How America Triumphed Over Japan

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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.


Pacific Victory

The war in the Pacific was won because of superior resources, number of ships, plans, etc., but strategically, the chief factor was the ability of the U.S. Navy to free itself of bases of supply, carrying its own mobile bases as part of U.S. Task Forces, something which the Japanese never foresaw. Since Tokyo’s forces were spread thin among island chains, it could not see or fortify points of attack. It reminds one of Sherman’s army holding a crossroad and forcing the Confederate forces to split its forces uncertain of which point to defend.

In addition, the U.S. did not have to worry about moving supplies against Japan because the U.S. Navy had ships that were floating dry docks and supply ships that went wherever the war ships went. The U.S. Navy was not dependent on ports. It could go to the Central Pacific at Tarawa or the South Pacific like Guadalcanal or the North Pacific like Saipan because it could always supply its forces.

And just as the British blockade of Germany was the chief agent acting to bring Germany to its knees in World War I, so it was the U.S. submarine blockade of Japan that was the most potent weapon in its defeat, at least before the use of the atomic bombs that closed the war there. The U.S. sank 60 percent of ships bringing oil, rubber into Japan, but what is shocking is to view how inconsistently, fitfully and erratically this strategic weapon was employed by the Navy leaders. (The greatest number of sub attacks on shipping didn’t occur until 1944.) 

America’s Might

Another key U.S. accomplishment was America's ability to militarize its mass production economy, including using companies like the Ford Motor company which built tanks by prefabricated parts and which used subcontractors to mass-produce heavy bombers in just the way it had done cars. This included Henry Kaiser's genius in discovering a new way to make ships in prefabricated sections, abandoning the old method of building from the keel up. (Americans have a genius for this - think of the Aballoon houses of the 1830s in Chicago. The British observed the structures would have blown away except that every section was fastened with a screw so that any strain would go against the grain of the wood.)

Russian aid. The sheer wealth of the U.S. economy was able to pour money like water from a sluice into Russia, which kept its armies afloat. This meant that America had the ability to motorize, not only its own army, but the Red Army, which was bearing the main burden of the fighting and slaughter against the Nazis. The progress made by the Russians in warfare demands notice – (I am thinking especially of their brilliant defense in depth at Kursk) which forced the Germans to expend their best energy and equipment on attacks that left them vulnerable to counterattack. This was due to the stubborn brilliance of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who made his views prevail over Stalin's, but it should also be remembered that Zhukov was a butcher - his victories cost many more of his own men than the enemies.

One should also note the T-34 Soviet tank, which outfought the German Panzers. The T-34 was designed by an American, but America turned up its nose at it.

Technology and Innovation

Technological innovation provided other absolutely essential reasons for Allied victory. For example, it is astounding to consider that the U.S. and Britain were losing the air war to the Germans until someone came up with the idea of using disposable fuel tanks on fighter escorts. This simple device enabled the Allies to destroy the German Air Force and rendered the bombing offensive victorious and secured the victory of D-Day. Germany clearly was doomed. But America’s policy about Germany was cold-blooded – outfits in the Eighth Air Force acted as bait, the big formations were used to lure German fighters up at which point the P-51s shot them down. But the U.S. did lose 26,000 young men in the Eighth.

We also have to remember the horrendous mass-casualty murders and economic and social damage that was inflicted on the German people by the bombing campaign. My uncle Jim, who served with the Eighth Air Force that bombed both Cologne and Hamburg and who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, used to say to me that he was probably a war criminal for those bombings

Other Factors

The winning of the Battle of the Atlantic was key, along with Hitler's blunder in not being able to win the war in the Mediterranean. That is a whole another topic. For example, when Manstein was collecting forces for the attack on Kursk, Hitler had already diverted key forces into Italy.

Another important point: the failure of the Germans to develop any strategic bombing capability proved catastrophic. Theirs was an air force designed primarily for ground support. The designer of German four-engine heavy bombers died in 1934, and no one took his place. There were no B-17s or B-24s or B- 29s in the Luftwaffe.

I have noticed comments on the speed of war and Roosevelt’s “Germany first” strategy. It pays to go back to the writings of the great British strategic geographer Halford Mackinder, who believed that a country’s power flowed from its place on a map. (Think of Napoleon’s “A country’s geography is its fate.”)

In the past some powers had exercised power out of all proportion to others because their sea power enabled them to send forces – arms, men and wealth - to crisis areas in the “world island” – Europe, Asia, Africa. In the 20th century, railroads, motor cars and aircraft had made sea power obsolete in terms of effective speed. Thus a continental power could use such means to outflank a sea power. It was Alfred Wedemeyer, a graduate of the German Staff College, who convinced FDR and Marshall, that the way to counter Hitler was to create a vast American armored force. It was this conviction that lay at the basis of Roosevelt’s “Germany First” war plan. 

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