What If-Japan's Pacific Strategy Revisited

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What If-Japan's Pacific Strategy Revisited Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War: Was Defeat Inevitable? James B. Wood. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 141 pages; maps; diagrams; index; $24.95 paper, $69 cloth.

Could Japan have won World War II in the Pacific or, falling that, at least have gained a negotiated peace awarding it most of its basic objectives? If Japan had fought a different type of war, could it have avoided the complete destruction it suffered during the course of that bitter conflict and emerged from it with significant rewards? These are the questions James B. Wood addresses in this stimulating and informative litile book. He comes up with some rather compelling answers.

Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War is one of a growing number of so-called counterfactual or what-if books and essays offering alternative views of World War II and other historical events. Some of these fall by the wayside because they are based on questionable or implausible premises. Yet Wood, a distinguished historian, avoids such pitfalls. His carefully constructed arguments stem from a wide reading and understanding of the war's historic literature, and his suggested alternative courses of Japanese actions are entirely credible.

The strategy with which Japan started the war was based on its need for oil, rubber and other natural resources required to pursue its ongoing conflict with China in the face of Western embargoes. The strategy aimed at a quick conquest of resource-rich Southeast Asia and the Netherlands East Indies, the establishment of an impregnable defense zone enclosing the captured territories and the bloody defeat of all Allied counteroffensives that sought to penetrate this zone. Eventually, the Japanese believed, their enemies would be unable to continue their costly, punishing efforts and would agree to end the war on terms favorable to Japan's ambitions. Wood argues that, given the international situation and the strangling Western embargoes, this was a reasonable strategy and a propitious time to execute it. Thus Japan had no other choice but to go to war.

Yet there were possible alternatives. By withdrawing from China, Japan could have ended the embargoes completely and freed its financial assets frozen in the West. This would doubtless have caused tremendous turmoil at home, but the result would have been much less costly than the major war on which Japan was about to embark. Or Japan could simply have pulled its forces out of southern Indochina, signaling that it no longer intended to push farther south. This would at least have brought a lifting of the oil embargo; other resource concessions might then have been negotiated.

A third, more risky alternative would have been to ignore British and American territories in the Far East and strike directly at the Indies. This would have left Japanese lines of communication to the south vulnerable to air and naval interdiction from the Philippines and Malaya. Yet Britain was fighting for its life in Europe and North Africa, while the United States was focusing on supporting Britain and the Soviet Union and was still restricted by strong antiwar public opinion. Neither the British nor Americans were in a position to declare war on Japan.

All of this notwithstanding, Japan did go to war with the West and carry out the first phase of its basic plan. It worked surprisingly well. Within three months, Japanese forces had overrun their target area and established a great strategic defensive line from Japan's home islands south through the central Pacific to the Bismarck Archipelago and then west to Burma. Within this huge perimeter lay all the natural resources that Japan required and the vital internal lines of communication of the new empire.

This remarkable success, however, led Japanese military leaders to abandon their original strategy. Instead of consolidating their hold on what they had won and strengthening their defenses against the expected Allied counteroffensive, Japanese forces surged forward in search of further conquests. …