In fact, even the Japanese naval genius who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, understood that Japan had made a horrible strategic mistake. Before the attack, he told the Japanese prime minister, “In the first six to twelve months of the war . . . I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” His words proved prophetic. Almost precisely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American carriers that the Japanese strike had missed inflicted a crippling blow on the Japanese Imperial Fleet at Midway. In a gratifying turn of events for the Americans, the four Japanese carriers sunk at Midway — the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Shokaku — were all part of the fleet that had struck Pearl Harbor. In the time it took the Japanese to replace these losses, American industry, which had turned its pitiless might to war, had rolled out of its dockyards over two dozen carriers. To paraphrase Admiral Yamamoto, Japan had awakened a giant it could not hope to defeat.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet did not rely solely on American industry to produce the ships needed to overwhelm the Japanese navy. All through 1942 and 1943, salvage crews and mechanics worked around the clock to raise and repair the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor. Although the Arizona
was a total loss, the others were ready for battle by 1944. Their first mission was to help make good on General MacArthur’s promise to return to the Philippines, as part of the Leyte invasion force. On Oct. 24, 1944, they were waiting in the Surigao Strait with orders to stop the southern pincer of a powerful Japanese counterattack intent on wiping out the vulnerable American beachhead on Leyte Island. By dawn the battleships had had their revenge. They did not just turn back the Japanese Fleet — they annihilated it. The ghosts of Pearl Harbor had arisen to exact a terrible vengeance on their enemy.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a devastating day in this nation’s history, though only the first of many hard days to come before final victory. But one marvels at the sheer level of miscalculation that went into the attack. That the Japanese leaders failed to appreciate the difference between the two nations’ industrial potential is bad enough, but how did they so badly misjudge the will of the American people? Of course they were not the first, nor will they be the last, to make this error. In fact, Osama bin Laden made the same mistake. The question that should give us pause is: How many other nations’ leaders are making that same miscalculation today?
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.