Wednesday, 7 December 2016

An anniversary. With a message for today

Seventy-five years ago today, a powerful military nation made a fatal military error.

Instead of swinging northwards from its conquered territories in China and tackling the Soviet Union, then gripped by a life and death struggle against Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan chose to go South and attack the Far Eastern possessions of Holland and Britain. If it had done only that, it might have achieved its aims: its forces on both land and sea quickly overcame the British and the Dutch. But they weren’t satisfied with so much and overreached, attacking the United States too.

Had Japan taken on the Soviet Union, the world might have been a profoundly different place. The Soviets might have had to divert forces from the Western Front and weaken the fight against Hitler. The United States might have felt it impossible to join the war at that stage. The outcome might have been a great deal less favourable to the Western powers.

It didn’t happen. Admiral Yamamoto had opposed the Southern strategy but, bowing to the orders he was given, decided the only way to make a success of it was to launch an attack on the US so powerful that it would knock them out in one strike. He combined careful planning with intensive training of both naval and air forces, and finally a brilliantly executed attempt to destroy US naval power in the Pacific with a single blow against Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese embassy in Washington had trouble translating and typing its government's warning to the US, with the result that the attack occurred before the the message was delivered. That led Franklin Roosevelt to describe 7 December 1941 as a day that would “live in infamy”.

More to the point, it was an attack that looked like a victory – it wreaked huge damage on the US Pacific fleet – but it failed to deliver the knockout blow Yamamoto sought. Instead, it led to a war that would ultimately cost Japan as many as three million dead, culminating in the double atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the end of the expansionist dream of the Japanese Empire. Instead, the United States emerged as the major power in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor: it looked like a victory for Japan
but it ultimately ensured the Empire's defeat
That’s a position the US has held on to, sometimes grimly, ever since. It’s flexed its military muscle, not always with success – viz. Vietnam – but it has relied above all on its huge economic and commercial strength. The greatest challenge in recent decades has come from a new source, China. That was a threat that Obama spent a great deal of time and effort countering. Notably, he negotiated the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between twelve nations not including China.

The election of Donald Trump, however, killed the deal. He made it clear that he would drop it on his first day in office. That was a piece of news that must have been received with celebrations in Beijing: it marks a withdrawal by the US leaving the field open to China.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a triumph of wishful thinking over good sense. By overreaching, Japan ensured the victory of its enemy. Ideology led to a reckless military act that rebounded catastrophically on its perpetrator.

It’s a lesson Trump could do with learning. Governed by his ideological concerns, he too has behaved recklessly, in the commercial rather than the military field, and with a withdrawal rather than an advance, but, in all likelihood, with the same drastic effects. A decision his compatriots could well come to regret.

Especially if he persists with his apparent addiction to picking fights with China.

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