America Lost the Pacific War

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On December 7, 1941, the naval forces of the Empire of Japan launched one of the most ill-conceived, boneheaded military ventures in history, one exceeded only by Adolph Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union the previous June. (Hitler then one-upped Japan again, four days later, when he declared war on the United States, although he was not required to by the terms of the Axis pact, since Japan had initiated the war.)

That attack led to the destruction of the empire in 1945: the utter humiliation of the military; the reversal of the nation’s centuries-long honoring of military valor; the permanent transformation of Japan’s desire to succeed by war and the adoption of a new goal, to succeed by peaceful economic competition; and the abolition of the national armed forces, which persists to this day. This laid the foundation of the greatest post-war economic recovery in history.

The attack led to a military response from the United States, which in retrospect marked the triumph of the forces favoring the creation of an American empire over a persistent tradition of a non-interventionist foreign policy. It led to a wartime increase in the federal government’s debt on a scale not seen since the Civil War. It transformed the military budget from one that can be described as a near-starvation diet in 1941 to a seventy-year bloat never seen before in man’s history. It led to the nation’s retroactive honoring of the conscripted millions who went to war as “the greatest generation.” It led to the creation of an empire that has 1,000 military and spy bases outside the territorial United States, and the creation of an aircraft carrier-based Navy that patrols the world in search of monsters to destroy, to quote John Quincey Adams.

This leads me to a controversial conclusion: Through the defeat of the Japanese military, Japan won the war in the Pacific. The United States lost it.


The military leaders of the Empire in the 1930s viewed the international economy in terms of a military-like, top-down chain of command. Japan needed raw materials. It needed oil. To secure these vital assets, the military planners designed a program of conquest. The armed forces of Japan had been in control of Korea ever since 1910. Japan invaded China in order to set up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This would be a trading empire in which Japanese arms would extract raw materials and cheap labor.

The leaders did not see the free market as the primary source of the raw materials the economy needed. They did not see the world in terms of Adam Smith’s giant auction, in which the high monetary bid usually wins. They saw it in terms of the domestic Japanese economy: a system of interrelated, family-related cartels. Even the military’s high command was parceled out in terms of families. One group of families was primarily naval. The other was tied to the army.

This view of economic growth placed the civil government at the center. The military was seen as the center of the civil government. There was no developed tradition of democratic rule, which was a Western import.

This reliance on a military mindset led to a jiu-jitsu toss by the Americans. The American central planners for domestic political reasons needed to get Japan to fire the first shot. America’s central government revoked the right of manufacturers to export machine tools, airplane parts, and aviation fuel to Japan in 1940. In 1941, America’s government further interfered with the free market and embargoed oil shipments to Japan. These were acts of provocation. They worked. The Japanese military high command took the bait.


The attack was carefully planned for almost a year in advance. The flyers were trained well. The carrier fleet was able to position itself so that its planes would arrive on Sunday morning, when the men on board ships were either recovering from hangovers, getting ready for church, or just sleeping in.

The story is well known. The scenes in Tora, Tora, Tora are etched into most American movie-goers’ minds. The attack was regarded by both sides as a tactical success: few planes lost, many ships sunk.

It was in fact a tactical disaster.

One reason for the disaster was known at the time. The carriers were not in port. The planes sank strategically obsolescent battleships and support ships.

The main reason is rarely mentioned. It got some consideration in Edwin T. Layton’s co-authored account, And I Was There (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985). Layton was at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. He spoke and read Japanese. On page 498, he tells of an informal visit in 1949 between Capt. Roger Pineau, a co-author of the book, and several high- level Japanese officers in 1941. Pineau was a Japanese-speaking naval officer assigned to work as a researcher for Samuel Eliot Morison’s definitive history of the U. S. Navy in World War II.

Layton offers this remarkable summary. Pineau asked one of the planners, Rear Admiral Sadatoshi Tomioka, what the Japanese naval planners had estimated would be the lag time between the Pearl Harbor attack and an American offensive response. Tomioka said 12 to 18 months. Pineau then asked how long it had taken for the American fleet to respond. Layton said that Tomioka did not respond immediately. He was deep in thought, as if no one had ever asked him this before. Then he said that it was the carrier-based attacks in the Marianas and Gilberts. That was in February 1942. Response time: two months.

Then Pineau showed him photographs of the attack on Ford Island. The Admiral recognized the location. Pineau then pointed to some white objects in the background. Did Tomioka know what those were? He did: fuel tanks. He asked the Admiral how many planes had been assigned to take out those tanks. The answer: none. “Only your capital ships and airfields were assigned as targets.” Pineau then explained that if the planes had taken out all of the tanks in the area, the American carriers could not have sailed out of Pearl. Pearl had to be re-supplied from California. If the Japanese Navy had Japanese placed submarines east of Oahu to sink the oil tankers, the fleet would have been immobilized for 12 to 18 months.

Tomioka sat there, stunned. So did the other staff officers. Then he responded, “Pineau-san, you should have been in the Japanese navy” (p. 499).

The planes could have taken out 4.5 million barrels of oil. They could have taken out the machine shops, where the carriers were later repaired. They didn’t.

The military planners had done what military planners do: design the confrontation to eliminate the enemy’s weapons of war. But they forgot to follow the chain of cause and effect back to the first cause. They forgot to plan for a way to cripple the source of the weapons’ power: fuel and repairs facilities.

On June 5, 1942, planes from three U. S. carriers sank all four of Japan’s largest carriers, the ones that had carried the planes to Pearl. The Americans lost one carrier. That was the battle of Midway, the greatest naval victory in American history. How was this possible? Three things: fuel, repair facilities, and IBM machines and punch cards, by which a code-breaking team cracked enough of Japan’s naval code to know when and very close to where the Japanese fleet would arrive at Midway.

Central planning has enormous weaknesses. It always leaves out crucial facts. It produces results the opposite from what the planners had planned. Pearl Harbor is a fine example.

In 1945, the Empire of Japan ended. It has never revived.


The American Empire began early, no later than the Louisiana Purchase. The annexation of Mexican territory in the war with Mexico, 1846-48, was surely an expansion of empire. But the process made a quantum leap in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in 1898. America took over the remnants of Spain’s faltering empire: Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The American suppression of the Philippine insurgents, 1898-1902, gets little or no space in the history textbooks. About 4,000 American troops died, maybe 20,000 Filipino troops, and 500,000 civilians.

Then the Empire ceased to expand much. For the next four decades, it went into a kind of consolidation phase.

World War II ended this. In the aftermath of the War, the United States signed its first mutual defense treaty, NATO (1949), the first since the abrogation in 1800 of the treaty with France of 1778. The Cold War led us into a series of wars that Congress did not bother to declare, in opposition to the Constitution.

This nation is still involved in one of these wars. The other officially ends this month with the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, at the request of the government of Iraq. We are politely being thrown out. The “cakewalk” will at long last come to an end, except for the $750 million embassy and thousands of Iraqi mercenaries who are still on the U.S. payroll.


Japan’s military government launched a sneak attack on the United States in 1941. In response, the United States military waged a successful war against Japan.

Japan’s military lost face in 1945. Representatively, the entire nation lost face. This made the nation easier to rule in the six-year occupation that followed. It changed the moral outlook of the people. It ended militarism. There are few examples to match it in history, and none on a scale this large or so rapid.

The greatest gift that America’s Occupation gave to Japan was the trio of advisors sent by Bell Laboratories to advise the Allied Command regarding the restoration of the nation’s communications system. They arrived in 1945. They stayed. One of them gave Japanese industry its first quality control manual in 1950. The statistical management promoter, W. Edwards Deming, was also in Japan at the time, but he did not have the influence of these three. They were backed by the Occupation forces. Their story is told in chapter 10 of the Hopper brothers’ crucial book on the triumph and decline of American management, The Puritan Gift (2007).

Japan has been defended militarily by the United States ever since. Defended from whom? This is not clear. What is clear is that Japan has not had to finance a military establishment ever since 1945. This freed up capital for more productive purposes.

We have paid to defend Japan since 1945. We have kept our carriers in Japanese ports. We have been the conquering empire.

The surrender of Japan on the battleship Missouri in 1945 marked the exchange of empires. Japan has never looked back.

Neither have we. A pity.

December 7, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North