In statecraft, there are:
- truths: Oahu is an island.
- assumptions: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels.
- theories: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific.
- hypotheses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Moving the U.S. Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor leaves it close enough to deter Japan but far enough away to be safe from Japanese attacks.
- guesses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good anchorage for naval vessels. A fleet based at Pearl Harbor can attack into the western Pacific or block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Moving the U.S. Pacific fleet to Pearl Harbor leaves it close enough to deter Japanese aggression but far enough away to be safe from Japanese attack. The Japanese lack the will or power to attack Pearl Harbor with carrier based planes.
These are all exercises in faith. Eventually, they all end up reduced to fable. But each flavor of faith or fable differs from other flavors in the rigor of ritualized attention it demands, the fallout when it is followed or ignored, and the lessons it aspires to teach its true believers. The biggest risk run by statecraft is mistaking one kind of faith or fable for another and acting on that mistaken belief. Acting on a guess you have mistake for truth when the truth is that it is only a guess creates a mismatch between hard truth and hazy guess. It’s the impact of these mismatch that separate the harmful from the harmless and the tolerable from the inevitably fatal.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposed two distinct spheres of human experience in The Black Swan:
- Mediocristan: the realm of truths, safe assumptions, verifiable theories, reasonable hypotheses, and best guesses
- Extremistan: the realm of absent truths, unsafe assumptions, fantasies slumming as theories, crazed hypotheses, and wild guesses
The titular black swan is the kind of event that separates Mediocristan from Extremistan:
- The black swan is disproportionately consequential.
- The black swan cannot be predicted.
- The black swan inevitably acquires a tight bodyguard of assumptions, theories, hypothesis, and guesses disguised as truths.
A black swan, contrary to its usual portrayal, is not always bad. In Taleb’s writings, black swans are neither intrinsically good or bad. A black swan is what you make of it. It can be a boon or disaster depending on its interplay with the residue of assumptions, theories, hypothesis, and guesses it collides with. The right residue of faith and fable can turn a black swan into progress. The wrong residue of accumulated mental debris can allow a black swan to set off a chain of cascading woe.
Yesterday, December 7, 2011, a day that is living in infamy, was the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese air raids on Pearl Harbor. One question, as usual, is automatically asked as scheduled: could the attack on Pearl Harbor be stopped? Each fable about Pearl Harbor strives to answer this annual question. Each fable differs in its particulars but their story lines clump together around a few premises:
- Americans were innocent victims of Japanese treachery
- Americans pushed Japan into war with a series of provocative sanctions but didn’t realize that the blowback included a Japanese attack
- Americans expected Japanese attacks but though they’d be focused on seizing British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and not American targets
- Americans expected a Japanese attack but thought it would fall on our forces in the Philippines or elsewhere in the western Pacific
- The Roosevelt Administration knew there was an attack on Pearl Harbor but expected American forces in Hawaii to repel it
- The Roosevelt Administration knew there was an attack on Pearl Harbor and deliberately sabotaged efforts to defend the base from Japanese attack
This focus on prevention is an assumption. These fables assume that the right warning to Japan, the Roosevelt Administration, Admiral Kimmel, General Short, or Superman would have prevented the tragedy. This is the purpose of the moral of their fable, elevating its slant on events and its conclusions to truth, assumption, theory, hypothesis, or (when honest) guess.
This longing for prophecy misses the point: the black swan came. The attack on Pearl Harbor sucked American and Japanese alike into the vortex of war in its full primeval fury, wild contingency, and brutal instrumentality. There were no more angels of prevention in the whirlwind. Theory and hypothesis went out the window, leaving behind the hard truths of bombs, bullets, and torpedoes, the misplaced assumptions of peacetime training, and the frantic guessing of frightened boys in metal boxes left to feed flammable petroleum and explosive powder.
Whether the right warnings would have made a difference at Pearl Harbor is unknowable. There were many balls up in the air. The Japanese had never performed a carrier launched aerial attack on a naval base. The Americans had never defended a fleet at its moorings from an aerial attack. If American fighters had been in the air, the Pacific Fleet had gone to sea, or the U.S. Navy been at battle stations, the Japanese attack force might have suffered higher casualties, killed fewer Americans, and sunk fewer ship. The Japanese plan assumed higher losses in men and material that the attacking force suffered so the lopsided outcome in their favor was a pleasant (but unnerving) surprise.
Surprise didn’t kill 2,402 Americans, sink four American battleships and two destroyers, and destroy 188 aircraft on the ground. The Japanese did and it was the poor American response that let them do it. The dysfunctional American effort is only partly explained by shock. American defenses were poorly organized and fatally split between an Army and Navy more at war with each other than the Japanese. The U.S. national security establishment, from Washington to Pearl Harbor to Manila ,was still running at peacetime tempo despite a world running at war speed. Japanese Navy fliers had recent combat experience in and around Chinese waters. The U.S. Army had experienced fliers to counter them but they were away training in and around Chinese airspace. It was the accumulation of small differences like these that disproportionately rewarded Japanese attackers and disproportionately punished American defenders.
So Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his war. FDR had wanted a provocation. FDR had actively conspired to trigger a provocation. However, it’s unlikely that he conspired to trigger this provocation. This provocation inflicted significant damage on FDR’s beloved Navy, the very instrument he needed to intact to win the war he wanted to fight. FDR’s preferred outcome would have been a Japanese (or, better yet, Germans) sneak attack on Mom, Home, and Apple Pie. An attack on Mom, Home, and Apple Pie would have been a massive symbolic blow but it would’ve left America’s core war fighting power untouched.
The critical decision in the care and feeding of a black swan is what you do afterward. This is where faith and fable meet contingency: statecraft sees opportunity or peril in a black swan through the lenses of the truths, assumptions, theories, hypotheses, and guesses that it brings to the scene of the crash. Many of the actions that leaders in this warring states period took were based on the faiths and fables they took away from their fighting the last war.
- U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt took away several lessons from his experience during World War I. These were the lessons that led his actions following Pearl Harbor:
- The need to preemptively keep a single power from dominating Europe. Thomas Woodrow Wilson intervened against Germany because he feared that the threat of a victorious Germany meant the permanent militarization (“Prussianization” is what Wilson called it) of the United States of America. Wilson’s intervention, for all of its flaws, kept the U.S from Prussianization for another 19 years.
- The need to beat Germany (and anyone else) totally into the ground so they’re left with absolutely no illusion that they’d lost the war.
- The need for an unconditional postwar settlement that left the defeated no wiggle room to get out from under its treaty obligations.
- The need for more robust international security arrangements. FDR wanted the four quarters of the globe patrolled by the “four policemen”: the US, USSR, UK, and China. The facade of this four way division was a more muscular League of Nations 2.0 in the new United Nations. The reality of this four way partition was based on America running China as a puppet, reducing Britain to a compliant poodle shorn of its empire, and mesmerizing the USSR with personal charm.
- For Winston Churchill, Member of Parliament; Lord of the Admiralty; Lieutenant Colonel, 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers; and minister of munitions, Pearl Harbor offered a replay of his experience of 1917-1918. Timely American assistance saved France and Britain from defeat and preserved his precious empire. American entry into World War II would also let Churchill propose countless variations on Gallipoli where American servicemen were repeatedly thrown against the Alps guarding Europe’s “soft underbelly” in the name of outsized British interests that seemed to balloon even as Britain itself shrank.
- For Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler of the Bavarian Army, Pearl Harbor only confirmed the inevitable. Hitler’s strategy sought to create an integrated political and economic unit on the European continent with the power and clout to resist the material resources commanded by the Americans and British. This would prevent a replay of his experience of 1918-1919 when American and British material power forced Germany into armistice followed by an Anglo-American naval blockade in 1919 that starved Germany into signing Versailles. Hitler would first kick away the English-speaking power’s best tool on the continent, Soviet Russia, and then he’d be able to face the maritime military and material might of America and Britain with the full resources of Eurasia at his command. Hitler already thought FDR, president and tool of the center of world Jewry, was at war with him. Pearl Harbor only made the war explicit under international law.
- For evil commie Joseph Stalin, it allowed him to live another day while setting the imperialists against each other, leaving the Communists to exploit the disarray after the war like Lenin did after World War I. Stalin didn’t even need a sealed train since he already had sealed moles in the White House.
- The leadership of the Japanese army saw a rerun of their short but splendid wars in World War I and earlier in the Russo-Japanese War where the shock of quick and surprising victories by little yellow men over large white supermen led to a favorable peace before Japan exhausted its limited resource base. They hoped to bleed the soft Americans white through demoralizing defeats and brutal battles.
The actions these men and millions of others took were based on mental models they’d gleaned from previous experience but the actions they took were taken after the attack, in circumstances and challenges it created. Their past did not allow them to foresee the black swan of Pearl Harbor. But it’s not the black swan that matters. It’s how you care for and feed the opportunities and perils that the black swan unleashes.
In 216 B.C., a Carthaginian army led by Hannibal Barça defeated the Roman Republic at Cannae, reputedly sending over 50,000 Romans to their death in the course of one day:
Following the battle, commander of the Numidian cavalry Maharbal urged Hannibal to seize the opportunity and march immediately on Rome. It is told that the latter’s refusal caused Maharbal’s exclamation: “Truly the Gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. Thou knowest indeed, Hannibal, how to conquer, but thou knowest not how to make use of your victory.
Whether Pearl Harbor was an American or Japanese victory to make use of remains an unanswered question. Whether FDR or his peers knew how to make good use of the event is ambiguous. The attack itself lasted only a few frantic hours. But the attack Pearl Harbor has been in constant use ever since. As original vintage memories of the attack fade, the black swan of Pearl Harbor wastes away to anonymous gray. Soon there will be no one left to care and feed it. But the faith and fable of Pearl Harbor, glommed from half-truths, lazy assumptions, tenuous theories, fragile hypotheses, and ignorant guesses, goes moralizing on. Any truth in Pearl Harbor’s faiths and fables will only show when the terrors of December once again descend on innocence out of another clear blue morning sky.