Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Reviews: Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor-a visual history commemorating the date that will live in infamy
by Randy Roberts and David Welky
On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. Japan destroyed the best part of the U.S. fleet, the battleships and killed over 2000 U.S. military personnel. It was an almost perfectly executed surprise attack. The Japanese military then went on a rampage against U.S. and European colonial territories throughout the Pacific, curbstomping Dutch, Australians, Brits, Americans, and anyone else who wanted to get some. The Japanese military simultaneously put an end to the idea of Caucasian military invincibility while creating its own shameful reputation for brutality, criminality and rape. The Allies were reeling from the Japanese blows. The strains faced by the Allies in the Pacific theater would hasten post-war decolonization. It was difficult to talk of European superiority when an Asian power long thought to be second rate had so thoroughly demolished European armies and navies. 

That said, though in attacking the U.S., Japan showed that it had literally gotten too big for its britches. There's a saying that "You [mess] with the bull, you get the horns". There was tremendous anger in the U.S. establishment and populace about the sneak attack. This song, which would be considered racist now, was an excellent example of the feelings raised. Ultimately Japan had to learn the hard way that it was no match for the U.S. when it came to a fight. The late comedian Richard Pryor had a bit where he opined that that the Japanese elite were only familiar with Americans from laid back California, snooty Harvard or officious Washington D.C. Pryor said that if the Japanese only knew Americans like that then yes maybe it made sense that the Japanese would think they could beat them. Pryor said that the Japanese hadn't been to places like Texas, Alabama or Mississippi where there were white folks so dangerous that people had to keep them on leashes. Once those folks got into the game it was lights out for the Japanese. 

It seems almost impossible today to imagine how such a successful surprise attack could have taken place. In today's world of satellites,  instantaneous electronic communication, massive security-intelligence complex, sonar, radar etc it wouldn't. It couldn't. But in 1941 those things either didn't exist or were in their infancy. This book details why there were increasing frictions between the U.S. and Japan. It was primarily due to the Japanese invasion of China and its incredible brutality in that country. Note, even today, Japan has generally refused to own up to its behavior towards (especially) the Chinese and other races that the Japanese considered inferior. The Japanese Army was insanely belligerent. By the mid thirties it had basically seized control over foreign policy as well as the overall military. It was the Army acting on its own, who had invaded China. 

Eventually this led to a US embargo on raw materials desperately needed by Japan as well as a freeze on Japanese assets in the U.S. Japan felt that war with the U.S. was inevitable and thus decided to strike first. The man who got the assignment was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. While Yamamoto was not by any means a pacifist, he didn't want war with the U.S.  As he told his peers and superiors he could destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet and then run wild for six months in the Pacific. But beyond that he could guarantee nothing. And that's pretty much how things turned out. This book explains all of the high level diplomatic maneuvering and gamesmanship that both sides engaged in. The fact that the attack was a surprise both in the sense that Japan had not technically declared war when the bombs started falling and in the sense that the U.S. personnel at Pearl Harbor had no clue what was going to happen was actually an accident. The U.S. intelligence community had penetrated Japanese diplomatic codes but the civilian and military bureaucracy didn't move fast enough or have the right people on hand to understand exactly what certain phrases meant. 

And then as now, there were inter agency rivalries which hindered clear communication. And even when the U.S. General Marshall received a decode that he thought indicated an imminent attack, the Pearl Harbor base didn't receive Marshall's warning because of bad atmospheric conditions blocking the signal. On the Japanese part there was a delay in getting final communications from Tokyo to the Japanese diplomats in D.C.

This coffee table book is just under 200 pages. It contains many photographs, posters, diplomatic letters and pamphlets from the time.  The attack was even worse than it could have been because the Pearl Harbor commanders had helpfully lined up all of their battleships and airplanes close together. On the other hand the attack wasn't the knockout blow that Yamamoto had wanted because the American aircraft carriers weren't at the base during the attack. And in a reworking of Psalm 118, it would be those aircraft carriers which became the cornerstone of the American counter campaign.  On April 18th, 1942 the American military reached out and touched Japan in the form of a bombing raid on Tokyo that was launched from aircraft carriers. It was a harbinger of worse to come. This is a really good book which will temporarily take you back to a time long gone but not forgotten, as FDR would have reminded us.
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