War’s Paradoxes: From Pearl Harbor to the Russian Front to the 38th Parallel

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

From time to time, I take a break from opinion writing here at Works and Days [1] and turn to history — on this occasion, I am prompted by the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Here are a few of the most common questions that I have encountered while teaching the wars of the 20th century over the last twenty years.

I. Pearl Harbor — December 7, 1941

Q. Why did the Japanese so foolishly attack Pearl Harbor?

A. The Japanese did not see it as foolish at all. What in retrospect seems suicidal did not necessarily seem so at the time. In hindsight, the wiser Japanese course would have been to absorb the orphaned colonial Far Eastern possessions of France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain that were largely defenseless after June 1941. By carefully avoiding the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, the Japanese might have inherited the European colonial empire in the Pacific without starting a war with the United States. And had the Japanese and Germans coordinated strategy, the two might have attacked Russia simultaneously in June 1941 without prompting a wider war with the United States, or in the case of Japan, an immediate conflict necessarily with Great Britain.

But in the Japanese view, the Soviets had proved stubborn opponents in a series of border wars, and it was felt wiser to achieve a secure rear in Manchuria to divert attention to the west (the Russians, in fact, honored their non-aggression pact with the Japanese until late 1945) — especially given the fact that the Wehrmacht in December 1941 seemed likely to knock the Soviet Union out of the war in a few weeks or by early 1942.

In the Japanese mind, the moment was everything: it was high time to get in on the easy pickings in the Pacific before Germany ended the war altogether.

While the United States had belatedly begun rearming in the late 1930s, the Japanese were still convinced that in a naval war, their ships, planes, and personnel were at least as modern and plentiful, if not more numerous and qualitatively better than what was available to the United States. The growing isolationism of the United States that had been championed by the likes of icons like Walt Disney and Charles Lindbergh, the persistent Depression [2], and the fact that the United States had not intervened in Europe but instead watched Britain get battered for some 26 months from September 1939 to December 1941 suggested to many in the Japanese military command that the United States might either negotiate or respond only halfheartedly after Pearl Harbor. Especially after the envisioned loss of the American carrier fleet.

Japanese intelligence about American productive potential was about as limited as German knowledge of the Soviet Union. In Tokyo’s view, if Japanese naval forces took out the American Pacific carriers at Pearl Harbor, there was simply no way for America, at least in the immediate future, to contradict any of their Pacific agendas. Nor on December 7 could the Japanese even imagine that Germany might lose the war on the eastern front; more likely, Hitler seemed about to take Moscow, ending the continental ground conflict in Eurasia, and allowing him at last to finish off Great Britain. Britain’s fall, then, would mean that everything from India to Burma would soon be orphaned in the Pacific, and Japan would only have to deal with a vastly crippled and solitary United States. In short, for the Japanese, December 1941 seemed a good time to attack the United States — a provocation that would either likely be negotiated or end in a military defeat for the US.

II. The Russian Front — June 22, 1941

Q. Why did the Germans attack the Soviet Union so recklessly at a time when they had all but won the war?

A. Once more, what seems foolhardy to us may not have seemed so to Nazi Germany [3]. True, the Germans each month were receiving generously priced Soviet products, many on credit; but Hitler (wrongly) felt that he could nevertheless steal food, fuel, and raw materials from the east more cheaply than buying them. And while the Germans were paranoid about opening a two-front war — like the one that had plagued them between late 1914 and 1917 — Hitler argued that the western front was all but somnolent. British strategic bombing in 1941, remember, was still mostly erratic and ineffective.

In any case, Hitler was more paranoid about a British embargo and blockade that might cut off fuel and food in the manner of 1918; with the acquisition of the great natural reserves of the Soviet Union, especially its Caucasian oil, the Nazis believed that they would become immune from the effects of a maritime blockade.

In addition, the war was never intended to be entirely rational in the purely strategic sense; instead, it was seen also as a National Socialist ideological crusade in which the complete destruction or enslavement of Europe’s supposed Untermenschen was impossible without access to the huge populations of Jews and Slavs in Russia. To Hitler, Marxism was a Jewish perversity and Operation Barbarossa meant that he could kill two birds with one stone. The perverse notion that a Germany with 30% more territory and a population of 80 million — similar to its population today — still could not live without “Lebensraum” apparently appealed to many German elites who had visions of eastern estates and baronies, worked by serfs, with vacation trips on super-autobahns to the Crimean beaches — at least if all that cost only a month of war.

With the conquest of the Balkans by June 1941, the ground war in Europe was all but over. Great Britain was alone and isolated, and had scarcely survived the Battle of Britain. There was no reason to believe that the United States would enter the war; if America had not declared war to aid Britain, it most certainly would not do so to save the communist Soviet Union.

Moreover, the German army had proved almost superhuman in its invasion of Poland and Western Europe; even the messy conflicts in the Balkans, Crete, and the recent deployments to North Africa had not slowed the Wehrmacht’s progress. Hitler, just to be sure, took no chances and assembled the largest invasion force the world had yet seen, over three million Germans and 500,000 allies. Operation Barbarossa was truly a multilateral effort, with contingents from most of Eastern Europe, Spain, and Italy joining the German effort. By mid-1941 there was nothing comparable, at least in adequate numbers, in the east to the ME-109, the Panzer Mark IV, or the .88 mm flak/anti-tank gun. Such technological superiority blinded Hitler to the reality that there were few modern roads in Russia, and most of the invasion would still be powered by horses, with inadequate air, train, and truck transport.

Still, in contrast to Germany’s string of successes, the Soviet Union’s recent military record was dismal. Stalin had liquidated many of the officer class (although not as large a percentage as was once thought). The Red Army had not performed well in carving up Poland in September 1939 and appeared almost incompetent in the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939 (Hitler foolishly did not distinguish between the Red Army when fighting on home soil and when it was deployed abroad). Such impressions confirmed Hitler’s racialist views that the Russians were backward and incapable of waging modern mechanized war — an inferiority supposedly only enhanced by bankrupt Leninism. Given poor German intelligence about the quality and production of Russian artillery, tank (cf. the new T-34 [4] that was about to go into full production), and aircraft, the Germans assumed that Russia would fall rather easily — relying on a comparative World War I calculus. France had held out for four years, while Russia had fallen in about three; thus, the next time around in 1940, France’s fall in about seven weeks suggested a Russian collapse in about four.

Japan, at war in the east with Russia during 1938-1939, had felt betrayed when its Axis partner had signed without warning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, effectively ensuring the Soviets could focus on one front against the Japanese. A defeated Japan repaid the treachery in kind, by signing a similar neutrality pact with Russia in April 1941. That bargain assured Stalin, in turn, that the Soviets would have only a one-front war should Hitler break his agreements — a fact that might have saved Moscow as reinforcements from the east poured in.

In short, had Hitler maintained his pact with Stalin and focused instead on North Africa and the Persian Gulf oil fields, perhaps in conjunction with the Japanese advancing toward India and Suez, Great Britain would have probably lost the war. But by invading Russia, and declaring war on the United States on December 11 (when Army Group Center seemed on the verge of taking Moscow, when Japan seemingly had destroyed the Pacific fleet and had ensured both Britain and America a two-front war, and when U-boat commanders assured the Nazi high command that with free rein to attack the East Coast of the United States they could destroy the shipping lanes of the convoy system between North America and Great Britain), Hitler chose about the only two courses of action that could have lost him the war.

III. A Divided Korea?

Q. Why did the United States stop after spring 1951 at the 38th Parallel, thereby ensuring a subsequent sixty-year Cold War and resulting in chronic worries about a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and poised to invade its neighbor to the south?

A. Americans were haunted by the nightmare of November 1950 to February 1951. After the brilliant Inchon invasion, and MacArthur’s inspired rapid advance to the Yalu River and the Chinese border, the sudden entrance of an initial quarter-million Chinese Red Army troops, with hundreds of thousands to follow, had sent the Americans reeling hundreds of miles to the south (in the longest retreat in American military history), back across the 38th Parallel, with Seoul soon being lost to the communists yet again. Matthew Ridgway had arrived in December 1950 to try to save the war, and had done just that by April 1951, when he was replaced as senior ground commander by Gen. Van Fleet and in turn took over the theater command from the relieved MacArthur. But the Americans had been permanently traumatized by the Chinese entry and the North Korean recovery after the all-but-declared American victory of October 1950.

Ridgway, after the UN forces’ amazing recovery in early 1951, was in no mood to go much farther across the 38th Parallel. From his study of MacArthur’s debacle in Fall 1950, he knew well that the peninsula in the north became more rugged and expansive and would swallow thousands of troops as they neared the Chinese and Russian borders, and had to be supplied from hundreds of miles to the rear. Such a second advance through North Korea was felt, accurately or not, to risk a regional nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to draw in hundreds of thousands more Chinese Red Army troops, and to ensure another year or two of war at a time when the American public was thoroughly tired of this new concept of a “police action” and an “accordion war.” And while critics railed at silly political restraints on US airpower that might have destroyed Chinese or Russian staging areas across the border, they did not appreciate that such attacks might also have prompted similar enemy attention on US supply centers in Japan.

Moreover, the UN coalition had been created under quasi-coercive premises in Fall 1950. The war was seen as about over, and allied deployment might well amount to only garrison duty. European participation in Korea was also predicated on ensuring an American commitment to keeping the Soviets out of Western Europe. But by the time UN troops arrived in Korea, the Chinese were invading and slaughtering the coalition in the retreat to the south. Most European participants simply wanted a truce at any cost and an end to the war.

Further, the US had been drawn into a depressing propaganda war. We were responsible for rebirthing Japan, Italy, and Germany as pro-Western democracies, while Russian and Chinese communists posed as the true allies of the war’s victims that were continuing their war against fascism, against a capitalist American Empire that had joined the old Axis. In the case of Korea, Americans took over constabulary duties from Japanese militarists and supported South Korean authoritarians, while Soviet and Chinese-backed hardened communists in the North posed as agrarian reformers — or so the global leftist narrative went. For many Americans, the thought of fighting a nearly endless civil war was less desirable than an armistice and an end to the hostilities, even though after three years of fighting and 36,000 American dead (and over a million Koreans lost), the borders remained almost unchanged.

Was that stalemate wise, given the later trajectory of North Korea to the present insanity? Perhaps not — but the American effort nonetheless jumpstarted the South, which eventually evolved into a nation with consensual government and the world free-market powerhouse of today.


As historians we must remember not to evaluate what happened solely on the basis of what we now know in hindsight, but rather weigh the information available to the warring parties of the time — albeit with ample attention paid to their own shortcomings and prejudices.

Moreover, most blunders in war follow from the fruits of perceived success (e.g., Germany after victories in the West, Japan after sensing the colonial powers were all through in the Pacific, MacArthur after Inchon, the Chinese after successfully crossing into Korea, and perhaps even the United States in Iraq after the quick victory over the Taliban and the three-week disposal of Saddam Hussein’s regime), when the winning side rarely evaluates its ongoing success in terms of tactical means and strategic ends, the changing tides of war, and the advantages that will soon begin to accrue to the defenders. Few dared challenge the purported genius Hitler in 1941, or the supposedly all-knowing Isoroku Yamamoto in late 1941, or the brilliant MacArthur after Inchon.

Finally, no one can quite predict what will happen when the shooting starts, as even the past can be a deceptive guide. Hitler believed that the Czar’s Russians, who did not fight as stubbornly as the French in World War I, would collapse like the French did in June 1940. When the Chinese crossed the 38th Parallel, they did not anticipate that their communist supermen were subject to the same facts — long, vulnerable supply lines, bad weather, and an enemy with easier logistics — that had plagued the Americans on the way to the Yalu. And while Hitler may have had grounds to doubt the initial effectiveness of the US Army, its sudden mobilization, and its inadequate equipment, he had no appreciation of lethal American fighter-bombers or a growing strategic bombing arm, no appreciation of the brilliance of American generals at the corps and division level, and no appreciation of what Henry Kaiser and Charles Sorensen were up to back in the United States.

URLs in this post:

[1] Works and Days: http://pjmedia.com/victordavishanson
[2] the persistent Depression: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/FDR-s-Policies-Prolonged-Depression-5409.aspx
[3] to Nazi Germany: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0375701133/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0375701133&linkCode=as2&tag=pjmedia-20
[4] the new T-34: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T-34

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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