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The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific

John H. Maurer and Erik Goldstein (editors), Naval Institute Press, (2022).

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

The editors are well-published senior scholars, well-equipped to undertake the organization and editing of this volume which focuses on the interwar years of two global conflicts. Professor John H. Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy and served as the Chair of the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Erik Goldstein serves as Professor of International Relations and History Boston University; his research interests include diplomacy, formulation of national diplomatic strategies, the origins and resolution of armed conflict, and negotiation.

The Road to Pearl Harbor offers a timely examination of conflicts in the Pacific prior to the attacks on Pearl Harbor and provides lessons applicable to understanding contemporary Great Power flash points between Asia and the West. In this book, the editors bring together renowned historians and analysts of grand strategy to illustrate the fateful decisions that culminated in war. The seven contributors take a pragmatic view of the policy and strategy options, as well as the decisions made by the leaders of the great powers. This important history underscores that the choices made by political, military, and naval leaders mattered in determining questions of war and peace. Highlighting Japan’s war against China and the protracted resistance of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime, The Road to Pearl Harbor provides historical context for understanding the political and economic struggles in Asia and decisions for war. The volume provides an important contribution to interwar naval history by examining the views of the Japanese navy’s leaders, who wanted to build up their navy to defeat Britain and the United States at sea. This interwar history is relevant, as the concluding chapter demonstrates in a revealing examination of the current views held by Chinese naval officers about fighting a future war in the Pacific. The volume has an “Introduction,” seven chapters, and a single conflated Bibliography and a valuable Index.

“Introduction: Great Power War in Asia: Why Pearl Harbor?” by John H. Maurer and Erik Goldstein. The editors discuss the period between the two world wars and examine the struggle for mastery of Asia that cost the lives of millions by reviewing the decisions made by leaders who directed the actions of the great powers. These key individuals were David Lloyd George of Britain, the uniformed leadership of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), Chiang Kai-shek of China and the Sino-Japanese Wars, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) of the United States, and the background of the U.S.-Japanese War beginning with the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, quickly followed by declarations of war on Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands. Maurer and Goldstein provide a brief characterization of the initial eleven months of “The World in 1941” and events in French Indochina, China from 1937 to 1941 and her military and politics, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s strategic moves, the Japanese advance into southern Indochina and the reactions by America and Britain by issuing embargoes on oil and metals, as well as perspectives from Tokyo, Japanese movements into Manchuria, and American-Japanese diplomatic negotiations. The editors also make a vital point that the connections between Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and the vital role of China by preventing the Japanese from attacking the Soviet Union was generally unrecognized during the early years of World War II.

Chapter 1: “Constructing a Liberal International Order: David Lloyd George, and Peacemaking” by Erik Goldstein. This essay begins with a characterization of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the League of Nations, and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance beginning in 1902 as precursors to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 where Britain was a true global power and Lloyd George was the only Big Four leader still in office after the World War. He proposed a new international framework which involved a huge British imperial footprint in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia in an attempt to avoid the specter of an arms race with the United States. We are reminded that the IJN was modeled on the Royal Navy (RN) and that this partnership gave Britain important trade benefits in East Asia including British technology and materiel, notably in military equipment and training. Although the United States had rejected Woodrow Wilson’s concept of the League of Nations, she still wished to participate in international cooperation under “friendly” President Harding. Britain relied on the RN for essential protection and desired armaments control. Other attendees at the Conference also sought armaments control and reduction but American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes outmaneuvered the British in proposing the “ratio scheme” to the Four Powers which gave the British and Americans advantages over France, Japan, and other nations. The 1930 London Naval Conference saw aggressive challenges to the ratios from the Japanese and Anglo-American opposition to the Japanese. The Japanese abrogated the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1922 and the Lloyd-George government fell with the subsequent government — in order to diminish military expenditures — failing to follow through on British naval base construction at Singapore and not deploying a fleet there. The Japanese would withdraw from participation in the naval armaments conferences, moved militarily forward in Manchuria, and began a new program of naval armaments during the 1930s.

Chapter 2: “Return to Great Power Competition: Imperial Japan’s Rejection of the Washington System” By Peter Mauch. Senior lecturer in modern history in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. Mauch begins with a review of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 and the First and Second London Conferences of 1930 and 1935. In September 1933, Japanese Naval Minister Ōsumi Mineo told journalists that the naval arms limitations were never meant to remain “in perpetuity” and that the Japanese were dissatisfied with the 5:5:3 U.S.-British and Japan ratios and demanded change to 5:5:5 at the Second London Naval Conference in 1935 but came away “empty handed.” France and Italy were at rations of 1.75 but the tonnage ratios for cruisers and submarines were diminished as well. The author continues with a detailed examination of the situation as detailed by Stephen Peltz in Race to Pearl Harbor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974) and Sadao Asaso in From Mahan to Pearl Harbor (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), and notes that the Japanese had also translated Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War (London: Constable, 1926) into Japanese and that it was read widely by IJN officers. Both the right and left wings of Japanese political parties also expressed hostile views to the Western powers and a Japanese Army plot near Mukden, Manchuria sabotaged Japanese railroad track and blamed Chinese soldiers. Propaganda booklets blamed the United States for the deterioration of trans-Pacific affairs and there were major domestic and international public relations effort aimed at revising the current naval arms limitations and proposals that best road for peace was to have Japan lead in Asia, the United States in the Western Hemisphere, and Britain in Europe. An example of Japanese views was published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1934 written by Admiral Nomura Kichisaburō. Mauch concludes that the public relations campaign waged from 1921 through 1933 rejecting the Washington system was highly successful.

Chapter 3: “Tasting Gall: Chiang Kai-shek and China’s War with Japan” by Grant F. Rhode who is a Senior lecturer at Boston University, adjunct professor at the Naval War College and associate in research at the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. The Three Powers leaders (Chiang, Roosevelt, and Churchill) at the Cairo Conference of November 1943 laid out a post-war settlement that would restore China to a position of wealth and power and was a highlight of the legacy of Chiang (b. 1887) who was to have great failure and great success. Rhode reviews the First Sino-Japanese War (1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), and Chiang’s military training in China and Japan and Chiang being influenced by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Four chronological periods are detailed: 1) Versailles to Manchukuo 1919-31: Topics
include the Locarno Pact of 1915, Washington Naval Conference 1921-22, Chinese Communist Party first meeting 1921, First Congress of the Nationalist Party 1924, the 1926 Northern Expedition, and Chiang’s early military career and his ability to unify major parts of China. 2) Manchukuo to Pearl Harbor 1931-41: The issue of the beginning of the Second Sino-Japan War starting in 1937 or in 1937 is covered, including the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, and the Long March are detailed. The Battle of Shanghai from August to November 1937 displaced 30 million refugees, and the following Nanjing Campaign (or Rape of Nanking) displacing up to 300,000 persons. The Soviet Red Army defeated the Japanese at Nomonhon in 1939 and a Japan-Soviet non-aggression pact followed in April 1941 just after the Tripartite Pact was concluded between Japan, Germany, and Italy which meant that China now allies (the United States and Britain) against Japan for the first time. 3) Pearl Harbor to the Japanese Surrender 1941-45: This was an unparalleled opportunity for China and Chiang as the Pearl Harbor attack was followed by the Doolittle Raid on Japan in April 1941 and General Stillwell’s ability to increase military actions against the Japanese in Southeast Asia beyond the Flying Tigers’ air war in China under General Chenault, and Stillwell’s desire for a land war using Chinese troops and the building of the Ledo (Burma) Road beginning in 1943. Japan launched a major counteroffensive in China to disrupt the land road and destroy Allied air bases in eastern China. The Cairo Conference of 1943 may have been Chiang’s finest hour since the following Tehran Conference (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) diminished Chiang’s role in the war. Stillwell was promoted to full general by FDR over both American and Chinese troops (a blow to Chiang) while Japanese failed in their objectives as Nationalist Chinese troops bore the brunt of the action and while Stalinist Mao Zedong’s Communist troops gained strength from 40,000 to over one million troops and prepared for the Civil War of 1945-49. 4) Japanese Surrender to the Death of Chiang 1945-75: The Nationalist armies were depleted by the Japanese and were defeated by the Communists who would establish the Communist Peoples’ Republics of China in April 1949 while the Nationalist were driven to Taiwan. Chiang felt betrayed by FDR and declared martial law in Taiwan and prior to his death in 1975, transfer power to his son Ching-kuo. Mao would die in 1976 but the political die had been cast. In assessing Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao, Rhode believes that very little attention has been paid by Western historians to the backstory and notes the overlap of China’s war with Japan and the Nationalist versus Communist clash which continues in the post-World War II era, and Communist China’s current goals to surpass Japanese leadership in Asia and that China must remain a global power and eschew a second-tier position. Rhode makes a compelling argument and has assembled persuasive evidence.

Chapter 4: “Winston Churchill and the Gathering Storm in Asia” by John H. Maurer. In 1939 the British Empire controlled a vast territory in Asia from New Zealand and Australia to Southeast and South Asia to India, and the Middle East with 25% of the world’s population and rich resources. Britain was a superpower in the 20th century in competition with German, Japanese, and United States industry and naval power. In 1941, British weaknesses in Asia were exposed as territories were seized or threatened, and Winston Churchill’s views on international strategy were evolving as Japan’s policies and strategic options changed with December 1941 and early 1942. Maurer provides background on Britain and the emerging threat citing the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) when most of Japan’s warships were British built in Britain. The alliance of Britain and Japan 1902-22 was a period of technology transfer and know-how from Britain to Japan of naval and aviation equipment. As a cruel twist of fate “the student surpassed the teacher.” In World War I and the beginning of II, Britain could concentrate on Germany since Japan was allied (Japanese warships escorted ANZAC troops to the Middle East and conducted operations in the Mediterranean against the Central Powers). In the 1930s, Japan’s military leadership and army and navy grew in strength while the British economy was sluggish during the interwar years and its military and naval budgets were diminished. Churchill downplayed the dangers posed by Japan, as did the isolationist United States, and began to arm “too little and too late.” Germany’s rearmament under Hitler, the Tripartite Pact, the defeat of France, and Lend Lease spurred the hawkish FDR and Churchill to issue the Atlantic Charter, while Germany turned its attention to the invasion of the Soviet Union, which had been successful in battles with the Japanese in 1938-39. Churchill had envisioned four possible scenarios in confronting the Japanese (p. 112-113) so that the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration against the United States was a relief to Churchill. Maurer outlines Churchill’s four revised priorities for the war in Europe (p. 115) and comments on Churchill’s misjudgment of Japan regarding the unexpected attacks which destroyed four British ships in Southeast Asia: HMS Prince of Wales and cruiser Repulse near Singapore in 10 December 1941, and the cruisers HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire four months later.

Chapter 5: “FDR and America’s Road to War in the Pacific” by Walter A. McDougall. Professor of history, Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations, University of Pennsylvania. McDougall reminds readers of Hector Bywater’s 1921 and 1925 books which predicted events in the Pacific including the sneak attack: Sea-power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem (London: Constable, 1921) and The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33 (London: Constable, 1925). FDR dismissed these forecasts and initially contended that Japan should be trusted. The period between the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) through various meetings and the Washington Naval Conference are recounted, and America’s hypocrisy and the Japanese move to a defensive position are reported. FDR’s isolationist policies of the interwar period continued into the New Deal Congress of 1935-37 and passage of neutrality acts and the expansion of the U.S. fleet while Britain and France did nothing to hinder Hitler’s rise to power and rearmament. The Japanese joined Nazi Germany in the Anti-Cominturn Pact of 1936 and Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937 were viewed as “undeclared war” as FDR shifted to a position of interventionalist because of the “new order” being established in Europe and Asia. Nazi expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia followed by the Wehrmacht’s invasion into Poland and then the Soviet Union, plus the ability of the United States to read the Japanese diplomatic code (“Purple”) and FDR’s meeting with Churchill resulting in the Atlantic Charter, reshaped Roosevelt’s position from reserved to forceful by July 1941. These events led to Lend Lease and American troops sent to Greenland and Iceland, with other actions at the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic, none of which provoked Hitler. General MacArthur was sent to the Philippines at the time that General Tojo became the Japanese Prime Minister in October and Admiral Yamamoto was ordered to assemble the Japanese combined fleet for military action that would be at Pearl Harbor. Eleventh hour negotiations were seen as a “waste of time” by both sides as the American Navy lost track of the Japanese carrier forces. Of interest was how a top-secret copy of Rainbow 5 (a 350-page plan detailing American’s strategy for World War II which assumed that the United States was allied with Britain and France and provided for offensive operations by American forces in Europe and Africa) became public. On December 4, 1941, the Chicago Tribune, with the headline “F.D.R.’s War Plans!”, along with The Times Herald of Washington, D.C., published the Rainbow 5 plan; the “leak” was never resolved. These events led to Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into a global war.

Chapter 6: “Igniting the U.S.-Japan War, 1941” by Richard B. Frank. A recognized authority on the Asia-Pacific War, Frank discusses the “inexplicable disaster” at Pearl Harbor and the issue that FDR or Churchill, or both, knew in advance of the attack and reviews books published by Anthony Flynn (1945), Charles Beard (1948), Rear Admiral Robert Theobald (1954), and Robert Stennet (1999). This chapter focuses on material derived from Frank’s own Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia Pacific War July 1937-May 1941 (New York: Norton, 2020) the first volume of a trilogy. He states that the Japanese victory at Pearl was not just an American defeat – both tactical and operational – but also a Japanese strategical defeat coupled with American misjudgment and failed communication. He initially sketches to state of the world in 1941 focusing on China and French Indochina with 40-80 million refugees and 7.5 million dead (80% non-combatants) which tied down massive numbers of Japanese troops: 22 divisions in China, 13 in Manchuria, and 2 in Korea. Overall, Japan had 51 divisions and ten were selected for “Southern Operations.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor grew from the need to keep the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler and necessitated that the United States not abandon China. He reviews the German deep penetrations into the Soviet Union and their logistical miscalculations and notes that that Stalin ordered Mao Zedong only to provide diversionary attacks against the Japanese to keep China in the war and build up the Communist Chinese Army. Meanwhile the Japanese advanced into Southern Indochina, seized Dutch East Indies petroleum sources and sought ways to extract themselves from the “Chinese quagmire” and determined that they would enter the war against the Soviets only if Germany was able to crush the Soviets on the western front. The American-Japanese negotiations in 1941 pivoted around the China question and that the Japanese desired that the Americans abandoned China and that Japan would withdraw from southern Indochina if the United States restored the flow of petroleum to Japan. Frank contends that historians neglect the link between Hitler and the Soviet’s war and the vital role of China preventing the Japanese from attacking the Soviet Union.

Chapter 7: “Chinese Views of Future Warfare in the Indo-Pacific: First Strike and U.S. Forward Bases in Japan” by Toshi Yoshihara. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC., the author examines the prospects of war between United States and China from viewpoints of scale, underlying causes, and opening moves utilizing a variety of sources including published Chinese documents and books. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) is predisposed to deliver the first blow: large-scale strategic raids and long-range strikes. The PLA’s views of U.S. forward bases in Asia (including naval) includes 80 bases in Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand. One key base is Yokosuka’s command and control and logistics centers, shipyards, and repair facilities for aircraft carriers, and fuel storage. The PLA’s view on logistics and modern warfare includes the vulnerability of logistic systems, supply concentrations, and lack of stockpiles. Yoshihara notes that China has a holistic view of modern warfare including systematic attacks on enemy systems and command hubs, logistical support systems, and information systems and joint firepower strikes vs. CAISR systems. Six types of surprise attacks include: rapid raids, ambush sneak attacks, long-range raids, sabotage raids, harassment attacks, combinations of “frontal assaults,” and decisive blows and/or multiplier effects. For offensive campaigns the PLA possesses three types of missiles: 1) Land attack medium-range (MRMB), 2) nuclear weapon land attacks and anti-shipping (DF-21C 1588 km range), and 3) land attack cruise missiles (CSS-5 Mod 4 and CH-55C-9 (CJ-10) LAGM l), and attack cruise missiles, CGLCM ground launched cruise missiles, and DF-26 IRBM intermediate missiles. Yoshihara provides a critical assessment of PLA’s threats to American naval bases in Japan, commenting this it is one element of a larger campaign and that retaliation against mainland China would draw in Japan, hence, China is weighing the risks and benefits of a first strike. New technologies and capabilities include hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence. He observes that there is a shrinking battlefield in terms of time and precision. This diverse but cohesive group of papers provides a wider and more detailed context on Pacific and global backgrounds of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which is often characterized as Japan’s motivation driven by its national self-interests, its scarcity of key economic resources, and America’s embargo policy. The authors clearly show that the political, military, and naval decisions made by the leaders of the great powers were often faulty and ill advised. They show that events other than the American perceptions other members of the Washington Naval Treaty, and of 1930s Japanese leaders, notably the Japanese invasion of China and the actions of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist versus Mao Zedong’s Communist armies during the Civil War, helps cause foreign policy dilemmas, and create fluctuating decisions made by Churchill and Roosevelt. The seven papers were not given at a conference or symposium, but it would have been interesting if there was a debate among the contributors. The volume is, indeed, a significant contribution to our understanding of the attack on Pearl Harbor illustrating interrelated issues and problems including Hitler’s attack of the Soviet Union and Chinese perspectives on this and other issues.

Dr. Kolb is a United States Naval Institute Golden Life Member

John H. Maurer, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, serves as the Alfred Thayer Mahan Distinguished Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the Naval War College.  

Erik Goldstein is professor of International Relations and History, Boston University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

The Road to Pearl Harbor: Great Power War in Asia and the Pacific. By John H. Maurer and Erik Goldstein (editors) (Naval Institute Press: 2022)

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