Honorable Fools: The Imperial Navy's Incomparably Stupid Plan for Pearl Harbor

“We had about 4.5 million barrels of oil out there and all of it was vulnerable to .50-caliber bullets. Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, it would have prolonged the war another two years.” — Admiral Chester Nimitz

Seventy-five years ago today, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched the most suicidal naval attack in modern history. It was strategically suicidal. It was also tactically suicidal. The fleet’s commander, Admiral Nagumo, announced that it had been a great success, turned the fleet around, and sailed back to Japan. Six months later, the fleet’s four largest carriers were sunk at Midway, including Nagumo’s Akagi.


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There were six crucial targets at Pearl Harbor: the fighter planes that had been conveniently lined up along the runways by General Short, who somehow feared sabotage from a ground attack; the oil storage tanks; the two oil tankers; the dry docks repair facility; the electrical power system; and the basement-based cryptography center. The Japanese knew about all except the last. They targeted only the planes and fighting ships.

Then there were the three aircraft carriers that operated out of Pearl Harbor: the Lexington, the Saratoga, and the Enterprise. They were not at Pearl Harbor that day. Tough luck for Japan, yet not strategically crucial. Only the Enterprise was among the three carriers that sank all four Japanese carriers at Midway.

Admiral Yamamoto also sent two carriers to the Aleutians in early June. There, a pilot crashed his Zero into the mud. He was killed, but his plane was intact. Americans found it in mid-July, brought it stateside, repaired it, and flew it. This way, American fighter plane designers learned of its weaknesses. By 1943, the Zero was at a disadvantage. Japan never came up with significant improvements in design.

If the Japanese Navy in 1941 had sent only two carriers, and had instructed the pilots to attack only the oil storage tanks, the two oil tankers, and the dry dock, the Japanese Navy would have had at least two years of smooth sailing. But then it would have been sunk. American mass production would have accomplished this, especially if Hitler had not declared war on the U.S. on December 11. That act completed Hitler’s trifecta of military stupidity: letting the British Army escape at Dunkirk in May/June 1940; invading the USSR on June 22, 1941; and declaring war on the United States — needlessly, since the Axis pact had been defensive only. Japan had started the war.

What was militarily crucial after December 7 was the fact that the U.S. Navy’s HYPO cryptography unit in the basement soon cracked the Japanese JN-25 naval code by using IBM punch card tabulating machines. They knew where and when the Japanese naval attack at Midway would begin: June 4, 1942. Admiral Spruance provided Admiral Nagumo with a memorable lesson in surprise tactics. The Japanese government never informed the Japanese of this crippling defeat during the war. They did not tell Tojo for a month.

Things don’t always work out the way military central planners expect.

Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor sank four battleships and damaged four others. All but two of the eight battleships were back in service within a few months. All eight were old. Even new battleships were obsolete strategically as primary warships by 1941. Aircraft carriers were the heart of a modern navy by then. Japanese planes also sank or damaged 13 other support ships, which counted for nothing strategically.

What we are rarely told is that there were a hundred ships, not counting the carriers, at Pearl Harbor that day. So, the 353 Japanese planes failed to damage 79 ships out of 100.

‘Twas a famous victory.

The entire operation had been premised on a strategy. This strategy rested on two assumptions. First, the United States would not be able to attack Japan for two years after Pearl Harbor. If the planes had taken out the oil storage tanks, this strategy of delaying America’s response might have worked. Second, the Japanese military strategists believed that they could negotiate with the United States from a position of strength, which the government of the USA would recognize as a good reason to sign a peace treaty with the nation that had attacked its Navy on a Sunday morning. Three words describe this assumption: blind beyond belief.


How could the military strategists in Japan have been so blind? Because they thought that military conquest is economically efficient, whereas trade is for civilian sissies.

Japanese military leaders were building a military empire. They were using military power in China to set up the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” They had invaded French (Vichy) Indo-China the previous September. Then, on July 26, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt unilaterally froze all Japanese assets in American banks. A week layer, he unilaterally forbade oil exports to Japan, an embargo that he coordinated with Britain and the Dutch East indies. Japan instantly lost 90% of its oil supplies. The ultimatum was clear: back out of China and Indo-China or get no oil. The Japanese military controlled the government. It would not back off. So, it decided to go to war with the United States.

The main problem with military planners is they are central planners. They think through their plans from the top down. They assume that they can coordinate the intricate complexity of life. They face this inescapable problem: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry definition. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it.” Then, once they have dragged the nation into war, they must finance it. They must plan to run a war from a top-down military command, but they must tax the market to pay for the war. As Hayek showed in his 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” no central planning committee has sufficient knowledge to plan the entire economy. Only individuals in a free market possess this kind of detailed local knowledge. The price system provides individual decision-makers with the information they need to allocate resources rationally, i.e., in terms of customer demand. In short, central planners are blind. They are also arrogant. They think they have the ability to coordinate all aspects of production. Military central planners are the blindest central planners of all. They have guns. They shoot people who resist on both sides of the battle lines. Yet they can barely figure out how to coordinate a single battle plan.

A German diplomat stationed in Washington in April 1941 told his government that the Americans had cracked Japan’s diplomatic code. This information was forwarded to Japan. The military did not believe this. They retained the code. The best-laid plans. . . .

The military delivered the final declaration of war — Part 14 — to the Foreign Office in Tokyo without accounting for the time required for the bureaucrats in the Japanese embassy in Washington to translate all 14 parts and deliver the declaration by 1 p.m. on Sunday to the Americans. First, it was not a formal declaration of war. Japanese culture does not allow the use of direct confrontational language. Confrontations must be concealed by verbal fog. Second, the attack began before the note was delivered. It was a sneak attack. It was regarded as such by Americans. One word took over in the thinking of Americans: revenge. This culminated with atomic bombs. The best-laid plans. . . .

The Pearl Harbor attack may be the finest example of central planning blindness in modern history. The Navy’s planners ignored American naval logistics altogether: oil, electrical power, and ship repair facilities. These were not regarded as relevant tactically or strategically. Attacking these logistical support would not enhance military honor. They were not examples of warriors battling warriors. They were not matters of life-and-death confrontation in battle, which was basic to the Japanese military: the code of honor. Honor in combat was everything for the Japanese military planners. This outlook produced fanatical warriors and really stupid planners.

The planners were blinded by their military traditions. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).

They also did not figure out that American submarines could sink merchant ships and oil tankers used to supply the Japanese Navy. So, by late 1942, the Japanese Navy was fighting a defensive war. They could barely protect their interior lines. Here is one assessment.

The Battle of the Marus (term used to describe merchantmen) turned out to be a long, drawn out confrontation between American submarines and Japanese ships between the Southern Zone and the Home Lands. Having cracked Japanese codes, American submarines could easily detect convoy positions, and by 1944, the sinking rate outran new tanker construction rate. Of Japan’s total wartime steel merchant shipping, about 86% was sunk, while another 9% was seriously damaged — oil tankers were also a favorite target. The submariners, less than 2% of US naval personnel, were responsible for 55% of Japan’s total loss.

This did not enter into pre-war Japanese strategic planning.

Japan’s blind men bluffed. They thought they could do to the United States what they were doing to the Chinese. Yet even here, they were short-sighted. This was a familiar though possibly apocryphal story in World War II.

The American military brass was concerned about Chinese casualties, and met with Chinese military leaders during the war about it. The top ranking American officer asked his Chinese counterpart, “Do you realize you’re losing 100 men for every Japanese soldier you kill? Do you know what that means?” The Chinese officer replied, “Yes, pretty soon, no more Japanese.”

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