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Topic: Yamamoto

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7 DEC 2011 at 1:18pm

Twerp

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A Reluctant Enemy

By IAN W. TOLL
Published: December 6, 2011
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Sam Weber

 

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ON a bright Hawaiian Sunday morning 70 years ago today, hundreds of Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over Pearl Harbor and laid waste to the United States Pacific Fleet. The American people boiled over in righteous fury, and America plunged into World War II. The “date which will live in infamy” was the real turning point of the war, which had been raging for more than two years, and it opened an era of American internationalism and global security commitments that continues to this day.

By a peculiar twist of fate, the Japanese admiral who masterminded the attack had persistently warned his government not to fight the United States. Had his countrymen listened, the history of the 20th century might have turned out much differently.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto foresaw that the struggle would become a prolonged war of attrition that Japan could not hope to win. For a year or so, he said, Japan might overrun locally weak Allied forces — but after that, its war economy would stagger and its densely built wood-and-paper cities would suffer ruinous air raids. Against such odds, Yamamoto could “see little hope of success in any ordinary strategy.” His Pearl Harbor operation, he confessed, was “conceived in desperation.” It would be an all-or-nothing gambit, a throw of the dice: “We should do our best to decide the fate of the war on the very first day.”

During the Second World War and for years afterward, Americans despised Yamamoto as an archvillain, the perpetrator of an ignoble sneak attack, a personification of “Oriental treachery.” Time magazine published his cartoon likeness on its Dec. 22, 1941, cover — sinister, glowering, dusky yellow complexion — with the headline “Japan’s Aggressor.” He was said to have boasted that he would “dictate terms of peace in the White House.”

Yamamoto made no such boast — the quote was taken out of context from a private letter in which he had made precisely the opposite point. He could not imagine an end to the war short of his dictating terms in the White House, he wrote — and since Japan could not hope to conquer the United States, that outcome was inconceivable.

In fact, Yamamoto was one of the most colorful, charismatic and broad-minded naval officers of his generation. He had graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War. As a 21-year-old ensign, he fought in one of the most famous sea battles in history — the Battle of Tsushima, in 1905, a lopsided Japanese victory that shocked the world and forced Czar Nicholas II to sue for peace. Yamamoto was wounded in the action and wore the scars to prove it — his lower midsection was badly pockmarked by shrapnel, and he lost two fingers on his left hand.

In the course of his naval career, he traveled widely through the United States and Europe, learning enough English — mostly during a two-year stint at Harvard soon after World War I — to read books and newspapers and carry on halting conversations. He read several biographies of Lincoln, whom he admired as a man born into poverty who rose to become a “champion” of “human freedom.”

From 1926 to 1928 he served as naval attaché in Washington; while in America, he journeyed alone across the country, paying his way with his own meager salary, stretching his budget by staying in cheap hotels and skipping meals. His travels revealed the growing power of the American industrial machine. “Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas,” he would later remark, “knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America.”

Yamamoto didn’t drink; for vices, he preferred women and gambling. He played shogi (Japanese chess), poker and bridge aggressively, and for high stakes. In Tokyo, Yamamoto spent his nights among the geishas of the Shinbashi district, who nicknamed him 80 sen. (A manicure cost one yen, equivalent to 100 sen; since he had only eight fingers he demanded a discount.)

When Yamamoto appeared in uniform, on the deck of his flagship or before Emperor Hirohito, he was the picture of hatchet-faced solemnity. But in other settings he was prone to sentimentality, as when he freely wept at the death of a subordinate, or poured out his heart in letters to his geisha lover.

During the political turmoil of the 1930s, Yamamoto was a leading figure in the navy’s moderate “treaty faction,” known for its support of unpopular disarmament treaties. He criticized the mindlessly bellicose rhetoric of the ultranationalist right and opposed the radicals who used revolutionary violence and assassinations to achieve their ends. He despised the Japanese Army and its leaders, who subverted the power of civilian ministers and engineered military adventures in Manchuria and other parts of China.

As navy vice minister from 1936 to 1939, Yamamoto staked his life on forestalling an alliance with Nazi Germany. Right-wing zealots condemned him as a “running dog” of the United States and Britain and vowed to assassinate him. A bounty was reportedly placed on his head. He received letters warning him of an impending punishment “on heaven’s behalf,” and authorities discovered a plot to blow up a bridge as he passed over it.

In August 1939, Yamamoto was named commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, the highest seagoing command in the Japanese Navy. (As it placed him beyond the reach of his enemies, the appointment probably saved his life.) From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process. But he continued to ask critical questions. Two decades of strategic planning for a war with the United States had envisioned a clash of battleships in the western Pacific — a decisive battle like that at Tsushima. But Yamamoto now asked: What if the American fleet declined to play its part? What if the Americans instead chose to bide their time and build up their strength?

IN 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the fleet to Pearl Harbor. He had intended to signal that the United States Navy was in striking distance of Japan — but “conversely,” Yamamoto observed, “we’re within striking distance, too. In trying to intimidate us, America has put itself in a vulnerable position. If you ask me, they’re just that bit too confident.” Therein lay the germ of his plan to launch a sudden carrier air attack on the Hawaiian stronghold.

Adm. Osami Nagano, chief of the Naval General Staff, stiffly resisted the proposed raid. His planners worried that it would expose the Japanese aircraft carriers to devastating counterstrikes. Yamamoto countered that the American Fleet was a “dagger pointed at Japan’s heart,” and surmised that the attack might even cause the Americans to recoil in shock and despair, “so that the morale of the U.S. Navy and the American people goes down to such an extent that it cannot be recovered.” At last, he threatened to resign unless his operation was approved, and Admiral Nagano capitulated: “If he has that much confidence, it’s better to let Yamamoto go ahead.”

Yamamoto appreciated the irony: having risked his life to prevent war with the United States, he was now its architect. “What a strange position I find myself in,” he wrote a friend, “having been assigned the mission diametrically opposed to my own personal opinion, with no choice but to push full speed in pursuance of that mission. Alas, is that fate?”

And yet even in the final weeks of peace, Yamamoto continued to urge that the wiser course was not to fight the United States at all. “We must not start a war with so little a chance of success,” he told Admiral Nagano. He recommended abrogating the Tripartite Pact and pulling Japanese troops out of China. Finally, he hoped that the emperor would intervene with a “sacred decision” against war. But the emperor remained silent.

On Dec. 7, 1941, all eight battleships of the Pacific Fleet were knocked out of action in the first half hour of the conflict. More than 180 American planes were destroyed, mostly on the ground, representing about two-thirds of the total American military aircraft in the Pacific theater. The Japanese carriers escaped with the loss of just 29 planes.

The Japanese people exulted, and Yamamoto was lifted in their eyes to the status of a demigod. Now he could dictate his wishes to the Tokyo admirals, and would continue to do so until his death in April 1943, when American fighters shot down his aircraft in the South Pacific.

And yet, Pearl Harbor aside, Yamamoto was not a great admiral. His strategic blunders were numerous and egregious, and were criticized even by his own subordinate officers.

Indeed, from a strategic point of view, Pearl Harbor was one of the most spectacular miscalculations in history. It aroused the American people to wage total, unrelenting war until Japan was conquered. Yamamoto was also directly responsible for Japan’s cataclysmic defeat at the Battle of Midway, and for the costly failure of his four-month campaign to recapture the island of Guadalcanal.

But perhaps the most important part of Yamamoto’s legacy was not his naval career at all, but the part he played in the boisterous politics of prewar Japan. He was one of the few Japanese leaders of his generation who found the moral courage to tell the truth — that waging war against the United States would invite a national catastrophe. As Japan lay in ashes after 1945, his countrymen would remember his determined exertions to stop the slide toward war. In a sense, Isoroku Yamamoto was vindicated by Japan’s defeat.

Ian W. Toll is the author of “Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942.”

 

 

 

So we can talk about someone else other than Azzurri's dumb old napoleon (ice cream)


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8 DEC 2011 at 5:10pm

Fenwick

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I believe it was Yamamoto who explained to his colleagues that Japan could never sucessfully invade the US mainland because "There would be a rifle hidden behind every blade of grass."



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