Tag Archives: History

The Battle of Midway: The not-so decisive battle

Between 4-7 June, 1942 just a month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, and six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese developed a battle plan to try to take the Midway Atoll, and draw the American carrier fleet into a trap.   This plan was named ‘Operation MI’, whereby Japan hoped to crush the American Pacific Fleet decisively.  The plan would allow them to take the Midway Atoll to assert their dominance in the Pacific, closing the gap in their northern defences[1] and forcing the US into a negotiated peace.  Unfortunately for the Japanese, instead of a decisive win, the Imperial Japanese Navy indisputably lost.  The Battle of Midway was a won decisively by the US fleet.

Decisive /dɪˈsʌɪsɪv/1. settling an issue; producing a definite result [2]

That the US won this battle ‘decisively’ is uncontentious, however when discussing the Battle of Midway, there are many who claim this win was something more; not only was the battle won decisively, but that this battle was ‘decisive’ for the outcome of the Pacific War itself.  Could Midway really have been ‘decisive’ for the Pacific War? H. P. Willmott says no.  He argues that the Battle of Midway should not be considered ‘decisive’ for the Pacific War, because this would be to use the term in a way different to its accepted meaning.  For Midway to have been ‘decisive’ for the Pacific War, Willmott suggests that it must satisfy at least one of three primary conditions:  A Japanese win must have been able to change the outcome of the war; The American victory must have caused a ‘death knell’ for Japanese forces; or that the Pacific War for the US hinged on such a victory, without which their situation could not have been reversed.  Willmott suggests, and this essay concurs, that none of these conditions are sufficiently met to consider Midway ‘decisive’; rather, Midway should be seen as a (large) part of a campaign which started with the Battle of the Coral Sea, and ended with the Battle of Guadalcanal.

A Japanese win at Midway, a different outcome for the Pacific War?

Implicit in the choice of Midway as the ‘decisive moment’ in the Pacific war is the judgment that from this point defeat was inevitable for Japan. This idea of inevitability hinges on the assumption that there were genuine alternatives to the outcome of the war, and that Midway created the conditions for the US victory. However this is highly doubtful, because Midway was only a naval battle, and ‘even great victories do not necessarily decide the outcome of conflict at sea, let alone on land’[3].  Likewise, it can be argued that there were only two outcomes possible in the Pacific War; a US military win, or a win/win negotiated peace, since a mere prolongation of the Pacific War, without affecting the final outcome, would have been insufficient to be considered ‘decisive’.

It must be considered if the Japanese could have been victorious against the US. Realistically, the US decision to implement a ‘total war’ strategy meant that the US was not in significant danger of ‘losing’ the Pacific War.  This may have prolonged the timeframe for victory, and been achieved with greater human and materiel losses on both sides[4], though it was highly doubtful that the Japanese could have overcome the significant economic and resource issues they had.  The Pacific war was never really militarily ‘winnable’ by the Japanese; they simply did not have the economic power, industrial strength, or the materiel or human resources to win a total war against the US.  The industrial power of the U.S gave them the capacity to inflict their revenge upon the Japanese; it was merely a matter of time.

If Japanese defeat was inevitable, then there could be no ‘decisive’ battles at all, save for perhaps the initial attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; as Willmott notes, ‘the notion of an inevitable victory is irreconcilable with that of a decisive battle’[5].  If there was a possibility of a different outcome, it was in a possible negotiation of peace, which, all things considered, was highly unlikely to have been successful[6]. The Pacific War, for the Japanese, was never supposed to be a militarily won engagement.  Japan knew they would be unable to keep pace with the Americans; Yamamoto is purported to have understood this well, given his time at Harvard, in the USA.  He is purported to have said ‘Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas […] knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America’[7]. Instead, the Japanese objectives in the war, at least initially, were to gain leverage for recognition of their political objectives.  The Midway operation, like the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier, was not part of a campaign for the conquest of the United States, but was aimed at its elimination as a strategic Pacific power, thereby giving Japan carte blanche in establishing its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  The aim was to encourage the US to deem the Pacific too costly to be worthwhile.

American victory, Japanese ‘death knell’?

That was their primary reason for Midway – they aimed to force the Americans to agree to a favourable peace deal through a ‘decisive’ win.  Instead, Midway exacerbated an already problematic asset gap, since Japan had far less capacity to recoup those losses.  At Midway, the US lost one destroyer, one aircraft carrier and 147 aircraft, but for these losses, they destroyed Japans four best aircraft carriers, along with their entire crews, air crews, and aircraft, and a cruiser[8]. However, while these losses at Midway were devastating, ‘the American victory […] did not immediately alleviate the Japanese threat in the Central and South Pacific, nor did it win back one foot of conquered soil’[9].  According to Willmott, for a standalone naval victory like Midway to be ‘decisive’, it would have been necessary to prove to the other side that the costs of engaging were too high, forcing a negotiation for surrender or bilateral peace.  Midway did not meet this ‘death knell’ criteria; in order to create this situation, assets that were never at risk at Midway would have needed to be under threat or lost; troops, industry, and infrastructure.

According to Spector, the Japanese still had sufficient forces after Midway to again take the initiative for another try at the US fleet[10]. The Japanese still held the overall balance of power in the Pacific, and at best, still retained a degree of naval superiority in the Pacific after Midway; at worst, they had a rough parity.  This meant that if they had maintained the initiative, and pursued aggressively, they may have been able to break the American sea lines of communications to Australia[11].  This superiority, as discussed previously, was known to be time sensitive; they knew they would have to act before the US could use their economy to full effect.  In spite of this, the Japanese were still a strong threat to any action in the Pacific after Midway. They could still perform offensive operations, both naval and land-based; they had not wagered enough at Midway to force them to surrender; and their appropriated territories in the Pacific had defences strong enough to cause concern.  While the loss of four carriers made it difficult for the Japanese to support their ground forces, it was not a significant enough loss for them to deem it too costly to continue the war – they still had those other forces, and control of resources in South East Asia.  The Pacific War was far too extensive to have been decided on the basis of one single, purely naval battle. It is difficult, therefore, to justify Midway as the ‘decisive’ point in the Pacific; it merely provided a ‘short breathing space’[12] for the Americans.

Victory in the Pacific hinged on Midway?

Since it has been shown already that it is highly doubtful that there could have been a different outcome to the Pacific War overall, how could a victory at Midway be required to win the Pacific War?  While it is certainly true that the US may not have been confident of committing to the later battle at Guadalcanal without a win at Midway[13], it is certainly likely that they would have continued the war; a ‘victory’ for Japan, consisting of their desired negotiated peace, was unlikely with the US emphasis on ‘absolute victory’[14], and later, with the joint Allied doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender’[15].  Given the differences in industrial strengths noted previously, there was little doubt that the US could out produce Japan; this alone meant that Midway would not prove ‘decisive’ in the context of the war.

There is also the follow on from their industrial capacity; even a US loss at Midway could have been made good in a short period of time[16].  The US had, or had the capacity to produce, replacements for every unit they fielded at Midway.  A loss at Midway would not have been critical to the US economy; perhaps the greatest difficulties with a loss at Midway were political.  In a counterfactual scenario posed by Isom, the additional time and materiel fielded by Japan in 1945 may have led to a greater reliance upon the support provided by the Soviet Union[17].  This could have led to a brokered occupation policy with the Soviets, providing a measure of control in Japan much as happened in Germany after the end of the War in the European theatre. This would have forced similar ideological concessions as those made in the European Theatre with the Soviet Union.  What this shows, though, is that even had greater effort been required without a Midway, or with a loss at Midway, the US would still be in a position to secure a victory in the Pacific.

Midway: Only ‘decisive’ as a component of a campaign

If Midway is to be considered ‘decisive’, Willmott convincingly argues that this could only be true if seen as an ‘admittedly large’[18] component of a campaign, which included the Battle of the Coral Sea beforehand, and the Battle of Guadalcanal after it.  The battle of the Coral Sea provided the benefit to morale, and reduced the pressure on the US. It also shifted the balance of power away from the Japanese, though not yet ‘to’ the US[19].  While the losses at the Battle of the Coral Sea favoured the Japanese, Willmott argues that it is not merely the numbers that matter[20]; it is, instead, the fact that at this stage of the war, the Japanese simply could not afford the waste of time and resources that they could not have recouped.  Their loss, while giving the appearance of a tactical victory, Willmott suggests actually created a strategic loss to their potential[21].

The Battle of Midway shifted the balance of power again; it created an increasingly significant asset gap in the Japanese forces, and the loss of carriers, along with their aircraft, damaged both Japanese air superiority, and offensive capability[22].  The Japanese lost the initiative; however it was not yet taken up by the US.  It was these factors that made Midway important, however they did not show their true impact until combined with the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the Island hopping campaign.

The Battle of Guadalcanal saw the Americans take up offense, and placed Japan on the defensive; it allowed the Americans exploit the losses of the Japanese in both the Coral Sea, and Midway to their full strategic potential.  While the battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway tore away Japanese assets, and damaged their defensive perimeter[23], the US needed these wins backed up at Guadalcanal in order to support the Solomons’ campaign, and to begin the hard trek to the end of the war in the Pacific.

 

This essay has argued that Willmott’s thesis that Midway alone was not decisive for the outcome of the Pacific War. Midway alone could not be decisive, because it could not have fulfilled the implications of the term; It could neither change the outcome of the war, cause a ‘death knell’ for Japanese forces, or been an irreversible hinge on which victory rested.  However, together with the battles of the Coral Sea, and of Guadalcanal, Midway can be seen as a piece of an important campaign that acted towards creating the conditions for victory in the Pacific.

 

 

Bibliography

Asada, S. From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States.  Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2013.

“Decisive.” In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Angus Stevenson Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.prospero.murdoch.edu.au/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0209960.

Isom, D.W. Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Lillian Goldman Law Library. “Casablanca Conference, Feb 12, 1943.”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/casablan.asp.

———. “Joint Session of the Congress Monday, December 8, 1941.”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/dec03.asp#address.

Murray, Williamson. “Allied Strategy in the First Phase of the Pacific War: Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Reaction.” In Eighth Forum, International Forum on War History: Strategy in the Pacific War. Tokyo, Japan: National institute for Defense Studies, 2009.

Roehrs, M.D., and W.A. Renzi. World War Two in the Pacific. M E Sharpe Incorporated, 2004.

Spector, R.H. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan.  New York: Free Press, 1985.

Till, Geoffrey. “Midway: The Decisive Battle?”. Naval History 19, no. 5 (2005): 32-36.

Willmott, H.P. The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942.  Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

 


[1] H.P. Willmott, The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942  (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 67.

[2] “Decisive,” ed. Angus Stevenson, 3rd ed., Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),  http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.prospero.murdoch.edu.au/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0209960.

[3] Geoffrey Till, “Midway: The Decisive Battle?,” Naval History 19, no. 5 (2005): 33.

[4] D.W. Isom, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway  (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 293.

[5] Willmott, The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 519.

[6] Isom, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway, 207.

[7] S. Asada, From Mahan to Pearl Harbor: The Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States  (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2013), 183.

[8] R.H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan  (New York: Free Press, 1985), 176.

[9] M.D. Roehrs and W.A. Renzi, World War Two in the Pacific  (M E Sharpe Incorporated, 2004), 105.

[10] Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan, 178.

[11] Williamson Murray, “Allied Strategy in the First Phase of the Pacific War: Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Reaction,” in Eighth Forum, International Forum on War History: Strategy in the Pacific War (Tokyo, Japan: National institute for Defense Studies, 2009), 53.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Willmott, The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 514.

[14] Lillian Goldman Law Library, “Joint Session of the Congress Monday, December 8, 1941,”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/dec03.asp#address.

[15] “Casablanca Conference, Feb 12, 1943,”  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/casablan.asp.

[16] Willmott, The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 522.

[17] see Isom’s counterfactual scenario in Isom, Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway, 290-92 especially.

[18] Willmott, The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942.

[19] The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 514.

[20] The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 517.

[21] The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 518.

[22] The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June 1942, 514, 23.

[23] Till, “Midway: The Decisive Battle?.”

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