Saturday, September 3, 2016

Tensions Rising, Lessons from 75 Years Ago

Review by Bill Doughty
Pearl Harbor in October 1941.

How did the attack on Pearl Harbor happen? What was the Imperial Japanese Navy's role under a totalitarian xenophobic government? What were Hitler's intentions with Japan? When did Japan align itself with Germany and Italy and coordinate with France to take over parts of Indochina, and how did the U.S. Navy respond?

One of America's greatest military historians, the late Samuel Eliot Morison, answers these big global questions in "The Rising Sun in the Pacific 1931-April 1942" (1948, Naval Institute Press), volume 3 in 9-volume series, "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II."

In the 1930s, under a military-controlled government supported by state-sponsored nationalist propaganda, Imperial Japan rejected international laws and treaties, annexed parts of China and invaded countries and territories in Southeast Asia. The invasion in Indochina––with heavy numbers of troops and aircraft––occurred 75 years ago in September 1941.

Japan, dependent on oil and iron ore imports, put the United States in a conundrum: (1) take the moral high ground, refuse to condone aggression/annexation and impose an embargo, or (2)  continue to honor commerce treaties and continue exports, which might could prevent Japanese citizens from fully supporting the militarists.

"The United States government was faced with the dilemma of conniving at Japanese aggression by allowing oil exports to continue, or risking war if it cut them off. The Japanese government was faced with a similar dilemma: it must have oil for conquest, or conquer more territory to obtain oil," Morison notes.

Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison
H.P. Willmott pens the introduction in this version of Morison's contemporaneous history, putting the recounting itself in context. Willmott notes that this volume "concerns itself with the first phase of this war and the nineteen weeks between the Japanese attack and the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942." The following volume describes battles including Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions in the summer of 1942 as the United States military turned the tide including in Guadalcanal and the Solomons.
"This third volume, thus, is concerned primarily with something that is unusual in American history: defeats. The book is notable for another important reason: it is written by December 1947, published in September 1948, and reprinted no fewer than eleven times before December 1959. Therefore, it is one of the earliest accounts of these proceedings, one that by definition commanded widespread attention with a book-reading public. As such, 'The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-April 1942,' has clearly shaped perspectives, and thoughtful readers should consider properly the strengths and weaknesses of its well-written, eminently readable, account of events."
Acknowledging that the initial months of the war did not go well for the Navy (until the Battle of Midway), Morison reports on the biggest black mark: the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nimitz himself was against commemorating "Pearl Harbor Day," because of the day of infamy was felt to be a day of failure and defeat at the time.

But, Willmott writes in the introduction: "The strength of Morison's account lies in its underlying capture of (the) ethic and spirit of the times, the assurance of America's righteousness, the confidence and the certainty born of victory. No less important, one of the book's strengths is its studious avoidance of involvement in the Pearl Harbor controversy over responsibilities and blame."

Hitler arranged a pact between Axis powers Japan, Germany and Italy.
According to Morison, "strong forces pulled Japan into Hitler's orbit. There was an ideological affinity between Nazi doctrine and Japanese polity." Militarists in Japan thought a strong law-and-order profile and authoritarian alliance with Germany and Italy would "frighten America and Britain into keeping hands off East Asia," leaving "rich pickings for Japan."

Hitler saw an alliance with war-hungry Imperial Japan as good for Germany, too.
"In April 1939, six months before war broke out, Hitler went fishing for an unconditional military pact between Germany, Italy and Japan, which would bring all three into any war that one of them started. General Itagaki, War Minister in the Hiranuma cabinet, and the Kodo men in general were all for it; but the Imperial court, Big Business, Navy Minister Yonai and Admiral Yamamoto, were against it. They foresaw that any such pact might involve Japan in war with Great Britain and the United States, and they succeeded in stalling the negotiations. Hitler and Ribbentrop, exceedingly annoyed at this outcome, threatened to find another ally; and Hitler's nonaggression pact of August 1939 with Stalin was, in part, his 'answer' to Japan."
America's response was girded in International norms, laws, treaties and ethos.

Hitler declares war on the United States, Dec. 11, 1941.
Within four days after Imperial Japan's sneak attack on Oahu, Hitler declared war on the United States. The U.S. Navy led the response in the Pacific as the U.S. military joined Allies in Europe to confront and defeat Hitler, who double-crossed the Soviet Union and ultimately had a falling out with Japan after the Japanese were unable to support Germany against the Soviets.

Failure to predict the intentions of the enemy (and allied militaries), misplaced assumptions and apparent strategic oversight of a totalitarian government––these Morison leaves to other historians to debate. But the book opens with this thought-provoking epigram, a quote from Sophocles:

All hidden things the endless flowing years
Bring forth, and bury that which all men knew.
Falters the firm resolve and plighted word;
And none may say "It cannot happen here."

As for other lessons, Morison shares a CNO perspective:
"In August 1939, when Admiral Leahy was relieved as Chief of Naval Operations by Admiral Stark, he could look back with some satisfaction at the increase of naval strength during the two and a half years of his incumbency. But, as he wrote in his last report, 'the Navy must be sufficiently strong in every essential element, and it must be adequately trained,' in order to take the offensive in the event of war and 'defeat the enemy Fleet wherever it can be brought to action.'"
Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison, USNR (1887-1976), is the author of "The Two Ocean War" and many other books on maritime history and the U.S. Navy. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards and honors.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson, a former WWII naval officer, presented Morison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom––along with a group of other "humanists" that included John Steinbeck, Walt Disney, T.S. Eliot, Helen Keller and Carl Sandburg, among others.

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