Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Threat That Weren't (Part I)

Today's column:

Somewhat recently, I finished Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. The book is an alternate history. Instead of winning WWII, FDR is assassinated, whereupon the Americans and their allies suffer ignoble defeat at the hands of the Germans and Japanese; instead of a cold war between Russia and the U.S., Japan and Germany divide the latter allied power and become ensconced in a cold war of their own. Dick is a wonderful writer, albeit one who tends to make too frequent use of fragments, and the book is well worth a read. Yet the premise of the book is ultimately unsound. Fortunately, this does not undermine the book for two reasons: first, because of its bizarre conclusion, and second, because science fiction has always been more about the implications of a particular idea, rather than the plausibility of the idea itself.

But while incredible ideas are fine for science fiction, they can be dangerous if we accept them as feasible when they are not. Pretending that the Japanese were even vaguely capable of defeating the U.S. and occupying the west coast is nothing short of ridiculous. The myth of Pearl Harbor, the “date which will live in infamy” is firmly implanted in the minds and hearts of Americans. But it is, quite simply, not true that the American naval fleet was destroyed on that fateful day. Indeed, far from it. Historian Paul Johnson notes, “the Pearl Harbor assault achieved complete tactical surprise but its strategic results were meager... most of the warships were only damaged or were sunk in shallow water. Their trained crews largely escaped... The American carriers, far more important than the elderly battleships, were all out at sea at the time of the attack...” Far from crippling, the attacks merely awoke the sleeping beast, helped jump start a sluggish economy—thus giving rise to another myth: that Keynesian economics actually work—and put America on the war path.

But what about the threat posed by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor? FDR thought it serious enough to intern 112,000 Japanese-Americans, but in this, as in so many things, he was dead wrong. The Japanese posed no real threat to the United States. We were justified in striking back at them as they had deliberately attacked us, but there was never any real doubt that we would win the war. After the United Stated joined the allies, Winston Churchill observed in his memoirs: “Ultimate victory was certain.”

The Japanese fleet was in firm control of the Pacific, but the limits of their economy—just ten percent of that of the United States—ensured that the latter would eventually gain naval supremacy. More importantly, there was never a chance that the Japanese fleet would mount a successful invasion of the west coast of the United States. If we consider Operation Overlord, that is, the invasion of Normandy, the impossibility of such a feat becomes clear. Quoting again from Churchill: “The concentration of the assaulting forces—176,00 men, 20,000 vehicles, and many thousand tons of stores, all to be shipped in the first two days—was in itself an enormous task... It seemed most improbable that all this movement by sea and land would escape the attention of the enemy.” To expect that surprise could be maintained while a fleet of at least that size was transported across the ocean requires madness—or fiction.

In short, looking through the lenses of history, there was no reason to intern Japanese citizens; neither was there a case for using nuclear bombs on a country that, after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, had seen its fleet utterly destroyed.

On a related note, it has been six years since the twin towers fell, and in that time we have heard a good deal about the threat posed by the terrorists. Yet it is entirely possible that the threat of extinction at the hands of Al-Qaeda is no more real than that which was presented by the feeble Japanese fleet. We'll entertain this prospect next week.


troutsky said...

To understand Keynesian economics you have to understand the popular pressures on the owning class at the time. Putting people to work, creating social programs and building bureaucratized unions was incredibly successful.

As for the attack on Pearl Harbor, are we sure it was a surprise?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

To quote Paul Johnson, "The real recovery from the boom atmosphere of the 1920s came only on the Monday after the Labor Day weekend of September 1939 [ten years into the depression and seven years into FDR's presidency], when news of war in Europe plunged the New York Stock Exchange into a joyful confusion which finally wiped out the traces (though not the memory) of October 1929. Two years later, with America on the brink of war itself, the dollar value of production finally passed the 1929 levels for good. If interventionism worked [Keynesianism], it took nine years and a world war to demonstrate the fact."

As for Pearl Harbor, most people agree that it was a surprise, another case of information that we had not getting to the right folks if I recall. But it's further evidence of Blowback: the unintended consequences that happen when we intervene in the affairs of others. In the case of the Japanese, we're talking about limiting their access to oil. Where have we heard that before?