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Japan Strikes: 1941
Sixteen years before Pearl Harbor an English naval expert uncannily prophesied in detail the war in the Pacific. Now comes evidence that the Japanese heeded his theories—but not his warnings
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Yamamoto was killed in 1943 when the plane in which he was travelling was shot down by an American fighter. Unfortunately he left no memoirs, and there is no mention of Bywater’s name in his biography. Most of Yamamoto’s colleagues are today no longer living, and the memories of the few still alive have been dimmed by the years. I wrote, for example, to Vice Admiral Shigeru Fukudome, who was Yamamoto’s chief of staff at the time he conceived of the Pearl Harbor attack, to ask if he knew whether the Admiral had been influenced by Bywater. Fukudome replied that although he recalled Bywater’s name as a “world-renowned naval journalist,” he could not say if my suspicions were correct.
It seemed I had run into a blank wall, so I tried to learn what I could about Bywater himself. The British Who’s Who listed Bywater as having been naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph . The librarian of that newspaper informed me that Bywater had died in August, 1940—only sixteen months before his imaginings were confirmed by world events. Just two weeks after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, an abridged version of The Great Pacific War was published in Life magazine, billed as “the most current book of the week.” Soon after, the complete text was republished as a hardcover book with the subtitle “A Historic Prophecy Now Being Fulfilled” and an introduction by Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor of the New “fork Times, who described the book as “deeply prophetic.” Despite this flurry of interest in his work when the war in the Pacific broke out, Bywater remained a prophet without due honor, for his name is otherwise ignored in the literature of the Japanese-American war. Indeed, because both the Life condensation and Baldwin’s introduction to The Great Pacific War went to press so soon (Baldwin was writing just six days after the attack at Pearl Harbor), all either could say about Bywater was that he appeared to have been correct in guessing that the Japanese would strike without warning. Even after Japanese records became available, no one checked to see how prophetic many of his other guesses were.
Bywater had shipped around the world in his youth, visiting ports of call throughout Europe, Africa, and the United States. His ramblings, however, were not so romantically aimless as were those of some of the other journalists of the time, for between about 1909 and the end of World War I he was an undercover agent for British naval intelligence—at first posing as a young blade seeking his fortune in distant lands and later carrying out his missions while doubling as a naval correspondent for the British Naval and Military Record, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the London Daily Graphic. He probably became engaged in intelligence work through the connections of his father, a Welshman who had immigrated to the United States a few years before the Civil War and become a federal secret agent, rising to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. (The elder Bywater later returned to England, where his son was born in the Chelsea section of London.) Young Bywater’s experience and contacts gained while sleuthing about foreign shipyards and anchorages for the Royal Navy (and also, briefly, for the United Statesjust prior to this nation’s entry into World War I) doubtless stood him in good stead when he became a full-time naval reporter after the war.
It was in 1921, shortly after the United States acquiesced in the League of Nations’ mandating to Japan the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Marshalls—formerly German islands—that Bywater turned his attention to the Pacific, recognizing that the balance of power in this quarter of the globe had suddenly shifted. In that year he wrote an exhaustive strategic study called Sea Power in the Pacific, in which he described and analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese and American positions. Bywater pointed out that Guam, which he regarded as the Malta of the Pacific, had been effectively “surround[ed] … with a cordon of potential Japanese strongholds and naval bases,” adding that the notion that Japan “would forego the use of such invaluable bases in case of emergency is not to be believed.” At the end of the book he appended a twenty-eight-page chapter entitled “Possible Features of a War in the Pacific,” in which he groped over the chart of the ocean in an effort to foresee the shape that a future conflict in this vast area might take. Over the next four years he expanded this chapter to book length and finally published it in 1925 as The Great Pacific War. His purpose, as he explained in the preface, was “to develop the theme … in a previous volume … further,” not because he wished to usher that theme into reality but because he hoped to demonstrate in graphic detail the truth of the statement that “war is never a paying proposition from any national point of view.” To accomplish this task, he wrote, “it was necessary to have recourse to the medium of fiction.”