Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

Warship Diplomacy: British Intervention in the Baltic from 1800-1801

By Jason Lancaster

Setting the Scene

In 1801, it seemed as if Britain had made the entire world her enemy. Her allies had dropped by the wayside, Spain had swapped sides and allied with France, Austria was defeated, and Russia, under Tsar Paul, schemed to divide Europe between itself and France. Three coalitions formed against Republican France had already collapsed, leaving Britain friendless and alone. Yet, Britain fought on, alone. Britain relied heavily on naval stores, which came out of the Baltic; supplies such as fir trees for masts and spars, hemp for cordage, and tar and pitch. As the French revolutionary armies swept across Europe, borders changed and the number of ports Britain had to blockade increased, stretching the Royal Navy to the limit and further increasing the requirement for Baltic naval stores. Merchants from overrun nations transferred their cargos and vessels to neutral flags, such as Denmark and Sweden. As a result of this, the merchant marines significantly increased after the wars broke out in 1793.  Many of the ships carried legitimate cargos, but some carried contraband. However, to a nation fighting for its life, all goods going into an enemy port could be constituted a threat. As the struggle at sea intensified toward the end of the 1790s, the need for the Danes to protect their convoys from privateers, as well as the Barbary pirates, increased. Convoys escorted by Danish warships involved themselves in several naval skirmishes with British blockading squadrons in 1798, 1799, and 1800. These skirmishes resulted in the British seizing Danish convoys. The seizures led the Danes toward reviving the old League of Armed Neutrality, which had last formed in 1780 to protect the Baltic Nations’ ships during the American Revolution and to protect merchant vessels from belligerent privateers.

Tsar Paul was happy to help revive the League. He had recently fallen out with the British over the island of Malta. The Swedes and Prussians also joined the League. The formation of the League was a threat to British security. Britain’s fleet protected the island from invasion. Anything that jeopardized her access to Baltic naval stores was a threat. Therefore, a Baltic coalition formed around a hostile Russia could only be interpreted as a threat. His Majesty’s government decided that the best way to disrupt the League was by striking out at the weakest link in the Alliance. Britain demanded Denmark leave the League. When she refused, Britain prepared a fleet to remove Denmark from the League by force. 

The Creation of the League of Armed Neutrality

As Britain’s allies were defeated and dropped out of the conflict, Britain’s struggle for naval supremacy began to yield results. The battles of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Aboukir Bay in 1798 had defeated the Spanish and French navies and left them to regroup and refit. Britain controlled the seas. With naval superiority, Britain could blockade French ports and enforce restrictions on neutral ships. Some ships flew Danish flags as a convenience. The registration and flag were from Denmark, but little else was Danish. In reality, many were former Dutch merchant ships with Dutch cargos and crews.1 This was especially prevalent amongst the “Danish” ships bound to and from the Dutch East Indies. In 1797, 1798, and 1800 British ships sighted Danish Convoys and compelled them to heave-to. However, the Danish escorts refused to allow the British frigates to search the convoy for contraband goods. On July 25, 1800, the British frigates Nemesis, Terpsichore, La Prevoyant, and Arrow – all of 40 guns – and Nile – a small lugger – found the Danish frigate Freya escorting a convoy of six ships. Captain Baker of the Nemesis sent a boat to the convoy to search for contraband, however, the Danish Commander replied, “that if he attempted it he would fire into the boat.” Captain Baker lowered his boat and the Freya opened fire on the boat, missed it, and struck the Nemesis killing one of her crew. With this, the Nemesis gave the Freya a broadside, and “a most spirited action took place, which lasted for about twenty-five minutes, at the end of which time the Danish frigate, being much crippled in her masts, rigging, and hull struck her colours.” The British ships escorted the Freya and her convoy into the Downs to await the adjudication of a prize court. Regulations set down in 1673 stated, “When any ship met withal by the Royal Navy, or other ship commissioned, shall fight or make resistance, the said ships and goods shall be adjudged lawful prizes.” The prize court ruled that, “free ships make free goods,” but only to a certain extent, and that belligerent powers do have the right to “[ascertain] whether the ships are free or not.” Many Englishmen thought that the Danes and the Swedes were aligning themselves with the French by going out of their way to force engagements with the British over the convoy. The British insisted that the privilege “of visiting and searching merchant ships on the high seas, whatever be the cargoes, whatever be the destinations, is an incontestable right of the lawful commissioned cruiser of a belligerent nation.”2 The British had to insist on this steadfastly, otherwise, their entire blockade of France and her satellite republics would have been futile. Food, weapons, and supplies for her army would find their way into French ports in Danish and Swedish bottoms. If the French and Dutch received the naval stores that the British blockade denied them, then the Franco-Dutch fleets could come out and fight the British fleet, possibly defeating them and invading England.             

The British claimed to have the right to search neutral vessels for contraband, while the Danes insisted that neutral ships meant neutral goods. With overpowering maritime supremacy, Britain was in a far better position to dictate policy than Denmark. Despite her small size and stature, Denmark was not without recourse. She made overtures to Russia, Sweden, and Prussia to recreate the old League of Armed Neutrality. Each of these countries had different reasons to revive the League. Sweden and Denmark desired to protect their convoys from British searches and defend their idea of neutral rights, while Tsar Paul of Russia coveted British possession of Malta. Prussia was the most apathetic to joining the League, forced into it by the diplomatic wrangling of Russia and France. Prussia was very reluctant to do anything for the League, since she had little maritime commerce of her own, and felt threatened by borders with both France and Russia. In addition to convoy protection, Sweden coveted Danish Norway. The members of the League agreed to escort convoys with larger combined forces. Instead of a national frigate or two, the Northern League would escort convoys with a combined squadron of several ships of the line, while a fleet of 10 to 15 ships of the line cruised in the North Sea.3

The British viewed this armed League arrayed against them and proceeded to neutralize the Northern League’s threat. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, remembered what had happened when his predecessor, Lord North, failed to neutralize the threat of the League in 1780 – his government had fallen in 1782. The Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Russians managed to form their convoys and protect their freedom to sell naval stores to Holland, France, and Spain. As a result, the British met well equipped Dutch, Spanish, and French fleets across the world, from Jutland to Ceylon. At the Dogger Bank in August, 1781, the British and Dutch fought an indecisive, but bloody battle. The seven Dutch ships remained in line, but the British fleet of seven ships of the line bore down on the Dutch and crossed through their line. However, Admiral Hyde Parker’s fleet failed to break the Dutch line. Admiral Parker could not reform his ships into line and the engagement ended.4 To prevent a repeat of the 1780 League, British national security demanded the dissolution of the 1800 League of Armed Neutrality by whatever means necessary.

Diplomatic Efforts

Denmark did not desire to go to war. On the contrary, the Danish Foreign Minister, Count Bernstorff, desired nothing more than to remain neutral in a world caught in the flames of world war. Count Bernstorff hoped the recreation of the League would “not be productive of any more serious consequences [than] those which had followed the convention of 1780.” However, Lord Drummond, the former British Minister to Denmark, reminded Bernstorff, “the circumstances of the times rendered the present alliance of the Northern Powers infinitely more hostile to England than that which had taken place.” Britain’s failure to neutralize the previous League had led to disastrous results in the Atlantic. Britain lost naval supremacy and suffered defeats at sea, one of which led to the Franco-American victory at Yorktown. Britain had to contend with Spanish, French, Dutch, and, to a lesser extent, American warships in a global war. These nations harassed the British while they were busy guarding the English Channel from invasion fleets, protecting the naval stores convoys from the Baltic Fleet, and fighting a major land war in North America.5 

Not all British politicians were for directly attacking the Armed Neutrality, despite the fact that it was perhaps the best and only option available to prevent them from entering Napoleon’s camp. Mr. Charles Grey, MP, feared that war with Russia would,

“Give to France, as allies, the fleets of our new enemies. From Archangel to the Tagus, and from the Tagus to the Gulf of Venice, there will not be a single friendly port out of our own possessions where a British fleet can take shelter…. Will it then be possible for our navy, with all its skill, to stretch along such an extent of coast?”6

The prevention of French control from Archangel to Venice was precisely the reason why Britain had to act against the Armed Neutrality. “Free ships with free goods would accomplish nothing except enabling the French economy through neutral shipping. In hindsight, it is easier to say this than it would have been to act upon such notions in 1801. Nevertheless, the only way to disarm the Northern League was by force of arms. Most reports of the day said that it would require only twenty British sail of the line to blockade the Baltic Sea. By blocking the passage out of the sound, the League would be forced to come to terms with Britain, for lack of any way to trade with the world. Alternatively, a bold admiral could destroy the Danish, Swedish, and then Russian fleets piecemeal, as was the original plan of Lord St. Vincent and Lord Nelson. Tsar Paul resented the British occupation of Malta. Tsar Paul’s Francophile tendencies combined with Malta’s strategic location meant that they were reluctant to surrender the island to Russia. Especially since it would give Russia a warm water port in the center of the Mediterranean at the very moment Russia negotiated with the French.

The British Attack

The British decided the easiest way to destroy the Northern League was to remove the weakest link. Denmark was that link. Denmark was fearful for her dominions: the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, as well as Norway. Sweden schemed constantly to seize Norway, while Prussia or France could easily snap up Schleswig and Holstein, or the whole of the Jutland Peninsula. Count Bernstorff was in a difficult position. He had to decide which threat was more dangerous: the Russian threat, which could result in the loss of Schleswig, Holstein, and Norway, along with the cities of Lübeck, Altona, and Hamburg or the British threat, a threat which was not yet ready, and could possibly be avoided through diplomacy. Count Bernstorff decided that the British were the lesser threat. Count Bernstorff demonstrated Denmark’s fealty and loyalty to the Coalition with a hard line stance against the British. Count Bernstorff did not believe that Britain would fight a friendly power, and Denmark had historically been a friendly power. As a small maritime power, and gatekeepers of the Baltic, the Danish have always been very cordial with the English. Bernstorff was gambling that this international amity would prevent an English assault. The Danish government also believed their own propaganda that the batteries at Kronborg Castle could prevent any ship from entering into the sound.

The government of Denmark headed by young Crown Prince Frederick put a great emphasis on the national prestige of Denmark. Crown Prince Frederick’s government failed to negotiate even after it was evident that the British were serious and a British fleet anchored at the entrance to the sound. Apart from pride, the Danes were sick of British infringements on their neutrality and the inspection of their merchant ships by British men of war. Five years of inspections and seizures had embarrassed the nation and lowered her prestige. Crown Prince Frederick and Count Bernstorff remained unconvinced by British negotiators, and handled a mission by the British Finance Minister, Vansittart, incredibly poorly by returning the note he had brought from England, because it was written in English and not in French.7 

With the British fleet anchored nearby, Danish leaders still considered Russia as a greater threat than the British because of Prime Minister William Pitt’s resignation. However, Pitt’s resignation was due solely to domestic considerations and not foreign policy. Pitt had resigned because the King refused to grant Irish Catholics emancipation and allow them to hold government offices. Many foreign officials misinterpreted this domestic issue as a collapse of the British war party, and that the British people, weary of war, were going to make a peace with France. This was not the case. Pitt’s supporters formed a new British government and intended to carry the war to its rightful end: the destruction of the French republic, and the removal of Bonaparte.8 While diplomatic efforts stalled, the British fleet prepared to neutralize Denmark, by diplomacy if possible, and force if necessary.

While diplomacy withered, both sides looked to their arms. Admiral Hyde Parker, the hero of Dogger Bank, commanded the expedition. His deputy was Admiral Lord Nelson, Duke of Bronte. Admiral Parker was expected to be the calm, diplomatic officer in the hopes that the Danes would seek a diplomatic solution. In case that failed, Admiral Nelson was the energetic, dashing admiral expected to chastise the Danes into submission. The Danish defenses were commanded in person by the Crown Prince, and at sea by Commodore Olfert Fischer and Captain Steen Bille. The British fleet composed 19 ships of the line, including two 98 gun second raters along with seven frigates and 23 smaller vessels. The Danes opposed this force with about 30 ships of various sizes moored in line to protect the city of Copenhagen, supported by the Trekroner Fort.9 Before the battle, Diplomat Johan Georg Rist regarded the defense of the sound as another Thermopylae saying, “viel Ehre, mit wenig Hoffnung” or “much honour with little hope.”10 As a member of the Danish Government, his opinion demonstrated how greatly the British had underestimated the Danes, who would rather fight a losing war than turn their backs on their allies.

Copenhagen lies on the island of Zealand, and partially on the tiny island of Amager. Copenhagen Roads, the easiest and most obvious route for an attack, is to the northeast of the entrance to the harbor. To the east of the island, about 2,500 yards from the island of Amager, and about 2,000 yards from the Trekroner Fort, lies the Middle Ground, a large shoal that splits Holland Deep from the King’s Deep and the entrance to the port of Copenhagen.

Depiction of the layout of the Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson suggested to Admiral Parker that Nelson take 12 of the ships of the line, four frigates, and several smaller vessels down the Holland Deep, around the Middle Ground, and up the King’s Deep to attack Commodore Fischer’s anchored ships. Parker agreed, and Nelson immediately set to work preparing the way. Nelson had the channel sounded and buoyed. He called his captains onboard to explain his plan of attack.11

On April 1, 1801, Nelson’s squadron weighed anchor and proceeded down their marked channel towards the Danish defense line. As the British approached, the Danes were unsure what to expect. Were the British really going to attack? Would they shell the city with bomb vessels and fire ships? Would they engage the anchored Danish fleet? As night approached, the British fleet was forced to anchor instead of proceeding down the unknown channel in the dark. The British fleet was just 3,000 yards away from the Danish fleet. Crown Prince Frederick gave the order for mortars in the Stricker Battery on Amager Island to open fire on the British fleet. Three shells were fired from the battery into the middle of the British fleet. However, from shore it appeared that the range was too great and the battery ceased fire.12 

The British fleet outnumbered the Danish fleet 262 guns to 150 guns. Nelson’s plan was for his ships to approach the enemy ships, bombard them into submission, and then reduce the Trekronner Fort. Nelson’s advantage in guns was matched by the maneuverability of his fleet fighting against a moored fleet, unable to maneuver. Yet, there were two factors that could make or break Nelson’s plan: wind and water depth. For success, Nelson needed the wind out of the south and water depth sufficient for his fleet to approach the Danish fleet. Throughout the night of April 1st, the wind veered into the south, promising victory on the 2nd. The British fleet could only sound the waters outside of Danish cannon shot. This left plenty of space for ships to run aground. The British Baltic Sea pilots that the fleet had brought with them refused to risk their necks or the ships on the uncharted waters. Instead, Sailing Master Alexander Briarly, of Audacious, volunteered to take responsibility and lead the fleet towards the Danes. Master Briarly had done the same at the battle of the Nile.13 Several British ships of the line ran aground on the Middle Ground Shoal. Nine of the 12 ships of the line were available to Nelson, but the fleet’s pilots refused to come within 300 yards of the Danish line for fear of the Refshale Shoal which was thought to be near the Danish fleet. Instead, the British would fight from 600 yards.

View of Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle with the Danes before Copenhagen. April 2, 1801. (William Elmes prints from Royal Museums Greenwich)

The battle began at 1000. The Danish fleet composed of man-of-war’s men, merchant sailors, and citizens of Copenhagen fought tenaciously. From his vantage point, Admiral Parker could see three of the ships, Agamemnon, Bellona, and Russell, not participating in the battle as all had run aground in the Hollander Deep. Admiral Parker saw that the Danish fleet had not been overwhelmed and at 1315, Admiral Parker signaled for the action to be discontinued. Upon being told this, Nelson asked if his signal to “engage the enemy more closely” was still flying. He then ordered that signal to remain flying. Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said, “you know Foley, I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes… I really do not see the signal.” Nelson’s captains saw both Admiral Parker’s signal and Nelson’s signal, and kept up the fight trusting Nelson.14 

Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye. April 1801.  

At 1345, Nelson left the quarterdeck to write a note. Nelson sent a flag of truce on shore with a note, “to the brothers of Englishmen, the Danes,” so that the wounded Danes could be evacuated and the captured ships could be taken into possession, as well as to spare further loss of life. Nelson also threatened to burn Danish vessels with their crews if they did not stop firing. Whether this was a ruse de guerre or belief in his victory, Nelson’s note had the desired effect. By 1400, there was only sporadic firing from the Danish fleet and the bulk of the ships had surrendered. Despite having beaten the Danish fleet into submission, the British fleet was still exposed to the fire of the Stricker Battery and the Trekronner Fort, as well as the dangerous shoals.15

The Danes and Nelson sat down to negotiate an armistice. Because Denmark could not leave the Armed Neutrality, she would halt all military preparations for fourteen weeks and the British would not come within cannon shot of Copenhagen’s fortifications.

Aftermath of the Battle           

News that Tsar Paul had been murdered, and that the new Tsar Alexander favored the British and disliked the French, meant that the Armed Neutrality ceased to exist. The neutralization of Denmark, combined with lack of Russian hostility to the British meant there was little to organize over. Tsar Alexander had renounced all claims to Malta and was ending the embargo against British ships. The Swedish fleet never left Karlskrona; it would certainly have met with defeat at the hands of the British fleet commanded by Lord Nelson. In Egypt, General Abercrombie had decisively defeated the French army, although he paid for his victory with his life. His army had ended French occupation of Egypt. Britain thought it was in a position to make peace with France on equitable terms and not from a position of weakness. However, that peace proved to be elusive; the people of Europe had to wait another 13 years after the Peace of Amiens for lasting peace to come. In 1800, the British took the lesson of 1780 to mind and met the Armed Neutrality head on. Through luck, skill, and the determination of the British Sailor, she defeated it.

LT Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently the Weapons Officer aboard USS STOUT (DDG 55). He holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.

Endnotes

[1] Feldbaek, pg 14.

[2] Tracy, pp 92-96.

[3] Feldbaek, pp 34-35.

[4] Harding, pg 247.

[5] Pope, pg 99.

[6] Ibid, pg 113.

[7] Feldbaek, pp 202-210.

[8] Pope, pg 135.

[9] Anderson, pg 304.

[10] Feldbaek, pg 151.

[11] Pope, 311.

[12] Feldbaek, pg 126.

[13] Feldbaek, pg 134.

[14] Feldbaek, pp 192-193.

[15] Feldbaek, pp 194-195.

Bibliography

Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Baltic. London: Francis Edwards, First Pritning 1910, Second Printing 1969.

Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Forces in History. New York: St Martins Press, 1998.

Feldbaek, Ole. Denmark and the Armed Neutrality 1800-1801: Small Power Policy in a World War. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1980.

Harding, Richard. Sea Power and Naval Warfare: 1650-1830. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Press, 1976.

Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organisation 1793-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Pope, Dudley. The Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Tracy, Nicholas. The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War 1799-1804, Volume II. London: Chatham, 1998.

Featured Image: The Battle of Copenhagen 1801. The extremely young Sub-lieutenant Peter Willemoes putting heart into his men on his floating naval battery. (Painting by Christian Mølsted 1901. Willemoesgaardens Mindestuer, Assens)

Bow to the Hegemon – Dr. Kori Schake on a Peaceful Transition of Global Power

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the chance to talk to Dr. Kori Schake about her new book, Safe Passage: From British to American Hegemony. Her book describes the only case of a peaceful hegemonic transition between two nations. In this instance, it was the gradual transition from British to American hegemony beginning in the 19th century and ending at the end of World War II with America firmly situated as the global leader.

We spoke for over an hour about her book, history, the great Tom Schelling, and of course, what she’s reading these days. It was a fun and fascinating discussion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Christopher Nelson: Professor Schake, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Before we get into details of the book, I want to start by asking you about the book’s cover. It’s a fabulous picture and I got to say, it stands out in the sea of books on international relations and national security. Having listened to you speak on a panel before – full of energy and jazz –  I’ll admit that the picture reminds me of a 19th century Kori Schake. Did you discover it? Your editor? Where’s it from?

Kori Schake: [Laughter] Yes! It’s a 19th century portrait of me! You are exactly right. I did pick it. I found it when I was doing the research for the book. And I love the way it’s what we look like to Britain when America was a rising power: she’s confidently assessing her appearance in the mirror, adjusting a battleship hat, and the accoutrements of war are literally hanging off her purse strings.

Nelson: I’m a big believer that a book’s dedication is important. Quickly skipped by many, but important. You dedicated this book to Tom Schelling. Many readers will recognize his name and have read his work, some have not. I discovered Arms and Influence much too late in my naval career. It’s fantastic. Who was he, but more important, how did he mentor you as an academic, as a thinker, as a student?

Schake: I was so lucky to have the privilege of learning from Tom. He was not at the University of Maryland when I went there to do my graduate work. But he came there and he was such a warm, fostering, generous soul. It was such a privilege to learn from him. But I have to tell you, Tom Schelling gave me some of the best advice about life.

He rushed me through my PhD dissertation because I had been A.D.D for six years. I was a year into my dissertation research when I got a posh fellowship to go work as a civilian in General Powell’s Joint Staff in the summer of 1990. This was two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait. I went off to work with General Powell for a year and stayed in the Pentagon for six years. And Tom, bless his heart, kept writing letters to the chancellor of the university who was understandably trying to clear me off the rolls of the PhD program because it was so obvious I was never going to finish. Tom kept writing these beautiful letters saying, “She’s not working in a shoe store, she’s doing the kind of jobs we would want someone who held a PhD from this institution to be doing.” So he kept them from throwing me out.

When I left the Pentagon I wrote my PhD dissertation in six months. It’s terrible. What Tom kept saying was, “Get the dissertation done and make the book perfect.” He understood what a flight risk I was. And so I am living proof that if the minimum wasn’t good enough it would not be the minimum. I got my dissertation done and went on doing work that I liked and wanted to do.

Tom eventually brought me back to Maryland for my first teaching job. There is never going to be a better day in my professional life than the day of my PhD defense. At the end of it Tom thanked me for teaching him something about strategy.

Nelson: What did you teach him?

Schake: I didn’t teach him anything. It’s proof of what a gentleman he was. I wrote my dissertation on strategy and the Berlin Crisis in 1958 and 1961. I did not realize when I chose the topic that Tom had been an advisor to the Kennedy administration in 1961. The conclusion of my dissertation was that the Kennedy administration had actually made a delicate situation much worse by treating the crisis as a problem about the risk of war with the Soviet Union rather than treating it as a problem of how to keep Germany voluntarily allied with the West. So I ended up being very critical of the policy choices the administration he was advising had come to. He could not have been happier [Laughter]. He said it was wonderful that I thought for myself on the subject and agreed with me in retrospect. The frame of reference that the Kennedy administration put on the problem led to worse solutions than the policies the Eisenhower administration had taken.

Nelson: How did the idea come about to write the book? What is it about the transition between British and U.S. global hegemony that interests you?

Schake: The idea was germinating for a long time. With all of the talk of the rise of China and whether it can happen peacefully and what it means for the U.S., I kept wondering: What are the precedents?  What worked last time and what didn’t? I didn’t even know enough about the subject when I started writing to realize that there was only one peaceful hegemonic transition in history. I thought I was going to be looking at whole bunch of case studies. And when I started doing the research for the book I realized I couldn’t write it as a political science book because there are no case studies. There is a single case study if you’re looking at peaceful transition.

Nelson: So what would a statistician say?

Schake: If N=1 you can never draw a conclusion, that’s what a statistician would say. But history does not give us the luxury of an N sufficiently large to draw a robust conclusion. History gives us what it gives us.

If, for example, you read Graham Allison’s book on the rise of China, what Graham tries to do was force the problem into a political science framework by expanding the definition of hegemonic transition to get more than one case of a peaceful transfer. And I think that is much more problematic. For example, one case of hegemonic transition he uses is the shift of power from Britain and France after World War II towards Germany. But of course all three of those countries have the same security guarantor.

So first of all, it’s not a hegemonic transition. There was a hegemon setting the rules. And second of all, it wasn’t a hegemonic transition because we imposed the rules on our three close allies because we were worried about an entirely different problem.

I thought about the question of hegemonic transition a long time – years in fact. I kept worrying that somebody smarter than me was going to write this book before I got to it. I watched the book review section with enormous trepidation that someone like Aaron Friedberg would have turned his attention to this or anyone of the dozens and dozens of people who could do a better job than I did in the writing of this. But nobody got to it before I got to it!

Punch cartoon after the conclusion of the Tribunal of Arbitration that sought to settle the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. PEACE AND PLENTY. Lord Salisbury (chuckling). “I like arbitration — In the PROPER PLACE!” (Wikimedia Commons)

As you know, Chris, I’m not a historian of the 19th century. But I got obsessed with this question of peaceful hegemonic transition and I had to learn the history of the 19th century in order to answer the question I was interested in. My other big worry was that historians were going to point out that I wasn’t part of the tribe. You know, the thirty-seven things I ought to have understood about this period of time that anybody knowledgeable on the subject would know but I didn’t’ know – I kept waiting in agony that that would be the verdict. I feel like I got away with the jailbreak of the century, but so far the reviews have been good.

Nelson: Fascinating. How does this fit with the idea that there’s a list of smart, well-read, popular writers out there that are writing about topics as non-professionals, in the sense they may not have an advanced degree in the specific subject – and here I’m thinking of people like Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Taleb, David McCullough and many more – but they are able to connect different ideas, sometimes across different disciplines, and convey them very well.

Schake: I hate reading history where somebody avalanches everything they know on a subject at me; historians are curators, that’s what they do. I want someone to tell me what is relevant and interesting about a particular problem. As General Powell used to tease me all the time when I worked at the Joint Staff that there were lots of reasons to fire me but there were two reasons not to. The first reason not to fire me was that it was kind of funny to watch me do my job. And the second was because I was the only NATO expert he ever met that when he asked what time it was, I would just tell him what time it was [Laughter]. Yes. I wouldn’t start with first the earth cooled, and then sun-dials, and then clocks…

But back to your question, they ask interesting questions and then they tell a story. They’re engaging storytellers which is what every good teacher is.

Nelson: How do you research and write? For instance, are you a longhand writer that finds a few hours every morning to write and then transcribe it to a computer? What’s your process?

Schake: I basically break it down into three stages.

The first stage is just thinking about what’s the right question. What’s the right question that unlocks understanding about an important subject?  Many books that I’m bored reading are books that are about a subject, not about a question. I try to always discipline myself to think about issues in terms of what is the right question because then I can figure out what does it take to answer the question.

For me the second stage is trying to figure out what would prove the answer right and what would prove it wrong? What is the discriminating data that would help me figure out if I have the right answer or not. I’m extremely Germanic in my approach to writing. The architecture actually matters to me because I find that I’m a poor editor of my own work. Once I write it it’s hard for me to throw it all away, so unless I’m disciplined enough to structure it in ways that are not just driving down a rabbit hole, I need to understand this to explain this, and here’s the place to talk about this, that sort of thing. Unless I force myself into the discipline of structure I just walk around the house in my pajamas talking to myself and it doesn’t end up being something that is valuable to anyone.

The last third of it is the actual writing of it.

Nelson: So you’re the person who has to do the outline with pen and paper?

Schake: Yes. When I’m researching I start building blocks of research. As I look at flows of bits of information I am trying to figure out how to tell the story. I outline the book, the details are outlined, the research is plugged into the outline, and then I write to stitch the pieces together. It’s unimaginative and Germanic. But unless I do that I’m way too self-indulgent and I end up with a lot of stuff that will end up on the editing floor.

Nelson: Throughout the book you introduce different international relation perspectives when you outline how historians, political scientists, and others have tried to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Britain during this period of transition. In the international relations field, what do you consider yourself? Simply, what’s your worldview? Are you a Realist?

Schake:  I am badly trained in several disciplines.

Nelson: [Laughter]

Schake: No, that is the honest to god truth, Chris. My degrees are in political science, yet I write history and I was trained by an economist.

Nelson: [Laugh] That’s a lovely dodge. But seriously, I’m curious, what’s Kori Schake’s worldview?

Schake: I had the privilege of being with an extraordinary group of people a few months ago in something called the Civic Collaboratory. It’s run by an outstanding American by the name of Eric Liu who is dedicated to rebuilding the bonds of affection and cooperation among Americans.

The Collaboratory is something where everybody who goes is the head of an organization in the public sphere, for example, one person is the head of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Eric uses a diverse group of people, some of whom will pitch the next idea for what they are working on. Everybody else in the group tries to come up with ways to help. It can be big, it can be little, but the point is to try to help each other.

One of the most inspiring people I met in this amazing group of people was a woman who was teaching history. She told me the motto of her organization. It is now the motto of my worldview, which is this: people make choices, and choices make history. For me that really is how I think about it. I don’t believe in immutable forces of history like the crushing burden of economic determinism, or religious determinism, or political determinism. I think we have wide latitude to craft our fate and so I think the only thing that the Realists have right when talking about American foreign policy is that they were incredibly smart to choose the best name. Because if you’re the realist everybody else is unrealistic.

Also, the Realist description of how governments make choices don’t correlate with what I think of America in the 20th century. For me, the most powerful thing I learned when writing Safe Passage was that as the United States grew more powerful it grew more liberal. We reversed the trend that governed every other powerful state, which is as other countries became more powerful they bent the rules to their advantage. In contrast, when we became more powerful we gave wider latitude to others to affect our choices and legitimatize our power. That really does make America in the time of its hegemony unique. As an American I found it incredibly touching.

Nelson: Your book details nine historic moments between the U.S. and Britain, from 1823 to 1923, that you use to illustrate as pivotal points towards hegemonic transition – but it wasn’t smooth. What were some of the more significant points of friction between the U.S. and Britain during this time that could have led to conflict?

Schake: I love that question, especially because the answer is so obscure. The moment at which things were likely to result in war between Great Britain and the U.S. was the 1895 Venezuelan debt crisis – which nobody knows anything about, it’s lost to history. It’s the moment when war was likeliest, when a rising U.S. was breathtakingly reckless.

U.S. President Cleveland twists the tail of the lion (Britain). (Puck cartoon 1880s via Wikimedia Commons)

The basic story goes like this: Venezuela and Great Britain had been disputing the boundary line along the Orinoco river (which is in Venezuela) for 45 years or so. It becomes a crisis because the British get greedy, the Venezuelan cadillo defaults on loans that for British companies build infrastructure. As an aside it is important to understand that in judging the Venezuelan choices in this, they are only rudimentarily a state at this point. The quality of government is very poor. The British get predatory and they want the mouths of the Orinoco river in return for Venezuela defaulting on their debt. And again, none of this matters to us, except for the fact that the Monroe Doctrine had been American policy for over 70 years and the Venezuelan government had an American lobbyist working for them that wrote op-eds in newspapers all over the U.S. drawing attention to this issue.

Grover Cleveland who was the President at the time was so opposed to imperialism that he refused to proceed with the accession of Hawaii as an American territory. He considered the Monroe Doctrine troublesome. Yet this American lobbyist working for the Venezuelans forced it onto the political agenda by challenging that Cleveland was failing to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Grover Cleveland, who runs a cabinet-style presidency where he exercised loose control, allows the American Secretary of State to write a 12,000 word demarche to the British that concludes that American law is fiat on this continent. The British don’t even respond to such a ridiculous proposition. Grover Cleveland is then offended that we aren’t being treated more respectfully because we’re a rising power. So he starts to get more engaged and he defends the Secretary of State.

The British reply after another round of this, and they say that they control more territory on the North American Continent than we do – which adds insult to injury. Cleveland then does what every good American President does in foreign policy: he appeals to the recklessness of the American Congress. He gets an unanimous endorsement from Congress to go to war with Great Britain!

Great Britain was the dominant military force in the world at that time. The American Navy’s Caribbean squadron was six ships – and yet we were ready to fight the hegemon of the international order. The British flipped on the issue. In the space of six months they go from derision to Prime Minister Salisbury being cheered in the House of Commons when he announced that there is no greater supporter of the Monroe Doctrine than her majesty’s government. It’s a wonderful case study because why did it change? I found it a very poignant story because civil society in these two democracies is what changed their positions. The United States was an illiberal democracy in the 19th century. Britain wasn’t a democracy but had a more liberal government than most in the international order at the time.

What happens is civil societies reach across cultures. 354 members of the British Parliament write an open letter to the U.S. Congress encouraging peaceful arbitration to resolve the dispute between their countries. American newspapers initiate a write in campaign. The Prince of Wales – the husband of Queen Victoria – writes one of the letters suggesting that war between our two countries is fratricide. That sentimental connection, the sense of being the same, creates space for political compromise that avoids the war.

Nelson: Along that point, when you studied this through an entire century, when was there, as a culture, a sense of collective self-consciousness about the transition? Did the leaders or the populations sense this hegemonic shift?

Schake: I love where you are going with this. Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Yes – when did they know? One of the interesting things I learned when doing the research is that Britain was never a comfortable hegemon in the way the United States wears its power with ease. I think because the successes that made Britain the ruler and enforcer of the international order were all coalition victories. Britain had to work with Spain and Portugal in the fight against Napoleon, and they had to bring the Prussians into the fight. All of their defining victories are coalition victories. So they never think of themselves with the ease of power that the U.S. does after World War II. They always worry that it is too expensive, that it is not worth it. There’s never a moment that they aren’t thinking it is slipping away from them – they are always worried it will.

That’s the biggest difference in my perspective from Aaron Friedberg’s brilliant book Weary Titan. He looks at a tight timeframe of about ten years when the transition actually occurs and he ascribes characteristics to the British in the twilight of their hegemony that were actually true of them in the entirety of it.

Nelson: Moving to contemporary issues and themes. Your book is timely, because in one way it is juxtaposed to Graham Allison’s recent book on the Thucydides trap, that we’ve already briefly touched on. So two questions regarding that: What are your thoughts on the concept of a Thucydides trap? And second, what do you want readers to take from your book, namely, if peaceful transition is possible, but rare, how do see the future of great power conflict?

Schake: Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote a review of Graham Allison’s book, that if anyone writes a review like that of my book, you can find my body floating in the river – way down [Laughter]. It’s devastating.

My view is that Graham should be laughing all the way to the bank because whether you agree with his argument or not, he defines Thucydides in a really interesting and important way. He and I are firing salvos at each other on the Cato Institute website right now. I wrote an essay on how to think about the rise of China that Graham and several other people critiqued. So now I’m getting ready to fire my second salvo at them. It’s really fun. I’m learning a whole bunch from other people’s perspective on the problem.

My sense of the Thucydides story is different than what comes across in Graham’s book. Having talked to him about it several times and debated it with him several times, he doesn’t think that’s all that Thucydides says . There’s so much you can take from Thucydides. The way it comes through Graham’s telling of the book is a more narrow reading of Thucydides than I think is fair to Thucydides – which is a big beautiful canvas of a story, and I think Graham agrees with that.

I don’t think it is a trap because, again, people make choices. The Athenians make choices, Pericles is playing a dangerous game, there’s a lot going on there that makes it interesting. I also don’t think it describes the United States, which after all has encouraged the rise of the rest of the world. We have encouraged an international order where our power is constrained by rules and institutions, and patterns of cooperation that are mutually beneficial.

John Ikenberry gets America in the time of its primacy exactly right. We shape the international order as a microcosm of our domestic political order. That’s why we face so few challenges to our dominance. That’s because most other countries think the current international order is better than they would get any other way. And that’s what we see playing out with China right now. Everyone wants the American order.

Nelson: This gets to your conclusion in your book. If peaceful transition is rare but possible, what do think happens in the next decade?

Schake: I think the way to bet your money is that hegemonic transitions will be violent. The only exception is the Britain-to-American transition. Because of the U.S.’ westward expansion, the consolidation of the American continent, after fighting the Indian Wars, we become an empire in our own minds. We come to have imperial reflexes because of our conquest of the West. So during this 20th century transition, Britain has become a democracy while we are becoming an empire. So we look similar to each other but different to everybody else. That sense of sameness created space for policy comprise. Political scientists hate squishy stuff like this – and they’re right, it’s not rigorous, it’s impressionistic. But what I learned trying to understand this one transition in great detail is that that was what mattered. That sense of sameness, that sense we were like each other and different from everybody else allowed for compromise.

So what to look for in future hegemonic transitions is that squishy intellectually unsatisfying definition of sameness, which takes us to Hegel and Frank Fukuyama, because China doesn’t feel similar to the U.S. right now. And if you think China can continue to rise without playing by the rules of the American order, and if you think as has been the case for the last 40 years that China can continue to rise without liberalizing, then it is very likely to be a violent transition.

I’m skeptical China can continue to rise without liberalizing because I think the law of gravity applies to them as well. It seems to me that, like Maslow’s pyramid, as people’s basic needs are met they become more demanding political consumers. So the challenge to China will be things like moms demanding safe baby milk, and parents infuriated that corruption meant building codes weren’t followed so schools collapse in earthquakes and kids get killed. You see an awareness of that risk in the anti-corruption campaign in China. I don’t think authoritarian societies get honest enough feedback to stay ahead of problems. In free societies you are always having to answer the question, for example, if you want to confiscate somebody’s property to run a high-speed train through it, you have to win the argument; in authoritarian societies where you don’t have to win the argument, I don’t see how they stay honest. I think the question is less about a hegemonic transition with a rising China, but rather: can China be successful in light of what its own citizens want?

Nelson: What would you recommend others read about this topic after they’ve finished your book? Specifically, what would you recommend someone read on this topic that takes a contrarian view?

Schake: There’s so much good material on this subject. Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold is a great book that has a very different take than I do. He’s much more of the belief that British and Americans considered themselves similar. I think it is a late-developing consciousness. Walter treats it as having the model right and passing it from one to another with a certain inevitability of its success.

But when I read World War II history it makes me derisive when contemporary policy makers say today is way more complicated than it ever was and nobody has had challenges as difficult as we do. Man, a lot of American leaders back then would trade their problems with some of our challenges. Fighting Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany simultaneously is a lot harder than what we’ve been called to do today. This is a long circuitous route to tell you where Walter and I disagree: Walter gives a sense of inevitability. I think the story is so much more interesting when you realize how fearful the leadership was in the 20th century that they would lose.

We think of World War II in broad, heroic terms because we know the outcome. But the people who had to make decisions at the time – for instance, whether you go to Europe first or fight the Asian campaign first – was a question of enormous consequence and the continuation of the Republic hung in the balance.

Bob Kagan’s work on America and the liberal order and Walter Russell Mead’s work – I admire them both so much – but in both cases I think they failed to embrace how close-run American successes have been. I also think, including John Ikenberry, who writes so beautifully about America in the 20th century, they don’t get their arms around the brutality of the U.S. in the 19th century. We were a democracy, but Britain was right, we were an illustration of what was to be feared about a democracy because we were profoundly illiberal. And not just on the slavery issues. The Indian Wars go on for 50 years after the abolition of slavery and almost nobody blanched about the barbarity of that. In the great state of California, it was legal up into the 1920s to take Native American children away from their parents.

One of the questions that animated me to want to understand this American history better was trying to understand how a political culture so proud of our Republican values could live the history we lived in the 19th century and still become what we are in the 20th century. That animates a lot about how I try to tell the story in the book.

Nelson: Professor, to close on a lighter note, and not related to your book, what have you been reading lately – fiction, non-fiction – that you’ve particularly enjoyed? Articles, books? Longform journalism?

Schake: As it happens, I have six books on my nightstand at the moment that I am reading. The first is Emily Wilson’s splendid, sparkling new translation of The Odyssey. I think about Odysseus and his story differently because of her translation. If you think about the opening lines of Fagel’s translation of The Odyssey: “Tell me Muse of the man of twists and turns.” Emily Wilson’s translation of that line is, “Tell me Muse of a complicated man.” She conjures a completely different approach. I am just reveling in how differently to think about a book I know well because of a translation. It’s wonderful.

The next book on my nightstand is The War that Killed Achilles. It’s about the lessons from the Trojan War.

The third book on my nightstand is Emily Fridlund’s novel The History of Wolves. I haven’t started it yet, but my sister read it and thought it was brilliant.

The fourth is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad – it won the Pulitzer Prize. I love her writing.

Next on the list is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I believe Phil Klay, the great short story writer and novelist, said this was a book that was important to him.

Finally, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence. The good and great Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recommended this book to me.

Nelson: And websites that you like to visit from time -to-time?

Shacke: You know where I’m going to start. I really enjoy War on the Rocks. I also really like The Strategy Bridge, Divergent Options, and I read everything Mira Rapp-Hooper and Tamara Cofman Wittes write because I always learn from them.

Nelson: This was wonderful. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

Schake: Thank you, Chris. I really enjoyed this.

Dr. Kori Schake is the Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She is the author of Safe Passage: the Transition from British to American Hegemony (Harvard, 2017) and editor with Jim Mattis of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military (Hoover Institution, 2016). She has worked for the National Security Council staff, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and both the military and civilian staffs in the Pentagon. In 2008 she was senior policy advisor on the McCain presidential campaign. She taught Thinking About War at Stanford University, and also in the faculties of the United States Military Academy, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of Maryland. 

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Cover of Puck magazine, 6 April 1901. (Columbia’s Easter bonnet / Ehrhart after sketch by Dalrymple.)

The Geometry of War at Sea: The Leyte Gulf Example

LCDR Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy

Introduction 

General MacArthur’s operational idea, eventually embraced by Admiral Nimitz, President Roosevelt, and the Joint Chiefs, was to retake the Philippines as an intermediate base of operations from which to launch air strikes against Formosa, and eventually the Japanese home islands. Leyte was selected as the initial entry point to the Philippines because it had an “excellent anchorage” and was a location from which land-based bombers could reach all parts of the Philippines, the coast of China, and Formosa.1

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had a strong feeling that the two prongs of the American offensive would converge on the Philippines in what Milan Vego would describe as a penetration maneuver, where the attacker seeks to break up or penetrate a selected sector of the defender’s main line of position and move into his rear area.2  Japan’s most critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) to the southern resource area ran through the Philippines. The Luzon Strait was an especially important SLOC. According to Donald Chisolm, the southern resource area provided 75 percent of the world’s rubber, 66 percent of the world’s tin, and had initially given Japan self-sufficiency in petroleum.  U.S. anti-shipping activities through 1944 had already reduced Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. Losing the Philippines would run the well dry.3

When U.S. forces landed in Leyte, Japan had prepared a quick counterattack in the hope of forcing the Mahanian battle they had sought since Midway. To destroy the U.S. fleet and retain the Philippines, Japan’s SHO-1 plan involved a double envelopment maneuver that required careful synchronization between diversionary and attacking forces.

Lines of Operation

For the invasion of Leyte, U.S. forces had one principal line of operation and two ancillary lines. The principal line was the landing on the western shore of Leyte, under the operational control of MacArthur. This principal line included land, sea and air components. The Seventh Fleet naval component, under Admiral Kinkaid, included a Northern TF 78 under Rear Admiral Barbey which landed at Tacloban and a Southern TF 89 under Vice Admiral Wilkinson which landed at Dulag.

Prior to the initiation of the principal line of operation, the first ancillary line was initiated by Vice Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38. TF 38, which included carrier groups TG 38.1, 38.2, 38.3 and 38.4, attacked Japanese air bases in Okinawa, Luzon, and Formosa. By destroying more than 500 aircraft and reducing Japan’s cadre of newly trained pilots, this initial ancillary line of operation reduced Japan’s air capacity to challenge the U.S. movement into Leyte.

A second ancillary line was the protection of the landing operation. This ancillary line had two operational commanders. Admiral Kinkaid had tactical control of multiple Seventh Fleet components, including the Fire Support Group TG 77.2, the Close Covering Group TG 77.3, the Escort Carrier Group TG 77.4 under Rear Admiral Sprague (which included the carriers assigned to Taffy 1, 2, 3 and 4), and the PT boat squadrons assigned to TG 70.1. Also providing protection to the landing operation was Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38, over which MacArthur did not have operational control. TF38 transitioned from the first ancillary line to this second ancillary line after the initial landings were completed. Halsey reported directly to Nimitz at CINCPAC and had a supporting relationship with MacArthur and Kinkaid.  Arguably, the lack of unified command over this secondary but critical line is one of the reasons that the Leyte operation was put at risk when Halsey uncovered the San Bernardino Strait to pursue the Japanese Northern force.

Approach of Naval Forces in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Via history.army.mil)

The deployment of the U.S. submarines DARTER and DACE to intercept and reduce Kurita’s Center Force as it approached the operating area may be considered a third ancillary line, especially since the subs were strategic assets that remained under CINCPAC control. 

To counterattack against the U.S. invasion, Japan had one principal and one ancillary line of operation.  According to Vego, Japan’s principal line of operation was the Center Force under Vice Admiral Kurita that intended to penetrate the San Bernardino Strait and attack U.S. landing forces at Tacloban. Vego said the Southern Force under Vice Admirals Shima and Nishimura that intended to transit Surigao and attack the U.S. landing force from the south was an ancillary line.4  One could argue that the Center and Southern forces were either: (a) two pincer components of one principal line of operation; or (b) two separate principal lines. The diversionary Northern force under Vice Admiral Ozawa was the ancillary line intended to divert the U.S. fast carrier task forces to the north, so that they could not threaten the Center and Southern Forces.

As the battle evolved, Japanese lines of operation remained static. However, U.S. lines shifted between 24-25 October. Halsey created a new line of operation when he transitioned TF 38 from a covering force to an offensive force focused on Ozawa’s Northern force.  Admiral Kinkaid created two new lines of operation when he detached Rear Admiral Oldendorf to guard Surigao Strait with his battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and PT boats against the Southern Force, and Rear Admiral Sprague to defend against Center Force which came through San Bernardino.

Basing Structure and Impact on Operations

Per Vego’s definition, a base of operations should provide multiple short lines of operations.5 Before Leyte, Japan occupied what Vego called a “central position with respect to the adjacent Asian landmass and any hostile force approaching from across the Pacific.”6 Compared to the U.S., Japan had multiple relatively short interior lines of communication. The Japanese home islands were the main base, and Luzon was an intermediate base.

However, as explained by Chisolm, Japan’s combined interior lines totaled more than 18,000 nautical miles and the Luzon Strait was a significant choke point in that network. The Japanese had not built sufficient submarines or destroyers to protect those lines and they had not built sufficient shipping capacity to make up for losses due to U.S. anti-shipping efforts.7 So, although Japan had a base of operations with multiple short interior lines, the U.S. found the weak points in that base early in the war and attacked it with the submarine force. Then, in the campaigns leading up to the Leyte operation, U.S. forces eliminated several of Japan’s fleet oilers. As a result, after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japanese carriers returned to home waters where they could be protected by land-based aircraft and continue to train pilots. Japan’s other large combatants moved to Lingga Roads (Singapore), where they had access to oil, but less access to ammunition and less ability to operate with the carriers.

Thus, in the summer of 1944, the Japanese basing structure was already significantly weakened. If the U.S. was able to dislodge Japan from their intermediate base in Luzon, they would essentially turn Japan’s network of interior lines into a network of exterior lines, vulnerable not only to continued submarine attack, but also to land-based air attack.

Japanese shipping routes destroyed during the Leyte Operation. (Via history.army.mil)

In comparison, the U.S. occupied what Vego calls an exterior position in the theater. The U.S. mainland was the main base of operations, and Hawaii was an intermediate base. As explained by Chisolm, the U.S.’s exterior lines into the South Pacific were extremely long – more than six thousand miles from the U.S. mainland, and more than two thousand miles from Australia.8 However, the U.S. exterior lines were not as vulnerable as the Japanese interior lines. While the Japanese fleet was suffering from attrition, the U.S. fleet was expanding, and each month was able to increase the number of escort resources dedicated to the protection of shipping. And while Japan’s link to their southern resource area was becoming increasingly tenuous, CONUS-based war production was hardly resource-constrained.

Decisive Points in the Operation

Vego defines a decisive point as a geographic location or source of military or non-military power to be targeted for destruction or neutralization.9 As Vego suggests, the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits were decisive points for the Japanese heavy surface forces in their intended advance to Leyte Gulf.10 However, for Japan, the most decisive point in the operation was in the Leyte Gulf itself, where the U.S. landing force would be vulnerable and where the Seventh and Third fleets would be protecting the landings. It was there that Admiral Toyoda planned for his pincers to join in a combined action against the U.S. fleet, ideally with a Mahanian ending.

In contrast, prior to Japan’s counter attack, U.S. forces focused on two decisive points: the northern and southern landing zones on the west coast of Leyte. When Japanese forces counter-attacked, the U.S. changed focus and saw the two straits, San Bernardino and Surigao, as the most decisive points. As a result, Admiral Kinkaid massed the firepower of his surface fleet in the Surigao Strait and expected the airpower of Halsey’s TF 38 to cover San Bernardino. 

Conclusion

MacArthur’s operational idea of capturing the Philippines to create an intermediate base of operations for air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands worked. Seven years after Leyte, Nimitz said “from hindsight . . . I think that decision was correct.”11  In summary, U.S. lines of operation were more flexible and less interdependent than the Japanese lines of operation. Ironically, the external U.S. basing structure, when looked at holistically, had greater durability than the internal Japanese basing structure. Also, the U.S. more effectively concentrated kinetic effects on specific decisive points in the geography, and specifically in the Surigao Strait. U.S. forces ultimately won at Leyte because they better exploited the geometry of the operating area.  

Daniel T. Murphy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, currently serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. In his civilian career, he is a full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. Lieutenant Commander Murphy earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and from the National Intelligence University. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines, Washington: Center for Military History, 1993), 3.

[2] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), VII-54.

[3] Donald Chisolm, Leyte Gulf: The Strategic Background (NWC lecture), U.S. Naval War College, 2009.

[4] Vego, IV-64.

[5] Vego, IV-56.

[6] Vego, IV-53.

[7] Chisolm (NWC lecture).

[8] Chisolm.

[9] Vego, IV-60.

[10] Vego, IV-61.

[11] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958) 10.

Featured Image: The crew of the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku salute as the flag is lowered during the battle off Cape Engaño, October 25, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

Changing Interpretations of Japan’s Pacific War Naval Demise

The following article originally appeared in the International Journal of Naval History under the title, “Strategy, Language, and the Culture of Defeat: Changing Interpretations of Japan’s Pacific War Naval Demise,” and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Hal M. Friedman
Henry Ford Community College

Military historians say that military history is written from the perspective of the victor. Japan’s naval defeat in the Pacific War, however, provides a highly arguable case. Much of the translated postwar literature on the Pacific War has been written from an Allied perspective which overemphasizes Japanese weaknesses, deemphasizes the strengths of the Japanese military, and places defeat in a cultural and even racial context. This viewpoint raises the question of whether or not the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) lost the Pacific War because of national characteristics supposedly “unsuited” to twentieth century naval warfare, if Japan was defeated by the Allies because of strategic, operational, and logistical factors over which it had little or no control, or if Japan lost because of the poor strategic decisions it made, especially the gap between planning and operations? 1 Race and culture versus strategy, operations, and logistics are the two opposing views expressed by Japanese naval officers who wrote about their nation’s defeat after the Pacific War. The following paper is a limited review of translated post-1945 Japanese naval accounts written by two groups of authors. The first group consisted of officers who served during the Pacific War, as well as one journalist, all of whom wrote about the war during the 1950s from a cultural perspective. The second group consisted of officers writing since 1960 who had either served during the war or in the postwar Self-Defense Forces, as well as one historian, all of whom viewed Japan’s defeat from a more conventional strategic and operational perspective.

Culture, Language, and Defeat

Though most of the literature which concentrated on cultural factors analyzed Japan’s defeat in a negative context, there was at least one exception. Rear Admiral Tanaka Raizo, Commander of Japan’s crack Destroyer Squadron 2 in the Solomon Islands battles, offered a balanced military analysis of Japan’s defeat, blaming it on the failure to develop radar, a disunited naval command structure, and interservice rivalry with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Yet even Tanaka explained Japan’s proficiency in night torpedo surface warfare partially in terms of cultural characteristics.2  Tanaka claimed, for example, that Japan excelled in night torpedo warfare until late 1942 because night surface engagements “. . . agreed with the character of Japanese sailors.”  This statement implies, of course, that other nations in the Pacific War failed at early night engagements because of a deficiency in “character” traits “suited” to nighttime naval warfare.  Tanaka’s statement similarly denotes that proficiency in warfare does not ultimately depend on doctrine, training, equipment, and tactics, but on “character” and “spirit”. The question to be asked, therefore, is whether or not Japanese naval officers thought that the IJN lost the war after 1942 because it ultimately lacked character and spirit? Tanaka does not address this issue, but the importance of cultural and national traits as an element of naval warfare is a theme which was highly prevalent in the literature from the 1950s.

The following Japanese literature overwhelmingly employed a cultural context to describe the IJN’s defeat in the Pacific War. It also largely perceived Japan’s national characteristics in negative cultural terms. Interestingly, this tendency to explain defeat in denigrating terminology was in complete contrast to most of Japan’s wartime propaganda, which emphasized Japanese strength, purity, and uniqueness in comparison to Western weaknesses.3

An example of this postwar literature can be seen in Oi Atsushi’s analysis of Japan’s antisubmarine warfare campaign against the United States. A former Captain in the IJN whose primary duties had been planning Japanese antisubmarine defenses against the United States submarine blockade, Oi forcefully asserted that Japan’s defeat in the submarine war in the Pacific was due to the cultural characteristics of the Japanese people. Oi claimed that Japan lost the submarine war because the Japanese were “racially intemperate” and “less tenacious” in a very “tedious” kind of warfare. Moreover, he argued that antisubmarine warfare was shunned by the “more impetuous” Japanese, who desired to focus on “colorful and offensive” fighting rather than “defensive” antisubmarine tactics.4

The vocabulary of Oi’s criticism is fascinating for at least two reasons. First, his use of words and phrases such as “racially intemperate,” “impetuous”, and “untenacious” immediately conjures up images of a nation of children who were ill-prepared for modern technological warfare. Second, this portrayal of non-whites as children coincides with a very strong element of nineteenth and twentieth century racist ideology which had been employed by the nations of Western Europe and by the United States to justify their claims to global hegemony. Oi’s vocabulary, in other words, implies a tacit acceptance of prewar Social Darwinist thought that non-white nations like Japan were inferior states. While Japan had certainly subscribed to its own strain of Social Darwinist thought during its grand days of empire, Oi seems to have completely turned the tables and accepted the Western idea that even Japan was inherently inferior because of its societal and cultural background.5

In a different vein, retired Vice Admiral Yokoi Toshiyuki, Chief of Staff of the Japanese Fifth Fleet when the war ended, more specifically blamed Japan’s defeat on the lack of a “well considered” strategy. He claimed that Japan’s defeat after 1943 was “inevitable” because of a “flawed” strategy which emphasized battleships over airpower. Completely ignoring the vast logistical disparities between Japan and the United States, especially after 1943, Yokoi argued that Japan was not only plagued by its own “flawed” strategy but also asserted that it was “outmatched” by an opponent ” . . . more skilled and powerful in strategy.”6  Since strategy is largely an intellectual exercise, at least in its initial formulation, Yokoi’s charge of a “flawed” or “weak” strategy subtly implies that Japan sported a flawed or weak intellectual foundation in its naval officer corps. On the one hand, Japan’s naval officer corps did demonstrate a weak strategic foundation with its fixation on battleships and the Decisive Battle Doctrine (see below).7

What Yokoi failed to point out is that the United States Navy experienced similar kinds of intraservice rivalry and lack of high-level strategic foresight during the 1920s and 1930s, a situation which resulted in a number of serious tactical reverses in 1941 and 1942. According to Yokoi, many of Japan’s naval leaders failed to grasp the potentialities and implications of their growing naval aviation capability because its early logistical and material superiority afforded it a comfort zone of mistakes. Yet at the same time, he fails to acknowledge the leaps and bounds Japan made in areas such as carrier aviation doctrine which were well ahead of other nations at the time.8

Strategic, operational, and logistical factors, however, seemed to matter very little in Yokoi’s argument. In fact, his article inferred that if Japanese naval strategy had been “strong”, the war might not have been lost or at least lost so badly. He concluded, however, that the strategy could not have been a “powerful” one because Japanese naval strategists were deficient. 9Similar to Oi’s subscription to Social Darwinist thought, Yokoi’s subtle allusions to Japanese intellectual inferiority seems to be another significant acceptance by Japanese naval officers of a central theme of Western racist ideology.

There is additional evidence of Japanese naval officers perceiving their officer corps and  nation in negative cultural terms. Former Commander Chihaya Masataka describes a very successful and stealthy Japanese withdrawal from Kiska in the Aleutians in 1943 and attributes the success of the operation to the talents of Rear Admiral Kimura Masatomi, the commander of the evacuation force. Chihaya’s analysis of the operation, however, denotes that Kimura’s talents were rare in the IJN officer corps in particular and in Japan as a whole. Chihaya described Admiral Kimura as very “calm” in a tense situation, “careful” in his planning and decision making, and “unimpetuous.” From Chihaya’s description, one receives the impression that almost the entire IJN officer corps was composed of hotheads and childlike personalities who reacted badly to complicated plans or combat situations. Chihaya’s generalizations again leave the reader with the impression that Japan was a nation of children which was defeated because of its own immaturity in military planning and decision making.10

Chihaya’s account, however, is not the strongest in its use of stereotyped Japanese character traits to explain defeat. In 1955, former Captain Fuchida Mitsuo, strike leader for the Japanese First Air Fleet and commander of the Pearl Harbor raid in 1941, and former Commander Okumiya Masatake, a carrier operations officer in the Pacific War, published Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan. Not necessarily a scholarly account, Midway was nevertheless an early Japanese primary source about one of the war’s most decisive battles.11 Fuchida and Okumiya briefly detailed the IJN’s exploits in the Pacific from December 1941 until the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and then devoted most of the book to analyzing the events and outcome of the battle. The most interesting aspect of this work, however, is the concluding analysis and the language used to describe Japan’s defeat. The authors employed a variety of cultural stereotypes to explain Japan’s defeat at Midway and in the Pacific War. Their perspective might have to do with a generational change in the Japanese military officer corps after 1905. Older officers who had matured during the Meiji Restoration had had to be much more familiar with and adept at diplomatic exchange with foreign officers, especially as the Japanese military was modernizing. After 1905, it has been argued that the military officer corps became more insular and parochial in its professional education and training as well as more extreme in its attitudes toward both domestic and international political compromise as Japanese officers had to interact internationally less and less. Perhaps in this vein, both Fuchida and Okumiya, for example, attributed the defeat to the “technological backwardness” of the Japanese people themselves. Largely disregarding Japanese advances in weaponry such as the Long Lance Torpedo, the Fubuki-class destroyer, and the Zero fighter, the authors stated that “. . . Japan started out the Pacific War in an inferior [technological and material] position and remained there.”12  To Fuchida and Okumiya, this technological and material “inferiority” was not simply a product of a resource poor nation fighting a total war. Both officers believed that Japan’s defeat in the war “. . . lies deep in the Japanese national character . . .” and asserted that the Japanese people as a society were “naturally” unsuited to mass production work and were doomed to defeat in a total, industrialized war.  Other terms used to describe the Japanese were equally revealing. Fuchida and Okumiya claimed the Japanese were “impulsive,” “irrational,” “haphazard,” and “contradictory.” In addition, Japanese were portrayed as “narrow-minded,” “indecisive”, and “vacillating.” Worse, the Japanese were allegedly prone to confuse reality and fantasy.13 Even though the body of their analysis followed a conventional military critique of strategy, operations, tactics, training, and doctrine, the tone of the conclusion denoted that racial, cultural, and national characteristics were, in the authors’ views, the root cause of the defeat in the battle and in the Pacific War in general. The defeat, in other words, had little to do with material differences, strategy, or even luck, and everything to do with intellectual and cultural deficiencies arising out of racial inferiority.14

There are, of course, significant problems with Fuchida’s and Okumiya’s work, especially their claims about Japanese weaknesses, which are counterfactual to the available evidence. For example, the Japanese allegedly lacked imagination and daring, yet they were able to carry out an operation like the Pearl Harbor raid. Moreover, Japanese were supposedly unable to sacrifice short-term desires for long-term goals, yet they had industrialized their nation in just one generation during the Meiji Era.15  Contradictory and racist statements such as these detract from what was considered at the time to be a very credible military analysis of the Midway battle. Their work, however, is hardly unusual among the postwar analyses written by former naval officers in the 1950s. What sets Fuchida and Okumiya apart is the particularly strong language they used to describe Japanese culture and society.

A kind of helpless victimization occurred in other works as well. Among some authors, there was a tendency to blame defeat on spiritual occurrences or suppositions. Bad luck, good fortune, and even religion are common in any military organization which trains its people for combat and death. Still, it is interesting to note that spiritual and supernatural forces were given credit for victories and defeats on numerous occasions in this literature. Journalist Ito Masanori, for instance, essentially blamed Japan’s defeat on the “genius” of American radar, which was, of course, a British invention. More importantly, Ito downgraded and demeaned Japan’s victories in 1942 by implying that the victories had less to do with skill and more to do with luck. Ito even called the victory streak a matter of “good fortune.”16 Similarly, defeat at Midway was a matter of an “avenging God” turning against Japan, while defeat in the Solomons was the result of the “superior zeal and fighting spirit” of the enemy.17 Defeat in the Pacific War in general was also attributed at various times to “bad omens” and “abandonment by the Gods of War.”18

Agawa Hiroyuki, a junior information officer in the IJN during the Pacific War and author of a major postwar biography on Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, placed the Midway defeat primarily in terms of “bad” or “fool’s luck.”  As elements in the defeat, Agawa cited and emphasized such things as the “bad luck” of Commander Fuchida’s last minute sickness and the “misfortune” of malfunctioning scout planes. Agawa essentially ignored the strategic, operational, and tactical mistakes of dividing the strike forces over a large geographic area, the failure to establish operational priorities, or Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi’s indecisiveness as the senior officer on the spot.19

How are historians to explain these protestations on the part of Japan’s Pacific War veterans? There are several possible explanations, though no very definitive answers. First, these works may have merely been the product of a clever marketing tactic, aimed at selling books to a 1950s American audience through the reinforcement of dearly held Western cultural stereotypes about “inferior” Asian peoples and their alleged inability to fight protracted, modern wars. This theory, however, seems too simplistic and crass for officers who had dedicated their previous lives to serving the Emperor and were now writing as social outcasts in postwar Japan.

Second, the books and articles may have simply been a way for the naval officers to vent their frustrations about mistakes made during the war or to project blame for the defeat away from the Imperial Navy and its officer corps. By singling out cultural or national characteristics as the cause of defeat, the authors suggest that any human action taken was meaningless because Japan was destined to be defeated. Thus, no matter what they or other officers had done during the war, defeat was inevitable and the officer corps should not be blamed for the consequences. Defeat, in other words, was not an outgrowth of flawed strategy, tactics, or doctrine but was inevitable because of the loss of a heavenly mandate, though this last reason is not a Japanese monopoly.20 The third possibility was provided by retired Maritime Self-Defense Force Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi during a conversation with the author. Admiral Hirama asserted that the naval officers were not just writing in a context of defeat and were not just seeking to explain the reasons for Japan’s defeat. Instead, he argued that military officers in 1950s Japan were seen as criminals who had been entirely blamed for the defeat and occupation. If correct, Admiral Hirama’s conclusion would mean that these officers may have been attempting to bring an end to their outlaw status in postwar Japan by demonstrating to the nation that defeat was caused by deeply ingrained flaws in the national polity rather than by a criminal military officer corps which had run amuk.21

Fourth, fortune, luck, and heavenly favor are particularly interesting when placed in their historical and political contexts. Ito’s account provides a particularly useful vehicle for analyzing these motives. Published in 1956, the language about “abandonment” by the “Gods of War” could very well have been an admission of guilt to a largely American audience about Japan’s conduct in the war, especially the Pearl Harbor operation. The context of the time period may have been the key to this admission, since the United States and Japan signed the Mutual Security Treaty just a few years later, in 1960. At a time when Japan’s economic, political, and military health was increasingly dependent on its relationship with the United States, unofficial admission of war guilt may have been a step by the authors to mend the fences and begin relations anew with the US.

Finally, the naval officers writing in the 1950s may have simply been too close to the actual events to provide any kind of detached analysis of their own defeat. As the late Craig Cameron asserted in his study of the 1st Marine Division during the 1940s, veterans’ viewpoints about their role in the war became fixed and selective over time. This phenomenon among former Japanese naval officers may explain why one group from the 1950s blamed culture for their defeat and why a different group of officers writing after 1960 found culture to be a largely insignificant factor.22

Strategy, Logistics, and Defeat

A dramatic change in explaining Japan’s naval defeat occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. In these decades, some officers who had fought in the war, as well as a younger generation of officers serving in the Self-Defense Forces, began to explain Japan’s loss of the Pacific War in more conventional military terms. The authors reviewed in this section sought to explain Japan’s naval defeat in terms of military, rather than cultural, strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, they contended that the Imperial Navy was as proficient at various aspects of twentieth century naval warfare as foreign navies, but that Japan was defeated because of strategic, logistical, and technical deficiencies over which it had very little control, because of the negative results of fallible human decision making, and because of the bureaucratic inertia found in many modern military organizations.

Writing in 1961, Captain Hara Tameichi, one of Japan’s ablest destroyer leaders, saw very specific strategic and tactical reasons for Japan’s naval defeat in the Pacific War. Hara made clear his belief that the IJN, especially the surface forces, excelled in quality over the Allied navies because of its difficult and realistic peacetime training program. To Hara, defeat came about because of weaknesses in industrial, material, and logistical capability and the failure to fully exploit technologies like radar and airpower.23 Hara also saw major problems with the IJN’s training doctrine. He believed that most IJN officers were indecisive when it came to battle, not because of any inherent cultural or racial characteristic, but because of a rigid and even brutal training regimen at Eta Jima Naval Academy which produced “sheepish”, unaggressive, and bureaucratic officers who were unimaginative in their strategic and tactical thinking. Hara attributed senior officers’ continuing fixation with battleships during the interwar period to this bureaucratic inertia. He also attributed the battleship officers’ dominance of the Decisive Battle Doctrine–the Mahanian line-of-battle engagement in the Central and Western Pacific which IJN officers believed would decide victory or defeat in any war with the United States–to this bureaucratic inertia.24 As evidence for his assertion, Hara cited numerous instances when successful battle tactics were repeatedly used until they lacked an element of surprise for the United States Navy. These tactics then resulted in heavy casualties for the IJN, yet they continued to be used until long after their effectiveness had clearly dissipated. Hara argued that a more realistic and flexible training program at Eta Jima and Japan’s Naval War College could have produced a less bureaucratic and more proficient naval officer corps.25 To Hara, this stagnant leadership, combined with the Navy’s failure to avoid attrition battles after Guadalcanal, were the main reasons for Japan’s defeat.26 Cultural factors had little, if anything, to do with his analysis.

The idea that training was at the root of the problem was taken up by Asada Sadao in his very thorough and scholarly account of the IJN in the 1930s. The sole naval historian studied in this paper, Asada also saw a very stale, unimaginative, and bureaucratic officer corps coming out of Eta Jima and the Naval War College. Being taught to unquestioningly obey and subscribe to the validity of battleship superiority and the Decisive Battle Doctrine, the officer corps was highly resistant to innovation in terms of a reorientation toward naval airpower.27 Yet this fact alone does not fully explain Japan’s defeat. The same kind of bureaucratic inertia and resistance to innovation was evident at times in the United States Navy in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is still debated to what degree the American Navy had reoriented itself from surface to naval airpower by 1941. Only the defeat at Pearl Harbor forced the United States Navy to rely fully on its aircraft carriers in the following months. In fact, the IJN had a greater number of aircraft carriers in operation in 1941 and seemed to have a more serious commitment to naval aviation at the beginning of the war.28 Thus, numbers, as Hara stressed, seem to have become the determining factor by 1942-1943, as opposed to training policy, which Asada asserted more strongly. Still, Asada, like Hara, deemphasized culture as a debilitating factor and demonstrated with primary sources that the IJN suffered from bureaucratic problems similar to other military organizations in the early twentieth century.29

Numbers and numerical inferiority, especially in naval airpower and radar-equipped ships, were the main reasons which retired Air Self-Defense Forces General Genda Minoru cited for Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Genda was one of the IJN’s first fighter pilots and helped plan the Pearl Harbor and Midway operations as the Air Operations Officer for the First Air Fleet. Genda asserted that the IJN was superior to the United States Navy in terms of flying, navigation, night fighting, torpedo warfare, and bombing skills.30 According to Genda, the reason the war was lost was a tendency in the IJN to try to compensate for material shortages with “spirit.” This tendency was not, however, attributed to any national or cultural characteristic, but was simply a tactic used by a resource poor nation to redress inherent logistical deficiencies. Genda argued that Japan’s primary mistake was getting involved in a long war with the United States. The fact that Genda never recanted Japan’s role in the war itself suggests that he found nothing wrong with the war or its goals, in complete contrast to the officers writing in the 1950s. To Genda, the war was merely badly planned and poorly executed in terms of its objective timetables. Japan, in other words, flawed when it failed to quickly destroy the American carrier forces, secure a comprehensive Pacific Basin defense perimeter, and negotiate a peace. It did not flaw in launching the Pearl Harbor operation itself. 31

The most scholarly and well-researched work which was reviewed was Admiral Hirama’s article. Hirama, writing in 1991, was one of the few authors, in addition to Asada, to extensively use IJN planning documents as his sources. Hirama admits that the interwar worship of the battleship may have been too strong for the IJN’s own good, but he does not believe that the Navy’s concentration on surface power was as strong as previous scholars have alleged. Nor does he believe that the Decisive Battle Doctrine was as inflexible as previously asserted.32 In fact, Hirama demonstrates that the Decisive Battle Doctrine changed over time by illustrating that the doctrine was defensive and based on surface power only in the 1920s, before submarines and naval airpower became viable agents to implement a more offensive strategy.33  Hirama cites force strengths and planning documents to show that as submarines and naval airpower grew in numbers and capability,they also grew in importance for IJN operations.34

In addition, he claims that the IJN’s strategy evolved from an “interception” strategy, whereby the Navy would intercept the American Fleet as it moved close to Japan, to one of “interception-attrition,” whereby the Navy would use its bases in Micronesia, its longer-ranged submarines, and its carrier fleet built in the 1930s to intercept the American Fleet much closer to Hawaii than previously planned. Only more powerful submarines, more capable carrier airpower, and the integration of these forces into line-of-battle tactics allowed the Navy to revise the strategy in this way.35 To Hirama, the only reason the IJN continued to emphasize night torpedo warfare after the 1920s was that nighttime surface training was a useful support in battle vis-a-vis the air and subsurface arms, and because it was valued as a way to keep the IJN’s battle skills honed in peacetime. He also argued that Japan’s fatal mistake in the Pacific War was not an overemphasis on surface power, but an overemphasis on land-based naval airpower and an inability to counter highly mobile American carrier groups which outnumbered IJN forces after 1943.36

Another fascinating paper was that presented in the fall of 1991 at the United States Naval Academy’s Tenth Naval History Symposium in Annapolis, Maryland, by retired Maritime Self-Defense Force Captain Akihiko Yoshida. Akihiko presented research on the Pearl Harbor strike and contended that the air assault on Battleship Row could have been conducted in a more “organized” and “effective” manner! 37 Akihiko’s interpretation was that the air assault was generally successful, but that it could have been much more effective if veteran flyers had been used in the initial assault, neophyte flyers had flown the second wave, and radio communications had been used to coordinate strikes after the attack force arrived over Pearl Harbor. 38  Apparently, there was confusion about Commander Fuchida’s flare signals for the attack and the manner in which the aerial units were to coordinate their strikes.39  As reasons for the “confused” air assault, Akihiko found fault in the policy of mixing veteran and neophyte air groups which had not trained together for very long. He also found fault with the Navy air arm’s lack of training in high and very high frequency (HF/VHF) radio communications, and with its obsession with radio silence even after the strike force arrived over Pearl Harbor.40  Akihiko’s interpretation must have proved particularly interesting to his audience, considering that it was predominantly composed of American naval officers marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor raid!

The works by Hara, Asada, Hirama, and Akihiko illustrate another side to the debate over Japan’s naval defeat. These authors consistently saw Japan’s defeat as the result of military-technical factors over which Japan had little control, or as a consequence of bureaucratic inertia that was fairly common in military organizations, or as the result of poor decisions made by fallible human beings under tremendous pressures. National or cultural characteristics as factors in military defeat had little, if any, place in their analyses.

Conclusion

A number of conclusions can be drawn from these most recent examples of post-1945 accounts. One, the historical analysis of Japan’s naval defeat became more sophisticated over time as naval historians and naval officers trained in historical research techniques took over strategic, operational, and tactical analysis from officers who actually fought in the war. A second conclusion is that as the war  receded into the past and professional historians with fewer political axes to grind  came to dominate the debates, explanations for Japan’s defeat  became more precise, more intellectually sound and debatable, and certainly less grounded in over-generalized, stereotyped, racist, and even self-flagellating terminology. Third, and most obvious, the explanations about Japan’s naval defeat have entailed more complex comparisons with other naval powers and the problems these powers encountered in projecting and employing their naval forces during wartime. This greater complexity can especially be seen with the thoughts of Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, retired Commander of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Fleet, who argued that while the Japanese Government and military began to exhibit “emotional” characteristics in its strategic formulations in the 1930s this phenomenon could happen to any nation because of human nature, bureaucratic inertia, and a gap between planning and operations.

References

  1. See Vice Admiral Koda Yoji, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) (RET),”Doctrine And Strategy in IJN” (lecture, U.S. Naval War College, 20 January 2011). 
  2. Ibid.  According to John Dower, the idea that a nation could be classified by “character traits” was also the basis for much of the Allied wartime study of Japan.  In fact, these wartime studies were called “national character studies”; see John W. Dower, War Without Mercy:  Race & Power in the Pacific War (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1986), 9 and 120-123. 
  3. Dower believes that Japanese wartime propaganda had more to do with self-promotion and the negation of Western stereotypes rather than the denigration of Westerners themselves.  For an analysis of this wartime propaganda, see ibid, 203-233 and 262-290. 
  4. Captain Oi Atsushi, “Why Japan’s Antisubmarine Warfare Campaign Failed,” in David C. Evans, ed., Japanese Navy in World War IIIn the Words of Former Japanese Naval Officers(Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1986), 387 and 414. 
  5. Again, the allusions to immaturity are analyzed by Dower.  The pre-1941 language and terminology used in the West to describe the Japanese significantly parallels the language used by Japanese naval officers during the 1950s to explain their own defeat; see Dower, War Without Mercy, 9, 122, 133, and 145. 
  6. According to Admiral Koda, the entire Japanese strategic planning apparatus demonstrated major and basic flaws, but not because of any racial or cultural mindset.  Admiral Koda demonstrated that it was Japan’s inexperience with modern total war, stemming from its lack of participation in the European phase of World War One that created the vast gulf between planning and operations that became so prevalent in the 1920s and especially the 1930s; see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” 20 January 2011. 
  7. Vice Admiral Yokoi Toshiyuki, “Thoughts on Japan’s Naval Defeat,” in Evans, Japanese Navy in World War II, 515. 
  8. For the Decisive Battle doctrine, see footnote 24.  For aspects of American wartime strategy, see D. Clayton James, “American and Japanese Strategies in the Pacific War,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy:  From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1986), 726-727.  For evidence that some senior American naval officers may not have appreciated or even understood the potentiality of carrier forces, see Clark G. Reynolds’ account of Admiral William Halsey’s conduct as Commander of the US Third Fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in The Fast Carriers:  The Forging of an Air Navy  (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1992), 253-300.  See also Vice Admiral John Towers’ frustration over American carrier forces being commanded by surface officers in 1942.  Towers, the United States Navy’s third naval aviator, one of its first “air admirals,” and Nimitz’ Commander of Pacific Fleet Air Forces (COMAIRPAC), specifically blamed heavy carrier losses in 1942 on the ships being commanded by surface officers who allegedly did not know how to employ these vessels; see Reynolds, Admiral John H. Towers:  The Struggle for Naval Air Supremacy (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1991), 406-454.  For a highly cogent demonstration that some senior surface officers in the United States Navy did, in fact, know how to fight the carrier forces effectively, see John Lundstrom, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral:  Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway and Guadalcanal (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006).  In addition, it needs to be understood that numerous naval historians have significantly recast the interwar United States Navy and the senior officer corps.  Based on reexaminations of primary sources, post-Cold war historians have demonstrated that the interwar American naval officer corps experimented with naval aviation, submarine warfare, and amphibious assault doctrine to a much greater degree than the Japanese Navy did or than Cold War-era historians such as Reynolds were willing to admit.  For detailed accounts of interwar American naval doctrine, see Joel Davidson, The Unsinkable Fleet:  The Politics of U.S. Navy Expansion in World War II  (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1996), 11, 12, 14, 15-16, 19-21, 23, 24, 32, 34, 60, 96, and 97; Thomas Wildenberg, Destined for Glory:  Dive Bombing, Midway, and the Evolution of Carrier Airpower (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1998), 48-64, 83-98, 126-128, 141, 155, 157-160, 163-164, and 170-171; William McBride, Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945 (Baltimore, Maryland:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 111-212; Thomas Hone and Trent Hone, Battleline:  The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006), 110-125; Craig Felker, Testing American Sea Power:  U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923-1940 (College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 61-75; John Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet that Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 87-92, 173-175, and 205; Joel Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan”:  The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 22, 62, and 63-83; and Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War:  The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Newport, Rhode Island:  Naval War College Press, 2010), 25, 51-56, 60, 62, 64, 65, 66, 74, 76-77, 80, 85-86, 93-94, 100-102, 104, 105, 110-117, 121-125, 129-136, 139-146, 151, 155, 156-159, 169,197-203, 207-216, 219-227, 229-237, 253-263, and 287-288.  For interwar Japanese carrier doctrine development, see Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword:  The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Washington, D.C.:  Potomac Books, 2005), 82-86, 158, 163, 167, 168, 171, 397, 414, and 442 
  9. See Dower, War Without Mercy, 103, for pre-1941 Western perceptions about “inflexible” Japanese strategies and tactics and ibid., 97-98, 122, 123, 145, and 153-154, for Western views on alleged Japanese intellectual inferiority which were highly similar to views expressed by Japanese naval officers such as Captain Oi. 
  10. Captain Fuchida Mitsuo and Commander Okumiya Masatake, Midway:  The Battle That Doomed Japan (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1955). 
  11. Ibid., 243.  Similarly, former Lieutenant Commander Hashimoto Mochitsura, writing about the destruction of the IJN’s submarine force in the Pacific War, claimed that the IJN’s major fault was in failing to develop sophisticated radar before 1943.  Hashimoto asserted that the lack of this sophisticated technology was like going to war with a “bamboo lance.”  The phrase conjures up images of “primitive” weapons and “native” warriors fighting “civilized” Western Techno-soldiers.  In effect, the phrase implies that the Japanese military was somehow culturally inferior to the American military in World War Two and was thus defeated; see Hashimoto, Sunk: The Story of the Japanese Submarine Fleet, 1941-1945 (New York:  Henry Holt And Company, 1954), vi; see also Dower, War Without Mercy, 94-117 and 121-122.  Dowers offers a great deal of evidence from pre-1941 Western sources that the Japanese were perceived as “subhuman creatures” who were incapable of producing “modern” weaponry or conducting “modern” warfare.  After the Japanese victories of 1941-1942, however, much of this propaganda gave way to stereotypes painting the Japanese as quasi-supermen.  For the changes in Japanese military leaders attitudes after the Russo-Japanese War, see Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II(Boulder, Colorado:  Westview Press, 1996), 206-211. 
  12. See Fuchida and Okumiya, Midway, 243-244 and 247-248; see also Dower, War Without Mercy, 121-122. 
  13. Fuchida and Okumiya, Midway, 247-248. 
  14. Ibid., 232-248. 
  15. For this transformation from “sub-humans” to “supermen”, see Dower, War Without Mercy, 97-98 and 112-116. 
  16. Ito Masanori, The End of The Imperial Japanese Navy (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1956), 44-53.  Ito was the only author from the 1950s studied for this paper who was not a professional naval officer.  He was, in fact, a journalist, but his viewpoints about Japan’s defeat closely coincided with the naval officers writing in the 1950s. 
  17. Ibid., 69 and 83. 
  18. Ibid., 93 and 107.  The reader should note, however, that blaming military defeat on luck or metaphysics was not limited to the Japanese or even to the military personnel of a defeated power.  Craig Cameron has demonstrated that Richard Tregaskis, author of Guadalcanal Diary, described the men of the 1st Marine Division as “pawns in a battle of the gods” when the situation looked “in doubt” after the United States Navy withdrew its carrier forces from the Solomons area in August 1942; see Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (New York:  Random House,1943), 62, as quoted by Cameron, American Samurai:  Myth, Imagination, And The Conduct Of Battle In The First Marine Division, 1941-1951 (Cambridge, England:  Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98. 
  19. Agawa Hiroyuki, The Reluctant Admiral:  Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy  (New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1979), 312 and 314-315.  For a balanced critique of battles such as Midway and the Japanese defeat because of a gap between planning and operations rather than race and culture, see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” U.S. Naval War College lecture, 20 January 2011. 
  20. In May 1993, Dr. Raymond O’Connor, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Miami, told this author that Japanese naval officers using cultural arguments to explain their defeat was “endemic”.  O’Connor’s observations were based on numerous conversations he had had with his California neighbor, retired Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, who had been the Combat Intelligence Officer on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT) immediately before and during most of the Pacific War.  Layton had been involved in interrogating Japanese naval officers after the September 1945 surrender, and he told O’Connor that this phenomenon had been a widespread occurrence; conversation between Dr. O’Connor and the author, 60th Annual Conference of the Society for Military History, Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, Ontario, May 21, 1993.  While General Robert E. Lee did employ similar types of fatalism to denote Confederate victories and defeats in the American Civil War, this author would suggest that perhaps Lee’s nineteenth century context should be taken into account in any analytical comparison to twentieth century military officers; see Thomas Buell, The Warrior Generals:  Combat Leadership in the Civil War (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1997), 49, 80, 98, 131, 210, and 233. 
  21. Conversation between the author and Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi, World War II in the Pacific Conference, U.S. Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., August 10, 1994. 
  22. See Cameron, American Samurai, 10, 34, and 249. 
  23. See Captain Hara Tameichi, Japanese Destroyer Captain (New York:  Ballantine Books, 1961), 1-25, 58, and 61. 
  24. The Decisive Battle Doctrine was a strategy which was based on the battleship strength of the IJN.  The role of battleships in the victories over China and Russia in 1894-1895 and 1904-1905, respectively, produced a nearly unshakeable confidence among many Japanese naval officers in the ability of battleships to destroy the American Pacific Fleet if it ever attempted to interfere in Japan’s sphere of influence on the East Asian mainland.  The strategy evolved, however, through a number of revisions, and Admiral Hirama argues that the centrality of the battleship gave way to an emphasis on carrier and submarine forces by the 1930s.  Nevertheless, battleship operations continued to remain a major focus until the Pacific War and the Doctrine continued to envision the US Pacific Fleet advancing from Hawaii, being reduced by air and submarine forces along the route to Japan, and then being decisively engaged near Micronesia by the main battleship fleet.  For the development of the Decisive Battle Doctrine, see Mark R. Peattie, “Akiyama Saneyuki and the Emergence of Modern Japanese Naval Doctrine,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 103 (January 1977):  60-69; Peattie and David C. Evans, “Sato Tetsutaro and Japanese Strategy,” Naval History 4 (Fall 1990):  34-39; and Carlos R. Rivera, “Akiyama Saneyuki and Sato Tetsutaro:  Preparing for Imperial Navy for the Hypothetical Enemy, 1906-1916,” paper presented at the 29th Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference, St. Paul, Minnesota, September 28-October 1, 1994.  For changes in the Decisive Battle Doctrine as new technology was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, see Rear Admiral Hirama Yoichi, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (Retired), “Japanese Naval Preparations for World War Two,” Naval War College Review 44 (Spring 1991):  63-81. For more recent work in this area, see David Evans and Mark Peattie, Kaigun:  Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1997); Mark Peattie, Sunburst:  The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941 (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2001); and Asada Sadao, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor:  The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 2006). 
  25. See Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, 11-17, 117, 118, 120-121, 134-157, and 157-176.  Western observers in the 1930s and 1940s believed that Japanese tactics were inflexible because of “national characteristics,” especially a predilection to “short tempers” in stressful combat situations.  Hara, however, sees a bureaucratic, rather than a cultural, reason for this phenomenon and believed this bureaucratic inertia could infect and negate the efficiency of any naval organization.  So does Admiral Koda; see Koda, “Doctrine and Strategy of IJN,” U.S. Naval War College, 20 January 2011.  For the Western literature, see Dower, War Without Mercy, passim. 
  26. See Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain, 3. 
  27. Asada Sadao, “The Japanese Navy and the United States,” in Dorothy Borg and Okamoto Shumpei, eds., Pearl Harbor as History:  Japanese-American Relations, 1931-1941  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 225-259; see also Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor, 287-296, especially for the perspective that much of IJN strategic thought was a response to bureaucratic rivalry with the IJA, not really an orientation to fight the United States Navy. 
  28. See Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 69-71; see also Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword, 3-18 and 60-114. 
  29. See Asada, “The Japanese Navy and the United States,” passim. 
  30. General Genda Minoru, Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (Retired), “Tactical Planning In The Imperial Japanese Navy,” Naval War College Review 22 (October 1969):  45-50. 
  31. Ibid. 
  32. See Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 63-81. 
  33. Ibid., 64-67. 
  34. These consisted of a series of “Replenishment Plans,” or programs designed to build up the submarine and air strength of the IJN in the late 1930s.  For example, larger submarines for ocean cruising were developed, as were submarine command and control vessels to ensure tactical control over large submarine flotillas operating at long distances in the central and eastern Pacific.  In addition, the famous Zero fighter and the Betty land-based torpedo bomber were developed at this time and the strength of the naval air force grew from 7.5 air groups and 120 aircraft in 1931 to over 3300 aircraft and ten aircraft carriers in 1941; see Hirama, “Japanese Naval Preparations,” 70. 
  35. Ibid., 67-71 and 73-74. 
  36. Ibid., 78-79. 
  37. Captain Akihiko Yoshida, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (Retired), “The Disorderly Air Assault on Battleship Row,” paper delivered at the Tenth Annual Symposium on Naval History, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, September 13, 1991, 1-4.  For a more recent and even more critical, though probably overdone, critique of the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, see Alan Zimm, Attack on Pearl Harbor:  Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions(Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:  Casemate Publishers, 2011). 
  38. Ibid. 
  39. Ibid., 3. 
  40. Ibid., 3-4. 

Featured Image: Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier Amagi capsized after U.S. navy air raid, Kure, Japan, 1946.