Here is a quote from the book.page 233: " In February of 1948 Forrestial had summoned Allen to his bleak Pentagon office and commissioned him to direct Bill Jackson and another New York attorney, Matthias , in roughing out a set of proposals for restructuring the foundering CIA., a project he hoped would dovetail with the expected Eberstadt Task Force recommendations on defense policy.(:" (Later Forrestial came out with 193 page survey aimed at a full scle shake up of the Military.

Walter McIntosh
Bluff , New Zealand

>We can't re-run the Pacific War 10,000 times to see if the US always wins. We can come up with plausible arguments on both >sides -- America's overwhelming economic advantage!

I recall reading in Ernest R. May's book "Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France" about attempts of the US Army to recreate the 1940 Low countries campaign via computer simulations, and how only direct human intervention allowed the Germans to win over the Allies. That is probably the closest one can get in testing the hypothesis of whether Japan could win the war.

Stephen Satkiewicz

I think it is worth noting that it was the Japanese expansion into South EAst Asia, particularly Indochina that put USA on a war path. Wlater LaFeber commented in his Roosevelt, Churchill & Indochina" " Japan's decision to changev the status quo in nSoutheast Asia by invading Indochina was perhaps the crucial factor that caused war between the United States and Japan>"It was on 25 July 1941 when FDR decided to freeze Japan;s assets in USA because Japan was making demands for air bases and the right to station 50,000 troops in Vietnam.” — Walter McIntosh, 10 Dec 2019

 

It's remarkable to see Walter LaFeber's rather slight article [1] on how and why the French were given the open door to resume overlordship in Vietnam (if they could) following the war cited as a major authority on how Japan and the US came into conflict in the first place, used to underpin a rather far-out notion regarding US policy in 1941. The sum of what LaFeber actually says is
 

On July 24, 1941, Hull warned that Japan must not be allowed to remain in the area. The occupation of Indochina “means one further important step in seizing control of the South Sea area, including trading routes of supreme importance to the United States controlling such products as rubber, tin and other commodities.” ... Japan’s decision to change the status quo in Southeast Asia by invading Indochina was perhaps the crucial factor that caused war between the United States and Japan.

 

Anyone who wants evidence that this casual remark is far from a definitive story need look no farther than LaFeber’s own book on the history of US-Japan relations. [2] While there are many problems with it too, it certainly offers no support for the view that everything revolved about Vietnam. Vietnam played a role in the Pacific War akin to that of Bosnia in World War I; a place of significance but scarcely a central cause.

 

If anything, it was Japan’s decision to ally itself with Hitler that set it on the path to war with the US. The record of negotiations in the summer and fall of 1941 shows clearly that the US was prepared to be flexible on many issues of concern if only Japan were to denounce the Tripartite Treaty.



[1] LaFeber, Walter. “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Indochina: 1942-45.” The American Historical Review 80, no. 5 (1975): 1277. doi:10.2307/1852060. Readers interested in the article's actual subject may profit by comparing it with Thorne, Christopher. “Indochina and Anglo-American Relations, 1942-1945.” Pacific Historical Review 45, no. 1 (1976): 73–96. doi:10.2307/3637301 as well as Smith, T. O. Churchill, America and Vietnam, 1941-45. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

 

[2] LaFeber, Walter. The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1997.