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As we afford our hallowed forebears the remembrance they deserve, let’s also try to learn from what transpired here seventy-five years ago, and see what it tells us about America’s future as an Asia-Pacific sea power.


In particular, let’s look at Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the enemy.


Why did Japan do it? Doing nothing is a viable strategic option, and oftentimes a good one. Imperial Japan would have been far better off had it forgone the attack on Pearl Harbor and confined its operations to the Western Pacific. Had Tokyo exercised some forbearance, it may have avoided rousing the “sleeping giant” that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto reputedly said he feared so much. And even if it did awaken the American giant, it would have avoided filling him with what Yamamoto called a “terrible resolve” to crush Japan. Think about it:


By attacking Oahu, Japan took on a second full-blown war in the Pacific Ocean while waging a massive land war on the continent of Asia. Bear in mind that Japan had already been at war for a decade by the time it attacked Hawaii; the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China proper in 1937. This was a mammoth undertaking. When the shooting stopped in 1945, some 1.8 million Japanese troops were left in China, Manchuria and Korea. That illustrates the dimensions of the ground war—a war comparable in scale to the maritime war.


Japan picked a fight with a foe boasting vastly greater economic and industrial power, and it fired that foe’s resolve to translate economic and industrial resources—potential military power, in other words—into deployable military might on a scale that Japan had little hope of matching. My former chairman George Baer, the author of an award-winning history of the United States Navy, reminds us that our navy’s shipbuilding budget for 1940 alone exceeded a decade’s worth of Imperial Japanese Navy shipbuilding budgets. That shows what Japan was up against.


And after the sleeping giant had started awake, the Japanese leadership failed to walk back its ambitious political and strategic aims. It tried to defend the vast territories it overran in 1941–42—and never really adapted to the new circumstances it had created by poking a slumbering America.


So Yamamoto was right: Japan had to win quickly or not at all. But he was also wrong: by executing his plan to strike Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy guaranteed there would be no quick win. So, again: if the outcome was predictable, why did they do it? What should they have done?


It’s not enough to second-guess what commanders or statesmen of bygone ages did wrong amid the fury of war. To truly learn from them, we have to envision some alternative course of action that would have yielded better results than the one they took.


What did Japanese want in the Pacific? To oversimplify, they wanted to partition that ocean between Japan and the United States. The waters, skies and landmasses west of Asia’s “second island chain”—a loose line of islands stretching from northern Japan through Guam down to New Guinea—would become a Japanese preserve.


To accomplish such an ambitious goal, the resource-poor island state desperately needed imports of raw materials—primarily from Southeast Asia. That lent even more momentum to Tokyo’s plans for aggression.


Now, Japanese strategists had seen the United States as the next likely enemy in the Pacific since shortly after the turn of the century. The Imperial Japanese Navy had eradicated Chinese sea power during a short, sharp war in 1895, then turned around and crushed the Russian Navy in naval battles in 1904 and 1905—putting an end to Russian sea power in the Far East for decades to come.


That left the United States Navy as the next big thing for Japan’s navy. Japanese strategists set to work determining how to overcome another strong yet faraway foe.


In short, Japan had put itself in an impossible position unless it could keep the U.S. offensive halfhearted. And it could have.A combatant like the United States can boast all the economic and industrial resources in the world, yet remain militarily weak if it lacks the resolve to tap those resources, converting latent into actual military might.


Japan, in other words, could weaken America by being less provocative than it was. It could avoid firing Americans’ passion for war, and thus their desire to construct and deploy a vast military machine. Japan probably had to attack U.S. possessions to get its way, but it could have attacked something Japan valued but the American people and their leaders did not: the Philippine Islands. Few back home could find the Philippines on a map. It’s doubtful an assault confined to the Philippines would have stoked the popular fury set loose by the raid on Oahu.


Absent the public fury that followed Pearl Harbor, chances are only a modest U.S. counteroffensive would have lumbered across the Pacific.


Attacking Pearl Harbor stoked popular desire for vengeance. That passion—that terrible resolve—fueled the twin counteroffensives commanded by Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Tokyo may have had to awaken the sleeping giant to accomplish its goals in the Pacific—but it could have avoided filling him with rage and spite. It could have spared itself an all-out American onslaught.


Japanese war planners had long assumed the U.S. counteroffensive would remain limited in scope. They assumed Japanese forces would evict America from the Philippine Islands, and they assumed, rightly, that the U.S. Pacific Fleet planned to steam to the Philippines’ relief. They also knew the U.S. Pacific Fleet was stronger than their Combined Fleet—and thus had to be cut down to size for Japan’s navy to win.


Thus they embraced a doctrine they called “interceptive operations,” whereby aircraft and submarines stationed in the outer Pacific islands would pepper the U.S. battle fleet with small-scale attacks on its westward voyage. If successful, they would wear down the Americans before they even reached the fighting theater.


Japan’s navy believed it stood a chance in action against a U.S. fleet enfeebled by attacks from the depths and aloft—and it was right. It is really, really hard to overcome a resolute antagonist on his own home ground, even if that antagonist is outmatched in terms of ships, planes and manpower. The Imperial Japanese Navy might deprive the U.S. Navy of the war-making implements on which it depended, as the strategy of interceptive operations envisioned. Or, in the best case from Tokyo’s standpoint, the price tag of entry into the Western Pacific might soar above the price America was willing to pay.


If so, the United States might do the rational thing. They might shrug at the loss of the Philippines. They might write off the Western Pacific—ceding it to Japan by default. Tokyo would win without hazarding a pitched fleet battle.


So the Pearl Harbor raid was fatally flawed as strategy. Japanese leaders could have gotten part or all of what they wanted by foregoing the Pearl Harbor attack.


And yet they did it anyway. Why?
Part of the reason comes from Japanese leaders’ reading of their own maritime history. Japan struck first—and before it declared war—to open the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. While the torpedo raid against the Russian fleet at Port Arthur did little permanent physical damage, it did far-reaching psychological damage. From then on, Russian commanders sheltered timidly under the guns of Port Arthur. And when they did venture out, they got pummeled by Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s Combined Fleet. Port Arthur made an appealing precedent for Pearl Harbor. A preemptive attack might intimidate American commanders the way it had Russians in 1904.


The Pearl Harbor attack thus had a come-and-go character that Port Arthur did not. But the Japanese navy could keep up the pressure in 1904 where it could not in 1941.


That being the case, Nagumo’s airmen really had to make their shot at the Pacific Fleet count. As Admiral Nimitz noted when he arrived on Oahu to take command of the Pacific Fleet, the Japanese navy blundered egregiously by going after the U.S. battleship fleet instead of other targets. Nimitz believed the Japanese missed an opportunity by striking at the battle fleet but not its logistics. Japanese aviators could have taken out the dry docks that would refit most of the damaged vessels. They could have taken out the fleet’s fuel supply.


Had Japanese tacticians planned the strike wisely, they would have made infrastructure the main target, then hit the fleet with whatever munitions they had left after clobbering dry docks, fuel storage sites, and other support assets like oilers, ammunition ships, and destroyer, submarine. That would have set back the U.S. counteroffensive considerably, granting the Japanese Empire time to cement its conquests in Asia and the Pacific.


After the war, wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo cited the U.S. Navy’s capacity for underway replenishment—and thus its capacity to remain constantly at sea—as a decisive factor in the Pacific War’s outcome. Indeed it was.


Now, some might contend that the United States would have gone to war in the Pacific even had the Pearl Harbor attack never happened. Our allies were under assault, and we were honor bound to keep our commitments. The Japanese armed forces certainly would have attacked the Philippine Islands, which lay astride the sea lanes connecting the Japanese home islands with the “Southern Resource Area” in the South China Sea. The Philippines, of course, had been American territory since 1898. Tokyo could hardly let an American stronghold stand along this maritime thoroughfare remain intact—posing a constant threat to Japan’s economic lifelines. Nor could Washington overlook an attack on American soil.


And there’s no gainsaying this. But think about two things. One, popular sentiment in the United States may not have demanded offensive action in the Pacific following an attack on the Philippines. It certainly wouldn’t have demanded action as loudly as it did following December 7.


After all, the Pacific War was not the only show in town. The United States, an offshoot of the British Empire, had always faced eastward across the Atlantic. The war against Hitler’s Germany may have had first claim absent a Pearl Harbor attack—and the Pacific War may well have remained a backwater until the Allies’ work in Europe was done. By that time, Japan may have locked in part—or all—of its gains in the Far East. Time would have been on its side.


And, two, even after the U.S. Navy, Marines and Army started their westward march across the Pacific, Japan would have been better-positioned to resist the U.S. offensive if the Japanese armed forces had stuck with their prewar game plan. Rather than the vengeful America that Japan faced by the evening of December 7, it may have faced a relatively halfhearted America, war-weary from fighting in Europe.


And third, let’s not expect prospective foes to be as reckless as Imperial Japan. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly told Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a diplomat who was forever on the go: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Sometimes inaction—or less ambitious action—represents the wisest strategy.


China, unlike Japan, appears content to build up naval and air power along its periphery in hopes of rewriting the rules of the Asian order—the liberal order of seagoing trade and commerce over which America has presided since Japan’s downfall in 1945. While sometimes bellicose and always assertive, Beijing does not appear eager to pick a fight. It doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to fulfill its maritime destiny.


In short, this is a rival who seems to have learned from Yamamoto: don’t jab a sleeping giant, and if you do, don’t steel his resolve. Let him slumber until it’s late in the contest, and you may prevail. China may have learned the true lessons of Pearl Harbor.