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Wednesday, December 7, 2016
The Lessons of Pearl Harbor
Seventy-five years ago, on December 7, 1941, the American Navy suffered the worst defeat in its history when a force led by six Japanese fleet carriers launched a surprise attack at the battleships at Pearl Harbor. Two of the eight battleships, Arizona and Oklahoma, were destroyed, and the other six were knocked out of action for many months. The Army Air Corps fields were attacked with great loss, and other smaller naval vessels were attacked as well.
The American carriers were at sea. Had those carriers been at Pearl Harbor, the whole course of the Pacific War would have been very different. During the first year of that conflict, only the carriers were able to slow down the Japanese advance. Battleships proved too vulnerable to air attack to fight major fleet actions alone. American submarines, which eventually would prove an incredibly potent force in the Pacific, were plagued by multiple problems with torpedoes which made them almost useless for many months.
The Japanese still might have inflicted crippling damage even with the carriers gone. The fuel depots for the American Fleet were at Pearl Harbor and so were major repair and maintenance facilities. Without these, the American Fleet could have had to operate out of San Diego, thousands of miles east.
The Japanese could also have utterly destroyed all the battleships, instead of just Arizona and Oklahoma, and these other battleships in two years were refitted and fighting the Japanese Navy. There were a number of other, smaller naval vessels at Pearl Harbor, which would be desperately needed in the first six months of 1942 and which follow-up attacks by the Japanese would have damaged or sunk.
Admiral Nagumo might have also done what Newt Gingrich played out in one of his brilliant counterfactual novels and ordered the two Japanese battleships with their 14-inch guns to pound every target those guns could reach while coyly holding the six Japanese fleet carriers back to pound on returning American carriers.
As America enters an increasingly dangerous world with our European allies threatened from within and our Pacific allies doubting our resolve, our incoming President Trump ought to grasp the dangers we face. (The superb team of capable military commanders he is surrounding himself with will surely help him with this task.)
First, be prepared for a hot war at any time. This is not "war-mongering," because our nation does not wage aggressive wars against innocent nations. This is more "peace-mongering," because the greatest blessing America can give its people and the world is to be so strong that even acquisitive and unscrupulous leaders fear us too much to start a war.
This means also always spending money now on the best equipment and best trained and led forces instead of spending the blood of our sons in combat. Our failure, as a cost-saving measure, to debug our torpedoes may have delayed victory by years and certainly cost many lives and much destruction. President Trump must make sure that we do not have to cannibalize weapons systems to provide parts and that our training does not lack funding.
Second, we must have close integration and trust among every branch of the service and between the White House and the services. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had been reported by our lead cryptologist, William Friedman, who then took a long deserved cruise vacation. When he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, he assumed that we had planned a hot reception for the Japanese. He walked around the ship in a daze, repeating, "But they knew, they knew, they knew..."
President Trump will have to undo much of the damage the Obama administration inflicted on our military intelligence services to make sure that intelligence is used quickly – and for military, not political purposes.
Third, we must make sure that our aim in war is victory in every way, not just militarily. After Pearl Harbor, there was not the slightest doubt that total victory over Japan was the only end we would accept. More than that, the American people were united behind that goal. That was not only the proper strategy for victory, but it was also the proper strategy for peace.
Japanese suicide bombers following the mandates of their religion died in order to give Japan the victory they believed the Heavens had determined for their sacred land. The Japanese have not really abandoned all the old religions, but never again will they allow that faith to be used for war. Japan today is peaceful, prosperous, democratic, and free. That is the final, vital lesson of the war begun 75 years ago.