At Dawn We Slept
Americans are not a particularly bellicose or history-conscious people, but a few heroic phrases from the past are indelibly etched in the national memory. To this day an American can hold his fire ’til he sees the whites of their eyes, refuse to give up the ship, and damn the torpedoes. Americans also remember the Alamo, the Maine, and, most recently, Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941—the year of the snake in the oriental calendar—has become the most infamous date in our national history.
The aggressors of that day were representatives of a remarkable nation. Determined to avoid the humbling colonial occupations endured by its Asian neighbors, Japan had in less than a century quite deliberately pulled itself out of medieval isolation to become—industrially and militarily—a Western-style nation. That almost unparalleled act of national self-assertion earned for Japan prosperity and security, as well as the grudging respect of the Western world.
Another people might well have relaxed in pride at that point. Not the Japanese. Belligerent militarism put them “on the march” in the 1930’s, seeking their “legitimate place in the sun.” Their leaders produced a grand design, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, founded on Japan’s conquest, annexation, and economic exploitation of China, Manchuria, Indochina, the East Indies, Malaya, the Philippines, and much of Oceania. No modest proposal, that!
All this—except the Philippine aspect—seemed to have little direct bearing on the distant United States. Why, then, did Japan attack that colossus? Because the Roosevelt Administration would not, could not bless such broad-spectrum, naked aggression, would never accept Japan’s proposed division of the Pacific at Midway, and refused to abandon its Chinese clients. More specifically, why did Japan strike at Pearl Harbor? It was necessary to the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japanese militarists doted on complex and chancy plans. In 1941 they proposed to finish simultaneously the conquest of the stubborn Chinese, cripple the United States’ Pacific Fleet for six months, and conquer Southeast Asia through a long anticipated “Southern Operation.” After consolidating their gains, the Imperial Japanese Navy would find and destroy the entire United States Navy in a “Great All-Out Battle” somewhere in the Western Pacific. Finally, they would negotiate a peace with a tottering United States granting them permanent hegemony over their new domains.
Part one was a runaway success. The attack on Pearl Harbor was brilliant, suffering only insignificant losses, and the Southern Operation proceeded without major American intervention for a half year. Then it all fell apart, and the magnitude of Japan’s well-nigh incredible tactical and strategic idiocy and its mind-boggling psychological miscalculation of the United States became disastrously apparent.
Pearl Harbor, then, was to be the means to a great Japanese end, one later achieved by transistors and Toyotas after the failure of bayonets and bombs. In 1982 Pearl Harbor was a backwater: Japan was engulfing Detroit.
Could American concessions have avoided war with Japan? Huge ones, perhaps: a total eastward recession beyond Midway and acceptance of Japanese domination of the Western Pacific Basin.
The Pearl Harbor raid originated in Japan’s naval high command, surely the least provincial of that nation’s warriors, and specifically in the mind of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. In 1941 he was Japan’s most dedicated servant, a chesty old sea dog and naval politician who had once lived in America, studied at Harvard, and apparently understood Americans. A born gambler, Yamamoto preferred peace, but, acceding to the inevitability of war, made ready for it. His central task in 1941 was to purchase six months immunity from American attack for the Southern Operation. The destruction of battle-ship row at Pearl Harbor, he reasoned, would achieve that goal.
The brains of the raid, its “God of Plans,” was the air staff officer of the First Air Fleet and easily the most fascinating individual in Gordon Prange’s entire account, Commander Minoru Genda. In the 1930’s he had been the daredevil leader of “Genda’s Flying Circus,” a precision aerobatics team. He was Japan’s assistant naval attaché in London during the Battle of Britain. Prange calls him the “Billy Mitchell of Japan”; he was, quite simply, a tactical genius.
Yamamoto possessed an incisive but traditional mind. He dearly loved his “Chinese Wall” of super battleships (Musashi, Mutsu, and Yamato). He dispatched a heavily escorted carrier fleet to destroy his enemies’ battleships, to cripple him physically and psychologically—as it later crippled Yamamoto. Since the mid-1930’s, however, “Gendaism” had, with some success, insisted upon either scrapping the battleships or converting them into aircraft carriers. No man more clearly saw the future of naval warfare in 1941 than Minoru Genda. Yet he was compelled to create the world’s first carrier strike force in order to destroy the weapons of the last war.
Planning for the preemptive strike began in the spring of 1940 and eventually involved hundreds in both army and navy circles. The secret inevitably spread, and United States Ambassador Joseph Grew quickly added it to his list of information leaks. After all, “attacks” on Pearl Harbor had been frequent elements in war games and map exercises since the 1920’s. The Japanese plan was ready by mid-1941 and followed well-tested naval principles. The attack would be unannounced, on a weekend, and in the early morning. The fleet would be prepared to fight its way if detected. “Kamikaze” style tactics would be used by the pilots if necessary. The raid should have preceded an invasion and occupation of the Hawaiian Islands, but this idea was eventually rejected by Yamamoto as being in excess of his needs. He sought only a quick knockdown, not a prolonged fight.
What of the American side in this drama? Among the military, war was considered both inevitable and near. Many of those who had studied the Japanese agreed that they would strike without warning, but where? Conventional wisdom agreed that Japan would invade Southeast Asia and the Philippines, and possibly Guam or Midway, but would not attack Pearl Harbor. Too far, too risky, too strong, not Pearl. Japan could never move south and east simultaneously, in attack strength. Yet the notion of a Japanese attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor was common among senior commanders. General George C. Marshall’s words to Walter C. Short, his commanding general at Pearl Harbor, warned him of that possibility and cautioned him to maintain constant air patrols and to carry out “other measures as you deem necessary. . . .” Admiral Husband E. Kimmel also received abundant war warnings. In fact, few commanders ever received more frequent or clearer instructions preceding a war than Short and Kimmel.
Thus in the broad sense, Washington was blameless, but there is one possible specific exception: “Magic.” Magic was a remarkable machine that allowed Washington to read Japan’s broadcast codes. After D-Day and the atomic bomb, it was the greatest secret of the war, so valuable that...
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