Learning the Lessons of Pearl Harbor Today

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When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, few in Washington believed that the Japanese were capable of—or even had intentions to—attack the United States. That the Japanese armada struck at Pearl Harbor, an island redoubt many Americans assumed was too far from Japan for their forces to reach, was even more shocking. Yet, the attack was hardly a surprise. What’s more, Pearl Harbor was an entirely avoidable event. As the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” Tokyo did not merely wake up one day and decide to engage in the dastardliest "surprise" attack in American history (which, Pearl Harbor was until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, occurred).

Throughout the 1930s, the United States spent much of the 1930s inflicting economic pain upon the Japanese Empire for their invasion of China. Not only was Washington (rightly) disgusted by the Japanese atrocities in China, but Washington was also gravely concerned that Japan’s expansionist policies throughout the Asia-Pacific would fundamentally diminish American power in the area. By 1940, things between Tokyo and Washington got tenser still. Inevitably, the Americans imposed an onerous oil embargo on top of the devastating economic sanctions they had been piling on, even depriving Japan of its ability to trade in U.S. dollars, thereby ensuring that hostilities between the two sides would occur.

For their part, the Japanese believed that they deserved to be treated as an equally great power by the West. What’s more, Japan believed that the United States was decadent (and therefore weak) as well as preoccupied with the threats posed by Nazi Germany. Plus, as a resource-strapped island-nation with delusions of imperial grandeur, Japan required natural resources that could only be found in the territories of its neighbors. And Japan was sensitive to Western imperial colonialism. They did not wish to see their region annexed and pilfered by foreign empires any longer. Tokyo assumed that if anyone was going to reap the rewards of colonial imperialism in the Asia-Pacific, it should be them.

With the British Empire distracted by Hitler's rise and France a spent force, the only real threat to Japanese regional ambitions was the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered to movement of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet from its homeport in San Francisco to Pearl Harbor (FDR did this against the advice of his admirals) in 1940 to deter the Japanese. Yet, Tokyo assumed that Washington was readying to take military action against them. Therefore, Japan’s leadership embraced an absurd use-it-or-lose-it mentality: either they debilitated America’s ability to project power into their region before Washington could order a movement of their Pacific forces into areas that Japan coveted, or Tokyo would surely lose the chance to do so. Japan’s leaders decided to also encourage diplomatic talks in an attempt to resolve the matter through negotiation rather than warfare. Yet, the American decision to move its Pacific Fleet to Hawaii, as well as the decision to embargo vital oil shipments to Japan, indicated to Japanese leaders that the Americans meant to do whatever they could to return the situation to the status quo.

The Americans, despite having cracked the encrypted Japanese communications network, knew that the Japanese were planning some kind of move. Most assumed that the Japanese would attack an American possession closer to their area of operations, such as the Philippines or perhaps the Marshall Islands. Even more, U.S. planners predicted that the Japanese would strike against either British or Russian holdings before they ever thought to attack the Americans. No one believed that the Japanese had the technical skill or the will to sneak their fleet from Japanese waters, avoid detection over the course of months, navigate their fleet to an area just north of Hawaii, and then strike out hard against an unsuspecting Pearl Harbor. Yet, Japan’s mastery of modern naval operations before the Americans determined how vulnerable their forces were at Pearl Harbor ended up being Japan’s masterstroke on that terrible December morning in 1941.

A Pearl Harbor in Space Could Happen

It’s 78 years later. Ultimately, the United States won that war; Japan is no longer a threat, and the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific has, until the rise of China, been mostly favorable to the United States since the end of the Second World War. Of course, the costs in terms of blood and treasure to return the status quo to Asia was obscenely high. And, had the United States simply negotiated in good faith with Japan, the Pacific War may have been avoided entirely.

Similarly, today, America’s enemies are capitalizing on advances made in military science. Specifically, they have glommed on to the idea of utilizing unconventional warfare techniques to disable America’s conventional military force. Most global hotspots are far removed from U.S. territory, meaning that U.S. forces must be expeditionary in nature. They require long supply lines to maintain. Meanwhile, around one percent of the U.S. population is involved with the country’s Armed Forces. The U.S. military is a relatively small force (compared to those of its rivals in either Russia or China). To overcome the vast distances and counter the numerical advantages their enemies possess, the United States relies heavily on technology to act as a force multiplier. Notably, American forces disproportionately depend on satellite constellations floating overhead in space to give them a decisive advantage over their enemies.

The Japanese of yesteryear believed that a stunning, knock-out blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor would force the Americans to abandon their aggressive stance against Japanese imperial policy in the Asia-Pacific. Now, a country like Russia believes that the Americans will not negotiate with them over a fundamentally changing geopolitical situation in Europe. Russia has a long history of foreign invasion. With the 30 years’ expansion of NATO and the European Union, Moscow believes their greatest threat emanates from Europe. What’s more, since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s borders are much closer to the “core” of Russia than they were 30 years ago. And, Russia’s economy is being strangled by American sanctions while its population drastically collapses. In another ten years, the Russian military will simply have an insufficient number of troops to defend their large borders. Therefore, Moscow wants to rejigger its boundaries and move them into what they believe are more defensible positions in Europe (by reclaiming many former Soviet states).

Russia cannot do this without either a negotiated settlement with the United States or a military conquest of Eastern Europe. And, short of using nuclear weapons, Russia’s forces cannot defeat the technologically superior U.S. and NATO forces arrayed against them. Yet, should America’s technological advantages be severely degraded or removed entirely, a new paradigm would exist likely favoring the larger Russian forces arrayed against the West. Russian co-orbital satellites, known as “space stalkers,” have already been deployed into orbit as far back as 2014. These tiny satellites possess robotic grappling arms and are designed to tailgate behind advanced, though vulnerable, U.S. military satellites and physically push them from orbit. Once these systems were taken out of orbit, the ability for U.S. or NATO forces charged with defending against a Russian invasion would be gone. American forces would likely be defeated. Even if the United States wanted to retaliate against Russia, it would take time to replace the satellites lost to a Russian surprise attack in space—and the cost to return to the status quo would be high (and potentially involve nuclear weapons).

America, Russia, and the Coming Crisis of the 2020s

The 2020s will be a critical decade in U.S.-Russian relations, as Russia faces the prospect of terminal decline and the United States’ satellite constellation are at their most vulnerable to attack and disruption. For the United States, Washington must expedite the creation of a more survivable satellite capability so as to deter a Russian attack. At the same time, Washington must pursue a real negotiation with Russia to resolve some longstanding disputes that have militated Moscow against Washington. Had the United States engaged fairly with Japan in negotiations, history might have played out differently for both countries. Instead, intransigence on both sides led to the Pacific War. Similarly, today, the longer that neither the Americans nor Russians talk to each other the more likely it is that Moscow will be desperate to reorder the situation in Europe in their favor through force. And, to achieve their revanchist goals in Europe, Russia will have to employ tactics reminiscent to those employed by the Japanese against the United States in Pearl Harbor.

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, let us learn from our tragic history rather than repeat the mistakes—and excesses—of it. Just as the war between Japan and the United States was not a fait accompli in 1941, the conflict between Russia and the United States in the 2020s need not be a reality.

Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst who runs The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. He is a contributor at The American Spectator and a contributing editor at American Greatness. His book “Winning Space: How the United States Remains a Superpower” is due out in September of 2020 by Republic Book Publishers. Brandon holds a Master’s degree in Statecraft and National Security Affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. and he is a recovering Congressional staffer. You can follow him on Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

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