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"Japan’s Attack On Pearl Harbor Was A Colossal Mistake" Topic

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15 Feb 2022 6:06 p.m. PST
by Editor in Chief Bill

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP15 Feb 2022 5:02 p.m. PST

"Am I contradicting myself? Not at all. The Japanese Kidō Butai, or aircraft-carrier striking force, had crossed thousands of miles of storm-tossed seas to draw within reach of O'ahu, home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet—the major obstacle to the Japanese militarist regime's schemes of conquest in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Admiral Chūichi Nagumo's fleet was made up of six fleet carriers, a combined air wing numbering 450 combat aircraft of all types, and a retinue of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries to provide the flattops with protection, supplies, and support.

Surging such a force from Japanese home waters to Hawai'i was a monumental task. The fleet stretched its logistical tether to the breaking point, and then some. But it succeeded anyway in a tactical sense. Two waves of fighters, torpedo planes and dive bombers swooped in on their targets on the morning of December 7, 1941, a date President Franklin Roosevelt prophesied would "live in infamy." Ninety-four U.S. Navy men-of-war lay at Pearl Harbor that day, but the priority targets for Japan were the eight battleships moored in pairs at Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor…"
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Frederick Supporting Member of TMP15 Feb 2022 5:26 p.m. PST

True enough – it could be argued that Nagumo should have ordered a third wave to go in – five of the six carrier captains said that their air groups were up to a third wave, which Genda wanted to target the shore facilities; Nagumo was also probably the wrong guy to command a carrier attack group, given his expertise was in destroyer and surface vessel torpedo tactics

Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian15 Feb 2022 7:55 p.m. PST

Poorly executed is not the same as a mistake.

HMS Exeter15 Feb 2022 8:09 p.m. PST

I remember seeing a video once about the Japanese rationale for the Pearl Harbor attack. It sort of ran…

1. We must have the resources of SE Asia.
2. We must therefor attack SE Asia and conquer it.
3. Which will involve attacking the UK and Holland.
4. Which will inevitably draw America into the war.
5. So we must deal it a mortal blow at the outset.

The premise of the video was that 4. above was a flawed conclusion,…tho I don't remember what the argument was.

But, honestly, Japan attacking the US when it was 60% into perhaps the most enormous naval building program since the dreadnought race was purest folly.

Dn Jackson Supporting Member of TMP15 Feb 2022 10:55 p.m. PST

It was a mistake in retrospect. Too many people look at history and judge various actions based on the outcome, not on what the people there actually knew. This is one of those cases.

Imagine the Japanese made the exact same decision to attack, only this time the American carriers were in port. The war would have taken a very different course. Maybe the Japanese would be considered geniuses for making the attack.

Murvihill16 Feb 2022 6:29 a.m. PST

If Nagumo had caught the US carriers in port 1942 would have gone differently, but 1943 production would have overwhelmed Japan just the same. I don't see the war ending any later.
Regards to the decision to attack Pearl Harbor being a mistake, we need to differentiate what actually happened from what the planners expected would happen. IIRC they planned to have an outer ring of bases from which they could work interior lines of communication to beat off American counter attacks. The Pearl Harbor op was going to give them breathing space to set up the bases.
1. Was the expectation of an outer ring of defenses reasonable?
2. Was Pearl Harbor successful in creating the breathing space needed?

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP16 Feb 2022 3:25 p.m. PST



IronDuke596 Supporting Member of TMP17 Feb 2022 10:58 a.m. PST

The Japanese Naval strategic plan never included an attack on Pearl Harbor. Instead, its doctrine focused on the "Interception and Attrition Strategy", for which IJN trained regularly in interwar years before 1941.

When forced by political or economic circumstances (eg. U.S. oil embargo) the IJN would strike out to secure resources in SE Asia, which would likely include the Philippines. It was hoped that the strong anti war faction in the U.S. would prevent any U.S. declaration of war against Japan. Additionally, there was a subset plan to bypass the Philippines to avoid a American entanglement. However, if FDR managed to persuade the American people to rescue the Philippines, which was unlikely, the IJN would execute its Interception and Attrition Strategy.

In essence the strategy was to avoid U.S. entanglement but in the unlikely event that the USN was directed to rescue the Philippines, it would have to sail its Pacific Fleet to engage the IJN in its area of influence. To counter this naval rescue the IJN's vast armada of carriers, torpedo cruisers, battleships, submarines and land based aircraft would come out to meet the USN in mid ocean. At this time the IJN ship quality and quantity exceeded the USN. Using its overwhelming naval assets the IJN would steadily attrit the Pacific Fleet as it crossed the ocean. Unlike after the Pearl Harbor attack, the damaged or sunk American ships would be unrecoverable.

However, Admiral Yammamoto (Chief of naval operations) wanted to disavow the interception strategy in favor of a secret strike at Pearl Harbor in hopes of inflicting a decisive blow to the USN, which hopefully would permit the IJN a free hand in SE Asia. In contrast the IJN Naval Staff, which included most of the senior Admirals, would not approve this strike as their prime rationale was to avoid an unnecessary war with the US, which would allow the Japanese a free hand in SE Asia.

So far the Japanese had been successfully exploiting opportunities in SE Asia and the IJN staff saw no good reason for changing their strategic posture in favor of a risky attack on the US. However, Yammamoto capitalized on his popularity and did an end run around the Naval Staff to the Emperor via the Crown Prince, who was an admiral and friend to Yammamoto. The rest is the history of the pearl harbor attack, which most people are familiar with.

So yes, IMHO the Pearl Harbor attack was limited tactical success (no carriers were sunk) but an unnecessary strategic blunder.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP17 Feb 2022 3:21 p.m. PST

Thanks also…


R Leonard18 Feb 2022 11:26 a.m. PST

Here's what you do . . .

Go into the worst reputation biker bar in your area.

Walk up to the biggest meanest looking guy there and, without a word, punch him in the mouth and then step back.

Pearl Harbor in a microcosm.

Nine pound round18 Feb 2022 4:26 p.m. PST

It's hard to exaggerate the scale of the mistake: the war was lost the day it began, although the time and distances involved can make it hard to discern. Japan did indeed run wild, and if it had the resources, it could have run wilder yet, but it was never going to win: it was stretched too thin before the first bomb fell. The US, on the other hand, was still years away from starting to realize it's potential, which accounts for the curiously small-scale and peripheral nature of the first year of the war in the Pacific.

Even before Midway, the US battleship force in the Pacific was more powerful than the fleet that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor- but it was essentially immobilized by a lack of tanker support. The ocean space to be contested was so vast that the first year of the war after the fall of the Philippines was essentially a few flashes of major carrier battles, followed by minor actions on distant peripheries (Aleutians, Guadalcanal) for the first year. The logistical and shipping resources simply weren't there to go much bigger.

Most of 1943's offensive action was confined to the South Pacific, because land-based air power and small-scale island hopping to seize more airfields could push back theJapanese economically until the Navy could amass the force to break through the Japanese Central Pacific barrier. Once that force was assembled, the real breaking of Japan was accomplished in a relatively short period, from November, 1943 (Tarawa) to June, 1945- a year and a half.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP19 Feb 2022 3:39 p.m. PST



skirmishcampaigns20 Feb 2022 3:13 p.m. PST

I had a professor who used to say the Japanese had lost the war on 7December 41 so long as the US had the political will to fight. Just look at GDP and resource comparisons and I think he was right, and I think some in Japan knew it.

Nine pound round21 Feb 2022 10:30 a.m. PST

That's just it: there was comparatively little political will to fight on Dec 6, but the method Japan chose to start the war generated the will not only to fight, but to fight until Japan was completely destroyed – "Blast the Jap right off the map," as the propaganda of the period put it.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP24 Feb 2022 4:28 a.m. PST

I thought Yamamoto opposed the Pearl Harbor strike? "In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain, I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success"? Six months after Pearl was 6 June 1942, on which date Japan was conclusively beaten at Midway.

Agree re outcome. The USA built IIRC 99 aircraft carriers in WW2. Losing three in December 1941 would have made no difference, and Hiroshima would still have been within B29 range in August 1945.

Japan's economy was about as big as Italy's if I'm not mistaken.

alexpainter28 Feb 2022 6:52 a.m. PST

There were a LOT of new aircraft carriers in constuction when there was the attack on Pearl Harbour, in early 1943 started to enter in service the newer "Essex" class, plus the various escort carriers, the japanese were simply outnumbered, remember that the US Navy in 1942 lost most of its carriers, but neverthless defeated the IJN/IJA combined at Guadalcanal and in New Guinea. US' industrial & human base was simply too owerhelming, they fought a two front war, and were always on offensive from nov. '42 onward either against the Axis forces and the japanese ones.

Nine pound round22 Mar 2022 10:17 a.m. PST

Nobody, including the Japanese, thought they could win a prolonged war. What nobody seems to have understood is that the leaders of a society that regarded suicide as the most acceptable response to individual humiliation would be entirely capable of choosing that course on a national scale.

The most rational case that can be made for the Japanese decision to go to war in 1941 is the notion that they were reasoning by analogy, and that the scenario they were hoping to emulate was the 1904-5 war with Russia.

Blutarski22 Mar 2022 4:52 p.m. PST

I seem to recall reading that US industrial output was about 10x that of Japan in 1941.


Nine pound round23 Mar 2022 4:18 a.m. PST

Quite a few accounts of Pearl Harbor include some prominent American saying (Dean Acheson, when closing off oil imports, Admiral Pete the day before Pearl Harbor) "they wouldn't dare- we're too powerful."

Before we had more familiarity with the phenomenon, we failed to appreciate how deep-seated the Japanese preference for suicide over humiliation really was.

Blutarski24 Mar 2022 1:35 p.m. PST

IMO, responsibility for Pearl Harbor and the entry of the USA into WW2 rests squarely in the Oval Office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


Nine pound round26 Mar 2022 12:33 p.m. PST

He certainly bears a share of it. Ultimately, the choice to push the Japanese hard, before national mobilization had really taken effect, was his. I think Roosevelt was willing to run the risk that the war would open with a comparatively limited attack, and that the Dutch and British colonies (which he disliked in principle) would bear the brunt, with American losses confined largely to the Philippines. Frank Knox's off the cuff reaction ("My God, this can't be Pearl Harbor – it must be the Philippines") has always seemed unconsciously revealing.

But the reality is that almost everyone in DC- including senior leaders of the armed services- misread both Japanese intentions and capabilities. That includes some very prominent and very senior officers whose subsequent service was vital to victory- George Marshall, Richmond K Turner, and others.

Durrati30 Mar 2022 8:37 a.m. PST

IMO, responsibility for Pearl Harbor and the entry of the USA into WW2 rests squarely in the Oval Office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Really, you think responsibility for Pearl Harbour lies with Roosevelt? You don't think that any of the responsibility should attach to the odious military fantasists who directed the Japanese government and who authorised, planned and ordered the attack to take place?

Blutarski30 Mar 2022 1:31 p.m. PST

Durrati wrote -
"Really, you think responsibility for Pearl Harbour lies with Roosevelt? You don't think that any of the responsibility should attach to the odious military fantasists who directed the Japanese government and who authorised, planned and ordered the attack to take place?"

Yes, exactly so.

A suggestion: Have you ever pondered why Japan, with no nearby allies, chose to make war against the United States which they knew to be 10x greater in industrial power and financial wealth, with nearly 2x Japan's population? A review of US-Japanese diplomatic and economic relations in the immediate pre-war period will help in understanding why and how things unfolded as they did.


Dentwist Supporting Member of TMP30 Mar 2022 11:12 p.m. PST

I wonder why the US would impose sanctions on Japan, perhaps it was something to do with the invasion of China?

Blutarski31 Mar 2022 1:22 p.m. PST

Dentwist wrote -
I wonder why the US would impose sanctions on Japan, perhaps it was something to do with the invasion of China?

I've done a fair amount of reading on the subject. I suggest that you compare the time-line of US economic sanctions versus: (a) the time-line of events in Asia – with respect to the conflict between Japan and China, versus (b) the growing difficulties facing Britain's strategic position with respect to its Asian colonial possessions and Vichy France's diplomatic cession of control of French Indo-China to Japan (which had made the British VERY nervous).

A good book to start with is "The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in World War II – The War Against Japan" by Grace Person Hayes (Historical Section of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). You can find a passage in the book where the US told their British counterparts not to worry about Japan because the US could crush the entire Japanese economy with the snap of an economic boycott finger; and they were telling the truth.

My favorite point in the melodrama is when Japan negotiated a huge oil deal (two years worth of Japanese national consumption) with several big US oil firms. The US government issues the necessary export licenses; the Japanese transfer the entirety of the payment to US banks; The US State Department then cancels the export licenses and seizes the funds paid in advance by Japan. IIRC, this occurred sometime in 1940 and was accompanied by an absolute boycott of both oil and scrap steel – both of which Japan was completely reliant upon.

So ….. no. I do not believe Japan's war with China had anything to do with the imposition of sanctions. There were far bigger, more important and less savory fish to fry – namely, the now exposed Pacific colonial possessions of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.

This was IMO no moral crusade to aid China on the part of Roosevelt; it was nothing more than a cynical exercise in power politics that required a good cover story when events veered off the expected flight path.

YMMV, of course.


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