- Historic Sites
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
There is no doubt that Bywater’s plans were studied and debated at the Imperial War College, too. Mitsuo Fuchida, a leading Japanese military historian, reported to me that as a lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy in 1936 he attended the Japanese Naval War College, the highest school for strategic studies in Japan at the time, and there studied both Taiheiyō kaiken ron and Taheiyō Senso to sono Hihan . Fuchida said that Bywater’s name was “well-known” among top naval officers, that he presumed that the Englishman’s book must have had “a great influence” on Japanese strategy.
The key question, of course, is whether or not Bywater influenced the man responsible for Japan’s strategy—Yamamoto. Like a great many other officers, the admiral probably encountered at least the rudiments of the Bywater plan as early as 1921, when the Office of the Naval General Staff first distributed Taiheiyō kaiken ron . He could have easily read Taiheiyō no Soha-sen or Taiheiyō Senso to sono Hihan after they were published several years later. The chances are, however, that Yamamoto’s first exposure to The Great Pacific War was to the American edition of the book. After two years as a graduate student at Harvard, Yamamoto could read English perfectly, and in 1925—the year The Great Pacific War was published in the United States as well as in Great Britain—he was serving as the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. That September The Great Pacific War was discussed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review under a one-inch-high banner headline—“ IF WAR COMES IN THE PACIFIC ”—and a large, spectacular photograph of destroyers laying a smoke screen on maneuvers off Hawaii. Indeed, the Japanese government registered an official protest in Washington, denouncing Bywater’s book as provocative and destined to arouse ill feeling between the two countries.
It should not be surprising to think that a Japanese naval officer would be strongly influenced by the work of a British naval authority, since the Japanese Navy was, from its infancy, virtually a creation of Great Britain. When the Japanese decided to build a modern navy in the i86o’s, replacing their old coast-defense ironclads with modern ocean-going warships, they purchased British ships and sent their most promising young officers to train aboard British men-of-war. By the time Japan was ready to deal a resounding naval defeat to Czarist Russia at the Straits of Tsushima in 1905, the majority of her ships were of British construction, and many of her commanders, including the famous Admiral Togo, had tied their first clove hitches aboard British warships. It would therefore be natural for Yamamoto—who had been with Togo at Tsushima and lost a couple of fingers in the engagement—to study the ideas promulgated by the leading British authority of his day on naval theory and practice.
On the other hand it would be reckless to conclude that the Japanese simply stole their design for conquest from a British writer. In the thirty-seven years between Tsushima and Pearl Harbor, Japan had built her own fighting ships and developed her own doctrines of naval combat. Furthermore, numerous influences must have played upon Yamamoto’s mind as he created the strategy of 1941. There were, for example, the highly publicized American war games off Hawaii in 1932, in which it was demonstrated that a flight of planes, taking off in a predawn attack from aircraft carriers, was able to reach Pearl Harbor without being detected and to “sink” all of the heavy naval vessels in the harbor. There were also Yamamoto’s own war games at Kagoshima Bay in May, 1940, at the conclusion of which he remarked to a colleague: “Well, it appears that a crushing blow could be struck [by torpedo planes] against an enemy surface fleet.”
Bywater was merely the first to put all of the pieces together, the first to show in detail how the strategic confines that had held Japanese ambitions in check for a generation could be overcome with a daring coup de main .
His failing perhaps was that his narrative of the action was more compelling than the warning in his conclusion. “Unfortunately,” one reviewer of The Great Pacific War wrote in 1925, “the dramatic side of the tactical excitement of war so overshadows the horrors of the losses sustained on both sides that one would almost wish to see Mr. Bywater’s drama acted.”