Sixty-Five Years On: Plans and Strategy to Defeat Japan in World War II

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Sixty-five years ago, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II in the Pacific. However, before August 1945, and actually well before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States and its allies had devised a potential strategic framework for Japan's defeat. These plans, of course, did not include the atomic bomb. Indeed, while Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces (AAF) had been informed of the bomb's development in the summer of 1943, most other high-ranking officials, including the Vice President of the United States and the U.S. Congress, knew nothing of its development or existence.

This essay will emphasize American grand strategy--strategy at the highest level of decision making, as opposed to campaigns or field operations. A reflective view of World War II seems appropriate also not only because of its great inherent commemorative value, but because with each passing day the memory of the war fades and the number of World War II veterans steadily dwindles.

War between the United States and Japan had been predicted at the start of the twentieth century. One of the earliest and most prescient assessments of the U.S. position in the Pacific was delivered by Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell following his 1923-1924 inspection trip to the Far East and the Pacific. Convinced that war between Japan and the United States was inevitable, Mitchell concentrated on Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam. In his inspection report on Hawaii, Mitchell emphasized that the territory absolutely needed to be considered as one establishment, under a single commander, in order to mount an effective defense. He recommended stationing more aircraft on the islands to counter a potential Japanese threat. Air attacks could be expected, perhaps employing aerial torpedoes. (1) Jumping ahead a decade and a half, in early 1941, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox warned in a secret letter to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, that Japan had conducted tests with aerial torpedo planes and that it was possible that this type of aircraft could be used to attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (2)

And thus, despite Mitchell's entreaties over many years on the role of aviation in the Pacific and the importance of air base defense of which he was considered especially competent, his concepts had little or no effect on U.S. military policy.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, the Army had framed a series of "color" plans that were in reality military plans designed to defeat various countries. The code color Orange was designed for Japan. The Orange plan conceived a major conflict with Japan, primarily naval, although a significant Army mobilization would be required. The Orange plan outlined a general strategy and missions to be accomplished. Truth be told, they were more or less abstract exercises in military planning and bore little resemblance to hard core military planning.

By the immediate pre-Pearl Harbor period, U.S. war planning had changed significantly. The "color" plans had generally become obsolete, being superseded by the "Rainbow" plans, especially Rainbow 5, that considered specifically Japanese, German, and Italian aggression. Actually a staff study, Rainbow 5, gave the War Department a framework for policy and strategy. (3)

It was quite "remarkable," as Army historian Kent Roberts Greenfield put it, that the United States went along with the British strategy--that Germany had to be dealt with first and that Europe was the decisive theater. This position was ratified in the Anglo-American ABC-1 discussions in January-March 1941, well before the United States entered the war. Subsequently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally articulated the U.S. position on May 6, 1942, emphasizing the allied strategy of a holding operation in the Pacific. (4)

Prior to considering the major strategic decision making of the U. …