The popular view claiming Japan's government prior to 1941 was a formidable totalitarian monolith is wrong. In fact, Japan's civil government ended in 1931, and what remained was only a clamorous, quarrelsome amalgamation of cliques and factions, the latter ridden with subgroups, the most radical of which was the Imperial Japanese Army. Supposedly abjectly subservient to the Emperor, these groups regularly disobeyed the Emperor when they didn’t ignore him entirely.
The different Army cliques were so bloodthirsty, indocile and unruly, that the result was basically a government by assassination. Army groups who disliked policies murdered prime ministers as casually as teenager tearing up a traffic ticket, with no compunction at all.
It should also be remembered that the two most important strategic groups in Japan differed widely on what course of action Japan should take in the event of a world war. One group, “Strike North,” wanted to attack the Soviet Union in revenge for the 1939 clash along the Manchurian border in which Japanese casualties reached 50,000 (18,000 dead) and which resulted in an armistice (that Japan asked for) – while the other group, “Strike South,” wanted to gain oil resources by attacking the Dutch East Indies for which the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor had to be disabled.
Had Japan attacked Russia in concert with Germany, today's world would look a great deal different. In any case, the “Strike South” group prevailed, thus freeing up incredible numbers of Soviet divisions that were switched west to confront Hitler. Those same Soviet divisions would come back to attack Japan in 1945 and hastened its defeat.
In any case, Japan's moves on Indochina and then the attack at Pearl Harbor meant that Tokyo’s advances in the South Pacific threatened U.S. policy, which was to deal with Hitler first, including aid Britain in the Battle of the North Atlantic. This was intelligent for a number of reasons. For one, British survival was crucial because it was an unsinkable base, and also because historically the U.S. had always been drawn into any war where fighting became severe in the North Atlantic.
As a result, in 1940, President Roosevelt wanted to be "strictly on the defensive" in the Pacific. As he said to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, that he didn’t have enough Navy to go around, and he was right. In 1942, August, at Guadalcanal, the U.S. only had sent in just one Marine Division.
Japan's decision to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor was based on its realization that it lacked sufficient industrial resources for a long war. It was that simple and that desperate. The Pearl Harbor attack was a frantic gamble that failed. (After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. public was very fearful, according to CIA officials I talked to who were teenagers at the time. It was the same way after 9/11 – ordinary people shook in their shoes.) The U.S. public had its interest centered on the details of its daily life and it had no knowledge of logistics – the network of supply lines, sea lanes, roads that move goods and soldiers - and so after the attack the American people thought the Japanese were going to surface in San Francisco.
Administrative Reasons Why the U.S. Won
In our system, political, civilian leaders play an indispensable role, and it should be noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson, George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King and headed by President Roosevelt provided the leadership that proved absolutely essential to victory. Roosevelt picked Marshall on the basis of a single one-hour interview – that shows just how astute FDR was a judge of character. But it is important to remember that Roosevelt picked no military leader from the ranks of his political supporters. But as the conflict wore went on, Roosevelt and the political leadership more and more took a back seat to Marshall and Stimson and the like.
The War with Germany
Germany had a wonderful run of victory through September 1939 and May 1940 thanks to a new concept of armor and maneuver employed by such leaders as Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian. That topic is too complicated to be dealt with here, but it pays to switch our attention to Germany’s industrial policies. In spite of its ability to turn out complicated and ingenious weapons until the very last days of the war, one of the chief reasons for Germany's defeat was its inability to manage its industrial economy effectively. Studying the Nazi economy with any care, one sees that the usual arguments about the effectiveness of collectivism vis-a-vis capitalism and the infallibility of centrally directed economy vanish like a bad gas in the wind. Only the Soviet Union had a true “command economy,” and it was far more effective in battle.
Crucial Military Aspects
Germany was also greatly hampered by the lack of motorized forces. We are not talking about its tanks. Yes, the Panzer forces were quick, but they were small and self-contained. The bulk of German army’s food, shells, bedding, helmets and the artillery relied on horses to move to the front and back. Not only was it disastrous, it was totally inefficient. Combined with the inability of the Luftwaffe to supply German forces by air, these defects sealed the doom of very finest German combat units on the ground, especially in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, for example.
According to U.S. Army records, and scholars such as Max Hastings, John Keegan, Stephen Ambrose, et al, the German army was the finest in the world, in perhaps all of history. It was never defeated on its own terms. The genius of Marshall and others was to make it fight on our terms, not theirs, and it lost. Gen. Lawton Collins said recently that the Germans were by far the more deadly enemy, and that the Japanese were crude and primitive by comparison. Japan's forces shared the same fatuous conviction that spiritual superiority could overcome the huge output of materiel that the French displayed at the outset of World War I.
Another factor in the Nazi defeat would be its lack of access to oil. The U.S. was producing almost 75 percent of the world's oil, a commodity absolutely indispensable to a mechanized, fast-moving war of ships, tanks and planes. Germany had to rely on what it captured. One of the reasons for Germany’s defeat was its disastrous push into Soviet Union in 1941 to lay its hands on Russian oil fields in the Caspian.