America’s desultory participation in WWII began on December 2, 1941 when Imperial Japanese forces attacked the Dutch East Indies in order to seize vitally needed oil, tin and rubber resources. The Dutch could put up only a token resistance with five cruisers against Japanese battleships and aircraft carriers.
Throughout the operation, the Japanese were scrupulous to avoid harming any British or American interest. Nevertheless, the British felt forced to defend the interest of the Dutch government in exile and declared war on Japan on December 28th 1941. There quickly followed the loss of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales and the fall of Singapore.
FDR did not wish war with Japan because he was focused on the threat of Fascism in Europe. American public opinion remained stubbornly isolationist until February 14th 1942 when the American cruiser Indianapolis was torpedoed by an unknown submarine with substantial loss of life. Using the incident, FDR narrowly won a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan on March 7th 1942. Many have since argued that FDR hoped that Hitler might follow through on his Tripartite treaty obligation and declare war on the U.S but Hitler never rose to the bait.
The declaration of war was followed by a series of stinging and humiliating defeats for America. Japan seized Guam on March 9th and destroyed two battleships and cruisers that had been sent to defend the island. Following a long established plan, the entire U.S. Pacific fleet of 13 battleships and four aircraft carriers had previously moved from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines. They sailed to the relief Guam on March 21st and encountered the combined Japanese fleet on March 24th.
Unfortunately, the U.S. forces were commanded by the inept Kimmel who was a big gun battleship man to the core. By contrast, the Japanese commander, Isoroku Yamamoto was a world class innovator in the use of naval air power. Yamamoto deployed seven of Japans 9 carriers in the battle against Kimmel five carriers. The warnings of the Col. Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers in China about the quality of Japanese aircraft and the skill of their pilots were ignored. The Enterprise, Lexington,Hornet and Wasp were sunk and the Yorktown badly damaged against the loss of just one carrier for the Japanese. The Japanese competence with battleships likewise surprised the Americans during the subsequent night actions.
Kimmel limped back to the Philippines just in time to suffer a surprising and devastating air attack by long range Japanese bombers from Taiwan. Two carrier based attacks soon followed. Shorn of air cover, the American battleships fled the Philippines leaving the islands open to invasion on April 14th. The battleships were harassed by Japanese carriers all the way to Australia and by submarines all the way back to Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto placed a capstone on his brilliant actions by launching a long range carrier strike on Pearl Harbor on June 5th 1942. He caught two of the last three remaining American Carriers, the Ranger and the Saratoga in port and destroyed them. (They had survived the battle of Guam by being in transits from the Atlantic at the time.) Then, almost as an afterthought, he seized Midway Island.
In a span of three short months, the Pacific had become a Japanese lake. Although five American aircraft carriers were being built at the time, only the wrecked Yorktown was still afloat and it could not possibly stand against Japan’s seven fleet carriers and their superb pilots and aircraft.
In August, faced with the very real possibility of an invasion of Australia, the British sued for peace. America soon followed. America had entered the war sharply divided and a stunning series of defeats in open battle had proved to many that isolationism was the way to go. Few Americans saw anything in the Pacific worth fighting for and Japan had proved itself a worthy and honorable foe. The peace was signed in December 1942 and America’s 9 month participation in WWII came to an end. FDR lost resoundingly to the isolationist Dewey in 1944.
The major effects of the Pacific war were felt in Europe. The Pacific war caused a wholesale shifting of American military and manufacturing priorities to the Pacific. American lend-lease dried up and America’s covert war against the U-boats ended. Strangled by U-boats, Britain was forced to sue for peace with Germany in February 1943.
For a time, it appeared that Fascism would overrun the whole of old world but by 1944 the vastnesses of Russian and the shear numbers of Soviet military began to tell against even the wonder weapons of the Third Riech. As inexorable as a glacier, Stalin’s armies fought their way to Berlin in 1946.
And they didn’t stop. On the pretext of “liberating” Nazi occupied Europe, the massive Soviet Armies swept into Western Europe, Spain and Italy. Britain, acting on the authority of the governments in exile, attempted to stop them but found itself brushed aside. By 1947, the Soviet Union stretched from Normandy to Vladivostok. From then on Communism seemed unstoppable. In the next decade, even as America stirred itself to resist, Communism swallowed up China, India, Indochina and much of Africa.
In 1952, the Soviet Union detonated the first Atomic bomb and used that threat to secure all its gains. (It would later be revealed that the U.S. had begun an Atomic bomb project in 1942 but Dewey canceled it in 1944. Some believe that Communist agents within the program supplied the Soviets with the preliminary designs for the bomb.) Had they chosen to use it before America built its own bomb, they could have conquered the world.
Today, only America, Canada, Australia, a toothless England, the South African Union, most of Latin America and, ironically, the island portions of the Empire of Japan remain outside the Communist’s grasp.
In his memoirs, Yamamoto revealed that many in the Japanese military had wanted to attack America outright at the end of 1941. Yamamoto and others had convinced them to follow a more subtle course that drew America to Japans strengths. However, Yamamoto reveled that had the Japanese government demanded outright war with America, he had planned to launch a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with the goal of wrecking the Pacific fleet at the outset of the conflict.
In retrospect, we can’t help but wonder about the long term political ramifications of such an act. Although, surprise attacks prior to a declaration of war were accepted in Japanese culture, such an attack would have not doubt enraged American popular opinion. Instead of having to be goaded into attacking the Japanese first, Americans would have viewed themselves as moral justified in responding to a despicable act. Instead of winning grudging admiration for their diplomacy and skill in open battle, the Japanese would be viewed as a treacherous and dangerous people with whom no reliable peace could be made. Had Yamamoto carried out his initial surprise Pearl Harbor attack, America would have fought the war to victory regardless of how many defeats we suffered along the way.
As long as we’re dreaming, we might also note that in his memoirs Albert Speer said that Hitler did toy with the idea of declaring war on the U.S. in March of 1942 in support of his Japanese allies. Imagine if he had. The U.S. would have entered WWII perfectly united and would have viewed itself as under unprovoked attack from two fascist powers. All the resources of America would have been poured unhesitatingly into the war in both theaters.
One can only imagine the outcome but surely we would have salvaged at least Western Europe from the Soviet grasp. Fueled by fears of a German bomb, the Atomic Bomb project would have proceeded and it is likely that we would have had a bomb by late 1945 or 1946 with which to contain the Soviets even if they had an overwhelming conventional advantage. Perhaps deprived of the vast resources of the Middle East, Asia and Africa the Soviet Union might have eventually faltered and fallen. Maybe 80% of humanity would not today live under Communist tyranny.
It is strange to wish a devastating attack upon ones own country but one can’t but wonder if Yamamoto’s surprise attack might not have actually made the world a better place in the long run.