Yesterday was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, something that has been marked at Edge a number of times (here, here, and here. I may have missed some). There are numerous remembrances around the web as well (though this one, which blames Pearl Harbor on Harry Dexter White (!?) is just farcical.)
Today, I want to take a slightly different tack, by way of following up on H-War’s recent logistics roundtable. Why did Japan feel the need to attack the United States? There was nothing particularly inevitable about it. Japan and the United States had gotten along extremely well during the Boxer Uprising (yes, I know, self-promotion) and Japan had been an ally during World War I. The militarization of the government had increased Japanese regional aggressiveness, though this can be overstated. They had empire in mind even with the previous civilian government and it had not noticeably brought them in dispute with the US. More–with one substantial exception–Japan and the United States were physically distant from each other, nearly 7000 miles separating the capitals of each country. War Plan Orange, which mapped out American military actions in case of war with Japan, was heavily focused on the logistics necessary to send a fleet across the broad divide of the Pacific. Even more, Japan’s main imperial intentions were in the opposite direction from the United States, into the grand bulk of China.
The “substantial exception,” though, was a doozy. The Philippine Islands, taken by force and treaty from the Spanish in 1899 and by plain old force in the years ensuing from the Filipinos (oh, okay, more self-promotion), sat to the southwest of the Japanese Homelands. Here, too, though, it is surprising how far apart they are. Manila and Tokyo, the respective capitals, are roughly 1800 miles apart,
more than the nearly two-thirds the width of the contiguous United States.
Having said that, the Philippines were, in logistical terms, terribly positioned for the Japanese. Japan was desperately short of raw materials, especially the crucial ones needed by a modern military machine–oil, steel, rubber. Instead, they drew those resources from the outside world, substantial amounts from the USm but most from the resource rich areas of southeast Asia, the Dutch East Indies especially. The ships that carried that wealth back to Japan trundled through lanes in the long corridor between China and the Philippines. American naval and air power on the archipelago could potentially attack and destroy those freighters and tankers. Denied its precious raw materials, the Japanese war machine and economy would grind to halt, and Japanese ambitions on the mainland with them. The United States, to put it more crudely, had the Japanese by the neck, and the paranoid Japanese military thought that America would inevitably use that leverage. For a military with substantial imperial ambitions, such weakness was impossible to bear.
It is a painful irony that in service of imperial ambitions to the west, to protect strategic supply lines to the south, the Japanese sailed their fleet thousands of miles east to attack the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But the Japanese analysis proved correct, on the logistical level at least. The American campaign against Japanese shipping, carried out mostly by long-range submarines, destroyed Japanese ships by the thousands and ripped the material heart out of the Japanese war effort.
*A romanized version of the Japanese word for “infamy.” Or so the Internet claims.