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War seemed inevitable. Plans were being made for a blockade to prevent oil and other natural resources from being brought into militaristic Imperial Japan. President Roosevelt and the U.S. Navy anticipated a surprise attack – possibly in the Philippines or Thailand.
How should war be fought at sea?
The Naval War College and experienced submarine warriors argued for unrestricted submarine warfare. Author Joel Ira Holwitt shows how their view was adopted within hours after the attack of December 7, 1941 and how it was Japan, like Germany in both world wars, who first attacked civilian merchant vessels.
Holwitt's "Execute Against Japan: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare" (Texas A&M University Press, 2009) is on the CNO's Navy Reading Program list of "Read to be Ready" books.
Germany's attacks on civilian ships, including those of the United States, brought the U.S. into World War I. In World War II, the United States used the same strategy to attack "non-belligerent" neutral shipping.
"With the passage of so many years since the Second World War, it may be difficult to understand how unrestricted submarine warfare could have been considered so controversial and despicable before the United States entered the war. And yet, the United States did go to war in 1917 over unrestricted submarine warfare, and during two subsequent decades national and military leaders repeated numerous high-minded statements that nothing could be more foreign to the American notion of freedom of the seas than unrestricted warfare. But within one day, the United States abruptly turned about from that position and waged a determined and pitiless maritime war against Japan that ended only in the destruction of Japan's merchant marine. For that reason alone, the U.S. decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare remains an important moment in history."The decision was made purposely "out of the hands of civilian policy makers," according to Holwitt, who argues that Adm. Thomas C. Hart gave the order hours before CNO Admiral Harold R. Stark did the same.
"Stark favored a decentralized command structure that placed as much authority as possible in the hands of his subordinates," Holwitt rights.
Other key players in developing the strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare included: Admirals Ernest J. King, Edward Kalbfus, Hyman Rickover, Joseph Reeves, William Ledyard Rodgers, Chester Nimitz, and Geoffrey Layton as well as Capt. James Fife and Capt. Kelly Turner. Admiral Husband Kimmel was notably kept out of the loop.
According to Holwitt, "Unrestricted submarine warfare was specifically and unambiguously illegal." But it was certainly effective.
"The U.S. decision to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare held dire consequences for Japan. By the end of the war, Japan's merchant marine and navy were at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, due in no small measure to the U.S. Navy's submarine force. Tens of thousands of Japanese merchant mariners, navy sailors, and army soldiers were dead, and Japanese soldiers and civilians throughout the former Japanese empire were starving. With all supply lines severed by a scythe of American submarines, Japan's war machine had collapsed."There was a time when submarines were too new and innovative to be taken seriously. In fact, American statesman Elihu Root, secretary of war under President McKinley and secretary of state under President Theodore Roosevelt, fought to abolish the submarine as as instrument of war.
Submariners had to overcome numerous obstacles in the early 20th century to become "fleet scouts, naval skirmishes and minelayers," ultimately more than proving their worth as warfighters.
Holwitt's work helps the reader consider evolving technology and strategy, the ethical arguments of targeting civilians during war, and the reconciliation of international law and military strategy, not to mention the efficacy/reality of civilian control of the military.