In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
The history of our first three months at war must be painted in somber colors. The United States Navy suffered the worst losses in its history. Guam and Wake were captured by Japan. In quick succession the enemy overran most of the Philippines, seized Hong Kong, swept over Singapore, principal bastion and base of the United Nations in the Far East, and reduced various strategic points in the Netherlands East Indies one by one. As these lines were written, the surging tide of conquest was nearing Rangoon, entry port for the Burma Road, and was imperiling India. Southward it was menacing Australia. In the West, the Anglo-American "life line" to Britain and Iceland had been safeguarded and strengthened; but Germany had commenced long-range submarine raiding operations in our coastal waters. All over the world, ship sinkings were increasing to totals which approximated those of the war's worst months, and freight storage yards at American seacoast cities were clogged with products of the "Arsenal of Democracy" awaiting merchant shipping which could transport them to the fighting fronts.
Thus in less than 90 days the strategic picture of the war had been considerably altered. The United Nations had suffered their worst defeats since the fall of France. As spring approached, the short-range prospects were grim. From the long-range viewpoint, however, the basic factors which have been the strength as well as the weakness of the United States have not in every case been modified by the events of its first three months of participation in a shooting war. We still possess many advantages.
Until December 7, 1941, the military struggle which had been in progress could be described in the truest sense as a battle for the domination of Europe. For more than two years the headlines had been telling of its progress. The Nazi legions had swept across country after country, raising the swastika from the North Cape to the Acropolis. Even the battles in Africa had been, strategically speaking, part of the struggle for the Old World; and the German invasion of Russia came as one of its final chapters. But already the war quite evidently was "growing out" of Europe. Only the unexpectedly stout Russian resistance, which prevented the Germans last autumn from reaching the Caucasus and erupting into Asia Minor, and the lease-lend aid given to Britain by the "non-belligerent" United States, held Hitler within the bounds of Europe. A turning point of some sort thus was at hand even before Pearl Harbor. The military war which had been raging for two years across Europe was about to break the bounds of the Continent, just as the political war, the economic war, the ideological war, had long before become one for the world much more than for a continent.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not merely add to the list of belligerents. It enlarged the theater of military operations from a continent to the world. Today, though a number of nations still are ostensibly neutral, there really are no non-belligerents. This has become the greatest war in history, the first to deserve absolutely the term "World War." In one sense it is a war of hemispheres, waged over the continents and the seven seas. In the fullest sense it is total war; it touches all fields, all values, of human interest.
In this war of the world the United States occupies strategically and geographically a central position. It lies behind two great oceans, between a Europe which is virtually dominated by Hitler and an Asia of which the eastern portion is dominated by Japan. We dominate the western shores of the Atlantic and the eastern shores of the Pacific. But the opposing coasts, thousands of miles away, are in the hands of our enemies. Russia also occupies a central position between two enemies, the European Axis states and Japan. But Russia is a great sprawling land mass, in the midst of a continent, with few and precarious gateways to the warm seas and without adequate communications with the other United Nations.
Our strategic position is, in the main, fairly clear. A glance at a world map shows that in defense of our continental territory and of the Western Hemisphere as a whole the United States occupies the inestimable advantage of the "interior position." So long as our forces remain in the Western Hemisphere they can be moved over shorter distances and by shorter lines of communication than any enemy force which can be brought into play against them. We are operating, as it were, from the center of a circle and can rush our forces quickly to any threatened point on the circumference. The Axis, on the other hand, in order to attack us must come great distances over the seas, moving their forces around the perimeter of the circle.
The advantage of the "interior position" is very considerable in war. The Germans have found it a material factor in producing their European victories. If the day comes when we are fighting with our backs to the wall, it will be important to us also. Under present circumstances it is useless. For defensive actions cannot win wars. The "Maginot Line mind" and the military theories that helped to give rise to it have been proved fallacious. We can say that in general the Third French Republic died because it was obsessed by the doctrine of the timid defensive. Wars can be won only by carrying the fighting to the enemy, by the offensive. In total wars what is demanded is the offensive à outrance. This is particularly true in this war. There can be no victory for us if Germany retains control of most of Europe, if Japan creates her "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" and holds China's coasts in fief and exploits Malaya's tin and rubber and the rich supplies of the Indian archipelago. We cannot hope to alter either situation by defensive operations. Only conquest can counter and redeem conquest. If Germany and Japan are to be defeated, if the world is to resume something like its former political shape, the United Nations, and particularly the United States, by far the most powerful of the partners, must reconquer Europe and Asia. The war must be carried to the enemy.
Once we accept this as an axiom of victory, we must also accept some of the disadvantages that geography has imposed upon us. For in the European theater and in the theater of the Western Pacific and Asia our enemies have the advantage of the interior position, and it is we who must operate over great distances around the perimeter of continents and archipelagoes. To carry the fighting to our enemies, to win the war, we must transport troops, planes, men and supplies in amphibian operations of unprecedented magnitude across thousands of miles of the Atlantic and Pacific. And no matter where we choose to strike, it is Japan in the Far East and Germany in Europe who will be able to move their forces the most quickly and over the shorter distances. This is one continuing strategic disadvantage which we must recognize, accept and overcome if we are to win this war.
Yet we still have a great advantage. The United Nations possessed, and still possess, territories and bases in the Western Pacific-Asiatic theater of war and in the European theater. So far, no Axis Power possesses territory or bases in the Western Hemisphere (Martinique and Guadeloupe possibly excepted). This means that so long as we hold bases in the enemy's sphere, and so long as we can deny him bases in the Western Hemisphere, we can carry the war to him but he cannot carry the war to us. Submarine operations off our coasts and occasional air raids on our coastal cities can be conducted from transoceanic bases, but at long range our enemies cannot undertake serious, prolonged, intensive and continuous offensive measures against us at home. So long, moreover, as we hold our overseas bases and keep the enemy from securing bases in this Hemisphere, the factories of our "Arsenal of Democracy," unlike those of any other warring nation, can operate without much fear of prolonged interruption.
Germany and Japan understand this. Their primary strategy has been, therefore, to reduce the bases on which the power of the United Nations depends in the European theater and in the Far Eastern theater. The greatest, most heavily defended and most important of these bases -- perhaps the only one which is absolutely indispensable to victory and which must be held at all costs if we are to avert defeat -- is the British Isles. As soon as we entered the war, then, we at once took steps to make absolutely sure that Britain will not be cut off. We speeded up the strengthening of Iceland as an air and naval base. Even more significant, the first announced movement of American troops -- the equivalent of a National Guard infantry division -- was to Northern Ireland. In January this American force was moved rapidly and without loss to positions in Ulster near the naval and air bases which have been developed there by American contractors. They were sent not only to guard the bases; their presence in Northern Ireland was also expected to have some political effect upon Eire's attitude toward the war. Psychologically, too, the arrival of the vanguard of a new AEF was an important event in the continental "war of nerves." These men were the first, perhaps, of an increasing flow of troops to Britain and Ireland and Iceland. For if the war is to be won, most strategists agree, landings must some day be made, and Allied footholds and air bases established, on the coast of Western Europe.
In the Red Sea-Mediterranean area, meanwhile, American ships, technicians and men speeded work on a project which had been started before the first bombs dropped at Pearl Harbor -- the development of a great supply, assembly and maintenance depôt in Eritrea. American technicians and supply experts were also flown in increasing numbers to Africa and the Middle East, where they undertook the development of transcontinental air routes, the construction of docks on the Persian Gulf, and the enlargement of the capacity of the Trans-Iranian Railway as a supply route to Russia and, via the Russian railroads, to China. This whole North African-Middle Eastern area constitutes another of the bases which we shall need in order to carry the war to the Axis. Now that we are at war we are developing it rapidly.
Though the bases of Allied power around the periphery of Europe still were holding at the moment these lines were written, and were being strengthened, the Japanese conquests in the Western Pacific had reduced the number of the bases which we had hoped to be able to use offensively against Japan.
The Japanese assault upon Pearl Harbor, a modern duplicate of the attack on Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War, was disastrous in its consequences, though not so disastrous as much loose talk might indicate. We already had transferred to the Atlantic, before that date, a considerable number of ships formerly in the Pacific. We had done this for several reasons -- because of the completion of the German battleship Tirpitz and the aircraft carriers Graf Zeppelin and Deutschland; because the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the two German pocket battleships are powerful convoy raiders; because of the incipient menace of the French Fleet; and because of the necessity of strengthening the supply routes to Britain. We thus had accepted a quantitative naval inferiority to Japan. Pearl Harbor did not, therefore, fundamentally and permanently alter the strategic picture in the Pacific; that picture already had been altered by deliberate policy. But the loss of the battleships Arizona and Oklahoma, and the severe damage done to other capital and lighter units, reduced the ratio of our overall superiority vis-à-vis the combined Axis navies and in the Pacific further increased the Japanese superiority.
Japan's strategical plan, of which the attack on Pearl Harbor was an integral part, was boldly conceived and skillfully executed. Its outstanding characteristic was the same as has distinguished all the German operations -- complete coördination of effort. Wake and Guam were captured (the former with unexpectedly heavy losses to the Japanese as a result of the brilliant defense by our marines) and our direct line of communications to the Philippines thus was severed. In the Philippines, the two principal airfields on Luzon, where we had been trying to build up a striking force of heavy bombers, were bombed heavily in a surprise attack launched from the Japanese bases on Formosa; and by the second day many of our bombers had been destroyed on the ground. The Philippines also were invaded at a number of points. Simultaneously Hong Kong and Malaya were assaulted.
The pattern of the invasion of the Philippines differed in only two principal respects from what had been expected. The Japanese utilized somewhat more force than had been thought possible; and the American Asiatic Fleet proved to be a more or less negative factor in the defense of the islands. Once the Japanese had established land-based airfields at Aparri, Vigan and elsewhere on Luzon, their huge transport fleets, heavily protected by fighting ships and planes, were able to disgorge troops almost at will. By the new year, in less than a month of combat, General Douglas MacArthur's delaying actions, fought with insufficient troops and inadequate air support, had played their part. Manila was given up and the siege lines were drawn across the difficult terrain of the Bataan peninsula, where a courageous handful of troops -- soldiers, sailors and marines; Philippine Scouts and Philippine Army; regulars, National Guardsmen and selectees, some of them with only six months' training -- were still fighting and dying as these words were written. American-officered Philippine troops also still held Northern Mindanao. But in general the Philippines could be said to be cut off and hopelessly surrounded. These islands, which "Teddy" Roosevelt once characterized as America's strategic Achilles heel, and which more recently we had hoped to use as an offensive base against Japanese lines of communication, had definitely become a sideshow in a greater game and had been written off.
Hong Kong, it had been hoped, could hold out for months rather than days. Its quick fall was followed by an amazingly rapid Japanese advance down the Malay peninsula. The subsequent fall of Singapore, with the capture of something over 70,000 British troops and much equipment, was the greatest single British defeat of the war. These were shocking blows to the strategy of the United Nations in the southwestern Pacific. They were accompanied by a Japanese penetration of Burma, followed soon by a break-through against the British line on the Salween River. At the same time another Japanese claw was reaching out toward the Netherlands East Indies. Following the same pattern of conquest which had given victory to the Germans -- establishment of air superiority -- Japan seized airfields at a series of strategic points and soon brought under her control nearly all the approaches to Singapore and all the entries into the South China Sea. Her amphibian operations were conducted with great skill and were carefully coördinated to air power. The underestimated Japanese airmen, too, did not restrict the demonstration of their capacity solely to Pearl Harbor, but also sank the British Prince of Wales and Repulse.
Despite the dispersed nature of these operations, the Japanese probably have not used more than 400,000 to 700,000 troops in the entire southwestern Pacific. However, the small parties that landed from transports in widely-scattered parts of the Malay barrier and swept aside light resistance,[i] were heavily supported by a major part of the Japanese Fleet, organized in task forces, and by overwhelming air superiority. There were other elements also in their successes. There were thorough training and excellent coördination, particularly in amphibian operations; fanatical courage and determination; and a willingness to take great losses in order to achieve great gains. As a result of these combined factors, the Japanese in three months of war surged over the Malay barrier, reduced Singapore, greatest base in the Eastern Seas, and stormed against the gates of Australia and India. Their victories have prolonged the war by postponing indefinitely any hope of our launching offensive operations against Japan from the southwestern Pacific. For over the most important bases in this area now floats the banner of the Rising Sun.
Japan's quick conquests are not to be attributed solely to Japanese strength and skill. They are also attributable to Allied weakness and unreadiness. The Japanese profited by surprise. They also profited by our mistakes. Our Asiatic Fleet, and most of the naval forces of the United Nations in the Orient, apparently adopted a defensive policy -- at least until after the relief of Admiral Thomas C. Hart, the American commander, under General Sir Archibald Wavell, of the combined naval forces in the area. Except for a few submarine successes, our Asiatic Fleet, apparently in accordance with a deliberate decision of policy, made little attempt to fight off the Japanese landings in the Philippines; and though it is fair to note that the evacuation of Cavite was carried out skillfully, it must be added that evacuations do not win wars. What we were fighting for in the Philippines, and in the Outer Possessions of the Netherlands East Indies, was time. To delay the Japanese and to hurt them would thus have been worth the sacrifice of many ships. Yet in the first two months of war not a single American naval vessel had been reported lost in action with the enemy, except those destroyed at Pearl Harbor.
Now wars cannot be won without losing ships and lives. A more daring and costly policy in the Orient might have given us a commodity which is most precious in modern war -- time -- time to overcome the shock of surprise and the handicap of distance, time to compensate for at least Japan's initial advantages in holding an "interior position," time to organize convoy routes half as long as the circumference of the globe and three to twelve times as long as the Japanese communications, time to build up stores of supplies in Australia, Java, Burma and India and to transport precious reinforcements of all kinds to the theater of action, time for our offensive tactics to produce their full effect of attrition on Japan's all-out effort.
No matter how skillfully our naval power had been handled, however, it probably could not have saved Singapore. The fall of that stronghold was not due simply to lack of adequate naval power, but to gross air inferiority and (as at Pearl Harbor) to an obvious complacency and lack of forethought on the part of the British defenders. They seemingly might have made better use of the forces at their disposal than they actually did make. The Japanese generalship and troop training were both superior to the British. The enemy seems to have developed a form of infiltration tactics by lightly armed men -- almost guerrilla units -- which is peculiarly adapted to fighting in the tropics and especially in jungle areas. The British, unlike MacArthur's better acclimatized and better trained troops, apparently made the mistake -- initially at any rate -- of trying to use conventional Occidental methods of fighting in jungle country against an Oriental enemy.
The full story of those three months of tragedy remains to be told. Even now, however, it can be said with confidence that though the Japanese have won great successes, have severely shaken the prestige of the white man in the Orient, and have greatly increased the difficulty of our task, they are by no means unbeatable. There are other Far Eastern bases for us to use as springboards for attack upon them.
The first and main task is to halt the Japanese surge of conquest, if not at Java then on the coast of Northern Australia and in Burma. Our gigantic long-range convoys across the Pacific, unprecedented in the history of war, have begun to build up stockpiles of materials in Australia; and the supply routes have been strengthened by the garrisons we have placed on the islands along the way. But now that the Japanese are in possession of Malaya and the Indies, their need for oil and other raw materials is largely met, whereas we must transport most of our oil supplies to Australia. Because of this, Australia's rôle will be, for the time being, that of a defensive barrier rather than an offensive base.
Meanwhile we must look to the area India-Burma-China, to our mid-ocean bastion of Hawaii, to the Alaska-Aleutian area, and to the Russian bases in eastern Asia -- specifically, Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula -- as the future springboards for the offensive operations against Japan which we must undertake if we are to be victorious. The pattern of our eventual victory has already, in part, been set; the Fleet's raid upon the mandated Marshall Islands follows the traditional strategy long ago envisaged in case of a war with Japan. Such offensive operations must be, surely will be, extended in scope and power. For this is a war for survival, and only by smashing assaults can we hope to save our lives.
[i] For example, not more than 5,000 to 10,000 Japanese troops were used at Tarakan, Borneo.