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Book Review: The Great Pacific War

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In a previous article, I discussed Hector Bywater and his foresight. This column now reviews his book, The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33. Bywater used an unusual method to make his point; he created a fictional historical account of an imaginable war between Japan and the United States. The real war that would occur sixteen years after the publication of his book resembled the fictional account in an eerily similar fashion.

The book does have weakness and much of them are related to the time period that it was written in. The world was a totally different place than it would be just a decade and half later. The world in 1925 still saw the British as the leading world power and the fledging Weimar Republic was running Germany, while the Bolsheviks were still consolidating their power in Russia. Japan was one of the world’s leading naval powers and the United States retreated behind an isolationist policy. So Bywater’s own vision in 1925 deleted the Germany factor from his calculations. However, he understood the Japanese potential and comprehended Japanese geo-political moves. Bywater’s expertise was in naval technology, and his book details the naval strategy under consideration by both sides. He anticipated moves and countermoves that proved prophetically similar to the real strategy used by both sides in the Pacific war of 1941.

Bywater understood that Japan’s weakness was being a nation with very few natural resources and her policies after World War I were pursued to make Japan no longer dependent upon others. This policy of autarky could only occur through military campaigns. Japanese intervention into China was done in part to acquire resources needed to build up its own industries. In Bywaters’ novel, a military autocracy controlled Japan. He described these men thusly: “…feudal spirits still burn beneath a veneer of Western Civilization.” This certainly represented the real life autocrats and military chieftains who would lead Japan into war.

The goal of the original Washington Naval Conference in 1921 was to limit the building of capital ships, and the ratio appeared to favor both the United States and Great Britain. The reality was that ratio actually favored Japan since their navy resided primary in the Pacific, whereas both Great Britain and the United States had two oceans to protect.

To show this point more forcefully, Bywater depicted the Japanese damaging the Panama Canal with a “suicide passenger ship” exploding in the Canal Zone. While no one could actually prove that the passenger ship explosion was not accidental, Bywater’s point was that the timing made it suspicious. This foreshadowed later acts of suicide attacks by Japanese fighter pilots at the end of the Second World War. Bywater details an unorthodox war within the conventional war and with the Canal damaged, the American Atlantic fleet had to go around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific.

The advantages resided with the Japanese since the United States had to fight with the fleet available in the Pacific arena at the beginning of the war with no reinforcements immediately available. At the beginning of World War II, the Japanese had similar advantages, as their Navy was more powerful in the Pacific arena. The US having failed to build up its military after World War I, the weakened American Navy had to fight a war on two oceans. The Atlantic fleet was involved in fighting the battle of the Atlantic as German submarines threatened shipping lanes and the ability of the United States to supply Great Britain and its own forces in the European theaters.

In Bywater’s novel, the Japanese attacked American-held Guam as well as the Philippines. This crippled the US Navy’s ability to counterattack. In the real war, the Japanese used similar strategies and Bywater’s novel details a combination of air and naval battles that would be similar to the real thing. He even concluded his book with an American air raid over Toyko at the end of his fictional war. The only difference was that his fictional raid was a peaceful demonstration to the Japanese that they could no longer win the war; whereas the Americans ended the real war with two atomic bombs.

By using the novel format, Bywater attempted to reach a larger audience. Other authors, such as Michael Crichton in his most recent book detailing the scientific debate on global warming, have used this technique. The novel approach allows the author some leeway to detail important ideas while being entertaining at the same time. In Bywater’s day, novels had the potential to reach a larger audience.

Bywater’s writings have major points that need to be considered today. The first one is that the United States was a Pacific power as oppose to just a European power. In the 1920s, much of the American diplomats’ thinking looked east to Europe. While World War I fixated a whole generation of diplomats upon the European continent, the war was a global one with implications beyond Europe.

For Americans, the Spanish-American War turned America into a world power that extended to the Pacific. The war, as short as it was, was fought not just in Cuba, but also outside Manila. And most Americans today remain ignorant of the nearly four-year insurgency in the Philippines that cost more American lives than the actual war that garnered the possession in the first place.

During the last election, much of the debate centered on repairing relations with France and Germany that were damaged during the Iraq War. This showed today’s diplomatic fixation with Europe nearly a century after the First World War and the failure of many of these diplomats and politicians to see the world anew. Bywater did see the world through a different lens by imagining the possibility of a major Pacific war between Japan and the United States. What the present administration has set in motion is the development of new alliances and the realization that the world has changed. Europe is presently in decline, in particular the older portion of Western Europe, and it is Asia that is in ascendancy. India and China are prepared for bigger roles in the world.

Bywater began to prepare Americans for a new world that included an alliance with Great Britain, another great naval power. In the early part of the 20th century, Great Britain faced various options including a closer relation with the United States to maintain its own power. Both countries were natural sea powers with a similar heritage, and this formed the basis of a special relation that is still in effect today.

Another point that Bywater remind us of is to “think outside the square.” Today, much of the world remains in flux. In the 1990s, much of the foreign policy establishments ignored the possibility of the present war on terror and the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist war against western modernity. One of the few intellectuals who saw the possibility was Samuel Huntington. His book, Clash of Civilizations, detailed the possibility of western conflicts with Islamic fundamentalists and China.

The Bush administration has begun to design a new foreign policy to reflect the new realities, but there is still much to be done and debated. China’s threat against Taiwan and her challenging of American power in the Pacific arena are similar to Japanese moves between the two World Wars. Japan, using bases grabbed from Germany in the First World War, began to design a strategic plan to confront their most likely opponent – the United States.

China’s build-up of her navy and air force, as well as threats against Taiwan, represents similar movements. This is not to say that a Chinese-American conflict is possible or inevitable, but it is a possibility that can’t escape American policymakers. Nor can American policymakers ignore how Iran’s manufacture of their version of an atomic bomb will change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Hector Bywater was one of those unique journalists who saw a world different from his colleagues and designed a scenario that proved prophetic. There was a similar debate in the ’20s and the ’30s about America’s role in the world. When Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a League of Nations was defeated, an old fashioned isolationism replaced it. Voices in the wilderness in both the United States and England were ignored. General Billy Mitchell warned the American military that air power would trump naval power in sea warfare and was court martialed as a result. Many diplomats, including former Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, rejected Bywater’s thesis since the distances would make such a war unwinnable. Not only did Bywater believe that this war was probable, but also that it was winnable. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill risked his political fortunes to warn his fellow British of the coming German threat and was ignored until it was too late.

Bywater correctly assumed that American industrial power would prove decisive and the use of the military strategy of island-hopping would allow the United States to gain the upper hand. Where Bywater did make a serious mistake was to assume that both sides would be equally harmed by the war. After the Second World War, Japan lay prostrated and the United States became one of the two super powers.

Diplomats are affected by their past, and this narrows the worldview of those responsible for designing new policies. Many of the diplomats of Bywater’s day remembered the carnage that destroyed an entire generation in the trenches of France. They didn’t want to see a repeat of this, but they were blind to the threats that faced them in both the Pacific and in Europe. In the 1990s, diplomats were just as blind to the threats that faced them after the end of the cold war. The past may shape the future, but it may blind diplomats to the present as well.

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About Tom Donelson

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Excellent review of the kind of book that fascinates me most. If only I had the money to buy it…

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Tom, this sounds like fascinating stuff. It’s kind of like H.G. Welles thinking way ahead of the game regarding space and that sort of thing.

    I believe there was a book written before WWII about the Germans bombing New York. I’m not sure, but I recall reading about that somewhere. It had eerie images of the demolished Empire State and Chrysler Buildings and that kind of thing. I wish I could remember more.

    Anyway, thanks for a great post!

  • http://thereconstruction.com Bruce Joyner

    This book reminds me of one of todays new genre
    books that are sort-of…what if..books…Ruvy in Jerusalem is not alone when he wished he had the money to buy it….me too.

  • SFC SKI

    Thanks for the review, I’ll keep my eyes open for it.