Historian Re-examines the Pacific Theater in WWIIWILLIAMSTOWN - In his book "Japanese Military Strategy in the Pacific War: Was Defeat Inevitable?" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) historian James Wood challenges the conventional wisdom that Japan's defeat in the Pacific was historically inevitable.
Although the economics of the war in the Pacific were squarely in America's favor, even so, Wood argues, "the defeat of Japan took such a long, arduous, and uncertain road [raising] fundamental questions about the possibility of alternative outcomes and [suggesting] that the ... end date of the Pacific War may have been more malleable and changeable than usually thought.
"Most counterfactual military histories tend to focus on individual episodes and to rely on dramatic reversals of fortune."
In contrast, his book traces the active strategic imperatives that Japan focused on and contrasts them with those Japan could have chosen. Often, Wood argues, it was not so much a decision of one strategy over the other but of a poor allocation of attention.
The book argues that the Japanese army and navy had both the opportunity and the capability to have fought a different and more successful war and Wood outlines 10 key factors that might have led to any number of alternate outcomes for the Japanese-American showdown in the Pacific.
For example, avoiding the so-called "Victory Disease" - brought on by initial successes - might have encouraged a more cautious, defense-minded Japanese strategy. Protection of Japanese merchant shipping and industrial centers from Allied attacks would have seriously altered the late-stage Japanese war-fighting capability in the event of an Allied invasion of the Home Islands. And a more tactical mindset, forcing "more Okinawa-type battles on the enemy," would have seriously demoralized and slowed the U.S. war effort.
In contrast, Wood argues, "Midway, New Guinea and Guadalcanal were the wrong battles fought at the wrong places at the wrong times."
Though they never posed a mortal threat to the United States, Wood reminds the reader, the Japanese nonetheless could have fought a very different, and from their vantage point, much more successful campaign in the Pacific.
"This impressive counterfactual analysis demonstrates that the course of the Pacific War was not set in stone," writes Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. "Wood demonstrates, through careful analysis of alternatives actually discussed by Japan's leaders, that the decision to go to war was not an exercise in national suicide. Instead, specific choices closed a window of opportunity for Japan to have bought more time and might well have altered fundamentally the war's conclusion."
James Wood is the Charles R. Keller Professor of American History at Williams College. He received his bachelor's degree from Eckerd College in 1968 and his doctorate from Emory University in 1973.
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