June 09, 2011

Misunderstanding Midway

Down in the comments section of the post "The Reason for Midway", there's a sight to warm the heart of any blogger: an energetic argument discussion.  Longtime readers CXT and Avatar are doing a fine job of carrying the flag of disagreement with Bob, I wanted to pay closer attention to something he said at the very beginning of his comments.  To whit:

"These discussions are interesting but so narrow as to be misleading.  The entire Midway exercise didn't matter, regardless of outcome."

It will come as no surprise to readers of The Pond that I vehemently disagree with this statement.  To be honest, in one way I do agree with Bob in that Japan had no chance of winning an overall military victory against the forces of the United States, Britain, Australia and the Dutch.  However, that does not mean that Midway didn't matter, any more than it means that Guadalcanal/the Solomon Islands, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, or even Attu and Kiska, didn't matter.

Once the first A6M2s, D3A1s and B5N2s lifted off from the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku on their way to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, sterile discussions over such concepts that Bob mooted became academic: win or lose, the die was cast and everything mattered.  Only in hindsight can we say "it was pointless and the Pacific War shouldn't have been started".  The fact of the matter is that it did start, men did fight, and it did matter... every bullet fired, every torpedo launched, every bomb dropped, every grenade thrown, mattered.

It mattered to 3400 men at Midway.  29000 men at Iwo Jima.  38000 men at Guadalcanal.  7000 men in the Aleutians.  12000 at Peleliu.  And hundreds of thousands more at dozens of other locations across the Pacific.

To suggest that these battles "didn't matter", no matter how large the stack of scholarship one may bring to the table, is ridiculous and insulting to those who participated and survived, those who were there and were injured, and to those who fought and died on both sides.  Don't take my word for it, however... walk up to a Pacific War veteran and tell him his actions didn't matter.  Just let me know where and when you intend to do it, so I can bring popcorn.

Regarding the first part of Bob's statement, it seems clear that he doesn't read The Pond overmuch.  Very nearly by definition, I blog about "the narrow", because that's where my interests lie.  Sure, I could write about the geopolitical situation surrounding the beginning of WWII in the Pacific, but I'd hate every moment of it.  I'm an amateur historian of the military actions of the Pacific War, with an emphasis on naval battles, and a particular emphasis on the Battle of Midway, because that's what I like... and I write about what I like.  I won't apologize for being "too narrow" for someone's taste.

Particularly when it "doesn't matter".

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:31 PM | Comments (9) | Add Comment
Post contains 495 words, total size 4 kb.


I'll try again.

"...that does not mean that Midway didn't matter, any more than it means that Guadalcanal/the Solomon Islands, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, or even Attu and Kiska, didn't matter...."  Of course it mattered.  But I believe the people in the steel mills in the upper mid west, the Manhattan project folks in TN & NM, the bomber assembly workers in KS & GA, etc also mattered and that the collective efforts of the home front meant more to the wars outcome than the clearly heroic efforts of the military at the 'tip of the sword'.

What would have happened if the USA lost at Midway?  Lost the Hawaiian Islands?  Lost Australia?  

There might have even been fewer front line military deaths!  I don't know.  But I do believe that any rational analysis would show a defeated Japan before 1950.  Maybe even before 1946.

There is no likely case for getting Japan past Hawaii.  Existing submarine forces and the long supply line would have stopped the Japanese for years at Hawaii.  With Japanese actions on so many fronts, they didn't have the ability to project to our west coast.  In the absolute worst case, the America of 1944 would have looked about the same.  More carrier fleets than Japan, more submarines and so many long range bombers that the sky would still go dark when they were overhead.  Can you imagine a carrier fleet being attacked by B-29's (who were protected by P51's)?  And in the worst case, how many nukes would it take to eliminate the Japanese Navy in 1946/7?  Would our 700 (worst case) nuke inventory in 1950 been enough?  The method and path of winning was not known, that we would win was.

It is NOT any lack of scholarship OR disrespect for the efforts of the those on the front line in the Pacific.  Both of my parents are buried in Arlington and my father-in-law spent WWII on a destroyer in the Pacific (a high risk place to be).  It is a simple statement of fact that was known THEN as well as now.  The troops in the Pacific got the best gear last and the old stuff first.  Most of the military and most of the equipment went to Europe.  So did a lot of the Navy.  Our government knew then that Japan was going to lose.  That's why we 'starved' the Pacific war.  Germany was felt to be a much closer case.  It wasn't 'hindsight' or 'academic', it was the thinking of the 1941 American government/industrial complex.

The only real issue is the one that says the Japanese had to do this and made a reasonable gamble that an aggressive push against the US early would get the US out of the war.  A long war against a determined, violent Japan would discourage the US and cause them to sue for peace.  History has made it very and unambiguously clear that by 1941 the American government/industrial complex was already gearing up for the long war and was looking full time for a way to get into a war with Germany.  The only questions that are relevant are [1] Did Japan really have to go to war with the USA and [2] if they did, would bold, aggressive early actions get the USA to sue for peace?

So I'm left with my same three conclusions:

[1]  Really bad staff work by the Japanese military planners combined with a toxic command structure 'forced' Japan to conclusions that were not based on an understanding of the American people or readily available information about the war 'capacity' of the USA..

[2]  A Japanese 'peace at any price' policy might have worked but a war with the USA would never have a Japan favorable outcome.

[3]  "These discussions are interesting but so narrow as to be misleading.  The entire Midway exercise didn't matter, regardless of outcome."

Wonderduck: "... I won't apologize for being "too narrow" for someone's taste..."  I came to the Pond via a thread I noticed on Steven Den Beste's site.  I noticed the 'narrowness' because there were several different entries on Midway.  I decided to comment because I thought the conclusion was wrong and that a discussion would be interesting.  Nothing wrong with being narrow.  No reason to take the geopolitical big view.  Midway was an interesting battle for so many reasons.  Midway was an excellent example of the best of our military and people.  Midway was tactically significant and strategically significant to the military progression across the Pacific.

But it was NOT strategically important to the actual outcome of the war.  I thought the discussion on this site went a little too far on the importance of the Midway battle.  I note you have not been dissuaded from your view and I haven't changed mine either.  No change was expected.  The goal was an exchange of views and that has been achieved.  For me, very enjoyable.

Regards to all.

Posted by: BobReisner at June 10, 2011 04:13 PM (/ZWI/)

2 You can't really come to that conclusion, however.

War weariness did exist. It's easy to say "there were no circumstances under which the US would have accepted anything less than total victory and unconditional surrender", but that's plainly not true from contemporaneous records. This is one of the reasons we resorted to the atomic bomb; we anticipated a tremendous number of casualties in the invasion and we were worried that the public wouldn't support the war to a final conclusion.

Midway was extraordinarily costly for Japan. They lost the majority of their carrier fleet and carrier air arm in a single operation. Change the outcome to a Japanese victory, or even an inconclusive stalemate (say, the US carriers spot the battle fleet and work them over well instead of the Japanese carrier group), and the entire course of the war could have changed.

Does that mean the Japanese could have conquered Hawaii or Australia? Probably not. But having an experienced carrier group to contest several of the initial US invasions would absolutely have raised the casualty count and slowed down the US advance.

Sure, eventually we develop nuclear weapons. But we developed and deployed them at a time where we had virtually uncontested freedom to bomb the Japanese as we liked. But what if we hadn't gotten that far yet? If we were still working our way through the Philippines, if we hadn't taken the Marinaras? Even with nukes, our strategic outlook is quite different under those circumstances.

Would we have used nukes on otherwise-valueless islands to crush the Japanese resistance? You can make the case that we'd have done better turning Iwo Jima into a pile of radioactive glass, for example. You could even see the logic in nuking places like Rabaul or Truk, bases we didn't want to take on directly but didn't really need to occupy either. We might have ended up using as many as a few dozen nuclear weapons in the end, especially if you consider the chance of interception of the bomber, etc. That's a very different post-war Pacific.

Or would we resort to a Doolittle raid, with nukes? Surely we wouldn't have had the luxury to hit only one target, and it's not likely we'd have spared Tokyo under those circumstances.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 10, 2011 07:40 PM (pWQz4)


To back what Avatar mentioned - as Richard Frank wrote in Downfall, there were people in the Administration whose job it was to monitor American sentiment and war weariness, among them Dean Acheson.  And they were detecting signs that the US public was becoming war weary by 1945.  It is a tribute to the Japanese's attack on Pearl Harbor it took that long to produce the effect, but the Administration was concerned that the Japanese strategy of 'outlasting' the US and the Allies in the Pacific War might actually had a chance of working.  Or perhaps just as bad, the Japanese would conclude it was working and thus stiffen their resistence.

Furthermore, as David Evans and Mark Peattie had pointed out in Kaigun, it was primarily because of the Japanese 'sneak attack' on Pearl Harbor that produced the psychological and motivational attitude among the American public for a total war to the finish, with the unconditional surrender of the enemy as the objective.  Had the war opened in a different fashion, perhaps by an attack on the Philippines following a formal declaration of war, it is highly unlikely that the US public would have been willing to fight for unconditional surrender - and more than likely that a large part of the American public would have called for immediate talks with the Japanese since the 'Philippines are not worth American blood!'

As for the assertion that the US government 'knew' the Japanese were going to lose - not quite.  The US government felt Germany was a more dangerous opponent than Japan and hence needed to be defeated first, but no one ever assumed either of them were eventually going to 'lose'.  We have the hindsight that says it is true - but nothing in the deliberation of both the US high command, or the debates among the Allied command suggest that until the end was in sight in either theater.

Posted by: cxt217 at June 10, 2011 08:08 PM (G3oVK)

4 Bob, you're always welcome back, but next time?  PLEASE don't compose your comments in Word. 

Now then... "I noticed the narrowness because there were several different entries on Midway."  Yes, because that's what I'm interested in.  You wouldn't criticize a NASCAR blog for not writing about French cuisine, would you?  Of course not.

As far as the strategic importance of Midway goes, well, I've said ON THIS VERY BLOG that it wasn't the most important battle of the Pacific War, Guadalcanal was.  But saying that it wasn't strategically important to the outcome of the war is just silly.  If the results had been reversed, with the US losing three carriers and the IJN zero, (as opposed to 1 and 4 in reality), there's plenty of reason to believe the war would have taken much longer to prosecute.  Japan would still have lost, but not until 1946 or 1947, and it would have taken quite a few more nukes in the process.

That's important.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 10, 2011 08:09 PM (n0k6M)

5 And fortunately I neglected to mention the fallacy that the US "knew Japan was going to lose."  CXT covered it nicely, didn't need my duplicate input at all.

There is a school of thought that a loss at Midway would have led to a postponement or outright cancellation of D-Day.  That's somewhat important... don'tcha think? 

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 10, 2011 08:17 PM (n0k6M)


There is a school of thought, both during the war and after it, that says D-Day and Normandy was an 'unnecessary' invasion - heck, the British kept pushing that idea until FDR let Stalin essentially shamed them into dropping it.  Make that what you will.

And regarding Avatar's point - B-36 bombardment groups, from Hawaii.

Posted by: cxt217 at June 10, 2011 09:09 PM (G3oVK)

7 I'm not familiar with the B-36, I'm afraid.

I'd like to endorse Downfall as well. It's the best work I've ever read on the end of the Pacific war by a long way.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at June 10, 2011 09:13 PM (pWQz4)

8 To feed off of cxt217's comment, I've been reading a lot of histories of the Eastern Front, and saying the outcome there was pre-determined is also a bit of a mistake.  A lot of the newer histories are drawing on previously-classified Soviet archives which indicate that through mid-1943 the situation was a lot more desperate than they were willing to let on, either at the time or in official Soviet post-war histories.  By the time of the battle of Berlin, the Soviets were also reaching their limits, and their operations changed from the carefully planned Bagration-style offensives to more of a frenzied 'lets just get this over with and throw everything in' final assault.

Of course Stalin wanted the Western allies engaged against Germany to draw German forces away from the front, and was disappointed in the level of support he felt he was receiving.  Even relatively minor distractions like Sicily had noticable cascading effects on German strength in the East.

Posted by: Civilis at June 10, 2011 10:22 PM (/+Ti8)

9 The B-36 Peacemaker was the first true intercontinental bomber, designed in 1941 when it was looking grim for Britain.  It didn't fly until early August 1945, however.  Roughly twice the size of a B-29, as designed it used six radial pusher engines.  Eventually it also mounted four jets along with the radials.  Good article about it here.

I'll third the support for Downfall, though there's a new book by DM Giangreco that I've heard good things about, entitled Hell To Pay.  Same topic as Frank's book, I've been wanting a copy for the past year or so...

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 10, 2011 10:32 PM (n0k6M)

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