There was no possible way for Japan to compete against the US in WWII. As long as the US didn’t lose their will to fight and pushed their leaders to push to victory, Washington would claim a mandate that authorized them to use the industry available in the US to turn out a nearly limitless supply of ships, tanks, planes and weapons. Japan simply had no way to keep up with their economy about one-tenth of the US economy.
But that doesn’t mean that Japan could not have won the war. Sometimes the weaker party wins the fight. The legendary strategist Carl von Clausewitz notes that it can make sense for the weaker party to initiate the fight. If they believe that their chances of winning are only going to decrease over time then why not take action?
Von Clausewitz tells of three ways to win a war. First, you can destroy the enemy’s forces and enforce your will upon them. Second, you can make the cost of winning more than your enemy is willing to pay. In other words, figure out how many lives, weapons, and how much money the other side finds acceptable in order to defeat you and then make it cost more than that by taking action that raises the cost or dragging the conflict out until he no longer can afford to stay in. Third, you can convince him that he will never accomplish his goal and make him lose heart.
If you can dishearten him or make the war too expensive for him, he is likely to cut you a deal just to get out of it.
Since Tokyo had no chance at the first option, they needed to aim for one of the next two possibilities. If they had managed their resources better, they could have narrowed the gap between the two sides. Failing that, they could have inflicted such heavy damage that the Americans would lose their appetite for the fight. Or, they could have opted to not confront the US directly and possibly kept them from joining the fight at all.
It’s probably true to say that that there was no single course of action that was going to lead to a Japanese victory. Their military leaders needed to act more strategically and less tactically.
What follows are five possible ways Japan could have won World War II. They are not exclusive. Actually, Japan’s best chances lay in adopting all five strategies. True, some of them are a lot more obvious in hindsight than they would have been to Japan’s leaders at the time, but we can debate their plausibility later.
Wage One War At A Time
It is important for small countries to avoid taking on every other country at once. But Japan’s government was not established in such a way to allow civilian oversight over the military. Patterned after the German Imperial government, the power was entirely between the Japanese Army and Navy.
Without a strong emperor, the military branches were unmoderated in their jostling for power, constantly one-upping each other. The army was focused on conquering Manchuria in mainland China. The Navy was pushing to grab resources in Southeast Asia. By attempting both contradictory goals, Japan managed to surround itself with enemies. The Japanese government should have had set priorities. Then, it may have been able to achieve at least some of its goals.
Listen To Yamamoto
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is alleged to have warned his superiors that Japan had to win quickly and decisively to avoid waking the “sleeping giant” in America. He predicted that the Navy had six months to a year to impose its will before the Americans achieved full power in the Pacific. In that span, Japan needed to force the US into a compromise peace agreement that partitioned off the Pacific, giving Japan time to improve its defenses around their territories in the Pacific. If they failed, the US industry would crank out weapons in massive amounts while new ships would begin arriving in the Pacific. Yamamoto knew the American ability to behave against expectations and warned his superiors not to assume they knew how the US would act.
Don’t Listen To Yamamoto
While Yamamoto was proven correct in his strategic advice, he wasn’t as wise on the operational level. The way he saw to approach the problem of the superior US industry was to hit them in the core of their power – their naval fleet. The Japanese military leaders had long pictured themselves using “interceptive operations” to slow the US fleet as it headed to the Pacific, most likely to the aid of the Philippines.
Using planes and submarines, the Japanese Navy would reduce the size of the US operational fleet and the Japanese fleet would then engage in the ultimate battle. Yamamoto, however, convinced them to change the plans and strike a sudden blow at Pearl Harbor. His miscalculation was that the core power of the US fleet was not at Pearl Harbor but in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All that Yamamoto’s actions could do, then, was delay the US entry into the war until 1943. The original plan appears to have had a better chance at success.
Concentrate Resources Instead Of Dispersing Them
Similar to the way the Japanese could not seem to be content with fighting one war at a time, they couldn’t seem to stop themselves from multiplying their active operations and combat theaters. In 1942 alone, the Navy attacked the British Eastern Fleet off Ceylon in the Indian Ocean. They assaulted the Aleutian Islands. They opened a new theater in the Solomon Islands, which required defending a vast amount of ocean. Japan raised the cost of the war for itself when it had the fewer resources available, The National Interest reported.
Wage Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
For some reason, the Japanese navy did not instruct their submarines to attack any enemy vessel on the open seas between the US and the South Pacific. They should have realized that the US fleet had to protect an enormous amount of water just to reach the South Pacific. Japanese submarines were every bit as good as the Americans’.
They could have used them to make the Pacific shipping lanes impassable to US transports. It was the most direct way the Japanese could have exacted the heavy toll necessary to make the US consider withdrawing from the war.