Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness

Image of Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness
Release Date: 
September 19, 2016
Reviewed by: 

“a sharper focus on why the Japanese not only chose to attack Pearl Harbor, but their entire decision making process to begin a war they were not sure they could win . . .”

As the 75th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor nears, this seminal event is getting a critical re-examination. As many politicians and pundits continue to make comparisons between December 7 and September 11 as key dates delineating America’s involvement on the world stage, this new book offers some interesting, but less traveled insights into both American and Japanese strategic thinking, diplomatic maneuvering, and military preparedness leading up that fateful day.

The author begins his narrative before World War I when a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, is present at the keel laying of a new American battleship, the USS Arizona. The intersection of many of the main characters of the attack make this a very compelling story as Nelson shows how the attack was nearly inevitable, yet never expected.

Where this book really stands out is Nelson’s analysis of the Japanese diplomatic and strategic thinking in the days leading up to the attack. A maritime nation completely dependent on foreign supplies of natural resources, in particular oil, the Japanese were desperate to secure the resources, even if it meant going to war with American and Great Britain.

This need for both resources and an economic hegemony in Asia leads to the rise of a completely militarized Japanese government, which Nelson shows was desperate to start a war but unsure how, or even if, they could win. This is the real tragedy of the political maneuvering in Japan from 1940 into early 1941.  Many senior Japanese leaders, including Admiral Yamamoto himself, were sure Japan could not win a long war with American industrial might. But the senior leadership persuaded themselves that a series of decisive victories accompanied by swift territorial conquest would subdue the Americans, who they were convinced had no real stomach for a long bloody war, into negotiating a peace favorable to Japan.

Their delusions were matched by American certainty in Western military superiority. The Americans and British were just as guilty of assuming that the Japanese were not capable of matching their navies in seamanship or technology and that any Japanese moves toward war could be stopped if the West merely stood up to Japanese aggression with economic and diplomatic pressure.

The idea that the Japanese Navy could sail a tremendous task force all the way across the waters of the North Pacific in winter and then launch a massive carrier strike on Pearl Harbor was simply considered too risky and beyond their capabilities.

The racial and cultural biases on both sides certainly doomed any real effort at diplomacy. As Nelson details, since the Americans never understood the desperate economic pressure the Japanese nation and military felt after the American embargo of nearly all exports to Japan, including oil, and the Japanese never understood that America could never seriously consider a diplomatic solution unless Japan withdrew from China, something the militarists would not countenance. 

This is the real tragedy of this book, both sides wanted to avoid war, but ended up talking past each other over negotiating points the other side would never accept.  Once the Japanese government decided on war, diplomacy became another tool of deception and distraction, which the Americans were very aware of, having broken Japan’s diplomatic code, and this fact added to the fury of the Roosevelt Administration after December 7 as they assumed this was the Japanese intent all along, never knowing the deep divisions in the Japanese government over going to war with America in late 1940 and early 1941.

Once this decision is made, Nelson does a remarkable job of highlighting the many blunders and missed opportunities the American military had in Hawaii to be better prepared for the attack. 

Because Pearl Harbor was never seriously considered to be a prime target, many of the obviously needed military preparations were not completed, and several key intelligence warnings were either not sent or minimized in importance to the two senior commanders in Hawaii, General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel. 

Nelson lays out a pretty damning case that there was plenty of blame up both service’s chains-of-command, all the way up to the senior leadership of the War and Navy Departments, for both the unpreparedness of the Hawaiian defenses, and the lack of intelligence sharing and understanding with its military command.

Once the attack starts, Nelson shifts the book to a series of interrelated personal narratives and reflections, moving the action from Battleship Row, to the local airfields, the Japanese aviators and fleet, and even the numerous civilians swept up in the attack. These stories are heroic, tragic, and poignant, showing the human side to this pivotal battle and the bravery and horror for the thousands of American sailors and soldiers killed that day.

Finally, Nelson wraps up the battle by showing how the Americans did indeed create the mighty war machine feared by many Japanese leaders, and galvanized by what they believed was a treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor marched across the Pacific, destroying the Japanese Navy, in fact sinking nearly every ship that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, before forcing a Japanese surrender using two nuclear weapons.

This book places a sharper focus on not only why and how Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor, but their entire decision making process to begin a war they were not sure they could win. This makes an intriguing read for anyone wanting to understand the messy and illogical reasons nations go to war and how cultural and racial assumptions and misunderstandings can lead to conflict neither side wants, but often cannot avoid.