Friday, September 12, 2014

Pearl Harbor, once more

Since I occasionally make cryptic, sniping remarks about Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, I should make clear that there are at least a few things in the book that I find  illuminating. One of them is his discussion of the situation that Japan faced in 1941. (Btw, the prompt for this post is a discussion about Pearl Harbor on an LGM thread that started off being about the Russo-Japanese war.)

He notes that in mid-1941 the U.S. applied a "full-scale embargo" against Japan, "emphasizing...that it could avoid economic strangulation only by abandoning China, Indochina, and maybe Manchuria." (p.223) The U.S. was determined that Japan should not dominate Asia or be in a position to strike the USSR, then on the ropes against Hitler's invasion. This left Japan with two bad, from its perspective, choices: "cave in to American pressure and accept a significant diminution of its power, or go to war against the United States, even though an American victory was widely agreed to be the likely outcome." (ibid.) The Japanese chose the latter course, he goes on to say, as the less bad of two very bad alternatives. That does not mean the decision was irrational, though it was an extremely "risky gamble" (ibid., 224).

Where I would part company (or so I assume) with Mearsheimer is in seeing the entire Japanese militarist-imperialist enterprise as irrational -- and also immoral and criminal -- from the outset. However, given that Japan's leaders at the time were committed to that enterprise and given the particular circumstances that they faced, their decision to go to war with the U.S. was not 'irrational'. Whether the specific decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a mistake is really a secondary question; the more basic question has to do with the decision to launch war against the U.S.

ETA: And it's the more basic questions that tend to get shunted aside or overlooked when discussions focus narrowly on specific strategic decisions.

2nd update: Googling "sagan origins of the pacific war" brings up results, including Scott Sagan's 1988 article that M. cites (although my browser didn't like the pdf) and a 2010 paper at by a UCLA grad student ("Revisiting the Origins of the Pacific War") that appears, on a quick glance, to take M.'s view, more or less. (But I've already conceded in the comments that TBA could be right.)

3rd update: For a somewhat different take on this, see John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday (1989), pp.229-30.


Anonymous said...

As I suggested at LGM, Mearsheimer poses a false dichotomy. Japan needed oil to support its endeavors, which was why it struck at theDutch East Indies, etc. It did not have to attack the USA, which was isolationist and would not have defended the colonies. Wiser to seize resources, build up its forces, and hope the US would be distracted by Germany. Dragging an enraged US into war in 1941 was perhaps the worst thing Japan cd have done.

rea said...

I'm not sure I agree, tba. Roosevelt had pretty much committed the US with Britain and the Netherlands to mutual defense against Japan--that's how he got them to go along with the oil embargo.

LFC said...

I think this is the
first time you've commented here. Thanks!

I guess where one comes down on this partly depends on how severe an impact one thinks the U.S. embargo (which went beyond oil to freezing of assets etc.) was having. M. thinks it was severe enough to "wreck" the Japanese economy. (I don't know.) He doesn't specifically
mention the Dutch E. Indies.

His discussion is in the service of a larger argument about what constitutes "irrational decision-making." He maintains that Japan's decision to attack was not irrational b.c it ties in w his broader theoretical perspective and his view that mil. expansion is usu. the product of systemic imperatives not "warped domestic politics." Since Japan's domestic politics were pretty clearly "warped," I don't agree w him on that point w/r/t Japan. I think he is on somewhat firmer ground however when he warns against judging decisions through the lens of hindsight:

"States should not start wars that they are certain to lose, of course, but it is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty how wars will turn out.... forecasting is difficult, and states sometimes guess wrong and get punished as a result. Thus, it is possible for a rational state to initiate a war that it ultimately loses."
(p.211) Of course that's not a very strongly phrased claim ("it is possible"), but it does seem arguably applicable to wars esp. before the era of v. sophisticated intelligence, etc.

Indeed there's a school or a stream of theory that holds that war often results (or often resulted in the past) from 'imperfect information', and that if the parties knew with certainty how the fighting would turn out in advance they wouldn't fight in the first place, but skip that and go right to the 'post-war' settlement. This I think is the starting point for Fearon's famous article "Rational Explanations for War," which came out c. '95, just around the time I was taking my required first-yr seminars, so it didn't go on the syllabi (b.c it hadn't quite yet been published) and consequently I never had to read it.

(Which I guess, for a whole bunch of reasons, doesn't esp. matter now.)

hank_F_M said...


I do think that just attacking the British/Dutch forces alone would have been a more viable decision on the part of Japan, though perhaps the Japanese did not have the info realize it.

US prewar naval planning was based on the assumption that the Japanese fleet would be defeated before attempting to move to the Western Pacific/support the Philippines. The PI did not have the infrastructure built to support the whole fleet. But they would have been operating near established Japanese bases.
A move forward would have invited a far more comprehensive defeat of the Pacific/Asiatic fleets than Pearl Harbor.

Of course, "rational decision making" is based on the information you have, the Japanese may not have realized the inertia against war (or risking the fleet if war was declared) without something like Pearl Harbor as a motivating event. Thus did not give the possibility the weight it deserved.

Anonymous said...

Rea, FDR was too canny to "commit" himself, and regardless, would Congress have declared war with no attack on the US? We didn't do it in Europe, a theater of far more American concern.

Let me put it like this. Attacking the Euro colones & bypassing US was a risk. Okay. But how did that risk compare to jump-starting America into war?

LFC said...

Of course *if* M. is correct that the comprehensive embargo and asset freeze was strangling the Japanese economy, and (by implication) the resources of the European colonies in the region wd not have been, or not have seemed at any rate, sufficient to avoid such an outcome, then bypassing the US would not have been, or seemed, a good option.

In the event, though, the Japanese of course were able to sustain, albeit no doubt with increasing economic hardship on the home front, a war vs the US that lasted from late '41 to mid '45. So maybe that fact in itself cuts against Mearsheimer's position/view on the 'strangulating' effects of the embargo.

OTOH, as Hank says, 'rational decision making' is based on the info you have, and the Japanese may have reasonably thought they faced strangulation even if they didn't.

But I'm willing to concede, TBA, that you *may* be right on this point. :) I just don't know enough about the background to be sure. M. seems to think that war betw. Japan and the US was 'in the cards' from the moment Hitler invaded the USSR. Of course, I'm sure that's v. debatable.

M. has a full scholarly apparatus of endnotes, but if one hasn't read the stuff he cites, which on this issue I haven't, it's hard to evaluate exactly how he's using the historical scholarship (the historiography, to use a fancier word). In other words, he cites for ex. Waldo Heinrich's 'Threshold of War,' but I don't know whether if I read Heinrichs I wd end up drawing the same conclusions M. does. This is a problem whenever one reads a work of synthesis and theory based on secondary (or primary, for that matter) sources with which one is not terribly familiar oneself.

Anonymous said...

Well, I will definitely look at M's book! Like Socrates, I'm prone to advance & defend propositions to see if they're right ....

Anonymous said...

Bought book. Quick question: daylight between M and Kissinger?

LFC said...

Well, they're both in the 'realist tradition', but yes, daylight, certainly in terms of 'method' and sensibility.

M. is interested in propounding and (supposedly) testing a theory. He starts out with his assumptions, definitions, approach, then moves on to 'test' (it's more like 'illustrate', in my view, but never mind) his theory.

Kissinger by contrast is really not interested in even pretending that he's doing 'social science'. K's Diplomacy, for example, is more or less straight diplomatic history w the veneer of K's quasi-philosophical pronouncements layered on. K. has a worldview, whereas M. has or purports to have a theory. M. directs his theoretical fire at various people but not K., as I recall, b.c he doesn't think K. has a competing theory (and he's right).

To be clear: I am not at all a fan of M's theory. I don't think great powers have an irreducible, ineradicable amount of fear of each other that means there will always be the likelihood of security competition in an 'anarchic' world. I don't think great powers necessarily seek to maximize their power. I don't think control of (more) territory is any longer the supreme objective of territorial states. I think all of that's wrong, for reasons it wd take too long to go into. Also I think M. is prob. wrong about the rise of China. I think his chapter at the end on the causes of great power war, which I was re-reading some of last night, is to a significant extent a tautology. And as M. himself admits, his theory, even if one accepts it (which, as I say, I don't) is a somewhat blunt instrument -- see his remarks on p.335, for ex. He also tucks a fair # of qualifications and concessions into the endnotes when they
shd be in the text itself, imo.

Well, now that I've unburdened myself of all that, I will be interested in your reactions to the book. I don't expect you to be engaged by the dueling IR theories aspect ('offensive' vs. 'defensive' realism etc) of the book, but since you know a good deal of the history he is "testing" his theory on, I'll be interested to see your impression of how he's used -- or misused -- the history.

LFC said...

P.s. The hardcover came out in 2001; I have the paperback (same text) that came out in '03.

You presumably bought the 2014 edition, which is the same except, iirc, for a new preface and a revised last chap. on China.