The Real Infamy Was an Unnecesary War

John Mueller

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor half a century ago is usually called a disaster or catastrophe for the United States. In a strict military sense, such words are excessive. However, the attack may have been a disaster in a broader sense because it propelled the United States heedlessly into a long, ghastly war in Asia when milder strategies might have rolled back the Japanese at lower costs to all involved.

Militarily, Pearl Harbor was more nearly an inconvenience than a catastrophe or disaster for the United States. The loss of life was considerable, but while pictures and descriptions of the attack often suggest utter devastation, the material damage was actually quite limited.

Most of the ships in the Pacific fleet, including all three aircraft carriers, were elsewhere at the time. Of the 101 ships at Pearl Harbor (many of them very old), the Japanese hit only 20 percent. Those damaged were readily available for repair and, when repair is considered, the United States suffered a complete loss of only two ships (both of which had been scheduled to declared overage in 1942). Most of the other damaged ships were repaired within a few weeks, and all of the participated in the battles that eventually brought defeat to Japan.

Many of the aircraft attacked were small or obsolescent, and fully 80 percent of those damaged could be salvaged. In addition, American industry was soon turning out huge numbers of replacements: At 1942 rates of production, all the aircraft lost at Pearl Harbor could be replaced in less than three days with ones that were generally far superior.

Moreover, the attack did not significantly delay the American military response to Japanese aggression, nor did it importantly affect the pace of the war. The United States was unprepared to take the offensive at the time in any case, and the damage at Pearl Harbor increased this unpreparedness only marginally.

The disaster on December 7 was political, not military. After suffering the loss of 2,403 people at Pearl Harbor, the United States launched itself furiously and impetuously into a war in which it lost hundreds of thousands more. The war finally forced Japan out of its imperial possessions. But the United States could probably have achieved this result through a firm, patient policy consisting of harassment and containment, economic pressure, arming to deter and to threaten, assistance to anti-Japanese combatants in other countries and perhaps limited warfare on the peripheries.

This approach worked with the Soviet Union after the war, and the Japanese were an even more auspicious target for such a strategy after Pearl Harbor. They were already bogged down in a war in China that had begun in 1937, and they initiated their attacks in 1941 in desperation and on a shoestring. Their advances in Asia after Pearl Harbor hardly resolved their problems. The Chinese continued to fight, and the Japanese now controlled a vulnerable empire filled with resentful peoples that was even larger and more unwieldy than before. And because of the loss of foreign merchant shipping, Japan's resources actually declined.

Substantial misgivings about the enervating expansionary policy were being felt even before Pearl Harbor by some top Japanese leaders and by the emperor. In time these critics might well have been able to dismember the imperial policy.

Given what we know now, was the gruesome Pacific War worth it? The United States gained a strong democratic ally in the new Japan, but to achieve this it was necessary to depopulate that country by about two million souls. Moreover, there had long been a substantial impetus toward liberalism in Japan, and in calmer times this might well have revived, as eventually it revived in Russia.

The war liberated most of East Asia from Japanese rule only to deliver it into decades of bloody civil and international war. And it saved China for the Communists -- who were even more murderous than the Japanese. In its first three years alone, the Communist regime executed about two million people, and then it created a famine that claimed another 30 million.

If the point was to force Japan to retreat from its empire and to encourage it to return to more liberal ways, a policy of cold war could well have had the same result, eventually, at far lower cost. If the point was to prevent further horrors and somehow to bring peace, justice, freedom and stability to Asia, the war was a substantial failure. In that sense, Pearl Harbor, which thrust the United States into that terrible war, was indeed a disaster.

About the Author

John Mueller is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and the author of Retreat From Doomsday (Basic Books, 1989).

From The Journal of Historical Review, Nov./Dec. 1997 (Vol 16, No. 6), page 7. This essay, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6, 1991, is adapted from an article in International Security journal.