Tokyo Wins World War II?: What If Japan Never Attacked at Pearl Harbor?

Tokyo Wins World War II?: What If Japan Never Attacked at Pearl Harbor?

James Holmes

Security, Asia

We asked a top expert.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to postulate alternative strategies for Imperial Japan. Indeed, eminent Japanese have themselves postulated alternatives. My favorite: the high naval command should have stuck to its pre-1941 playbook. The Pearl Harbor carrier raid was a latecomer to Japanese naval strategy, and it was the handiwork of one man, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Had Yamamoto declined to press the case for a Hawaiian strike, or had the high command rebuffed his entreaties, the Imperial Japanese Navy would have executed its longstanding strategy of “interceptive operations.”

Suppose Robert E. Lee had laid hands on a shipment of AK-47s in 1864. How would American history have unfolded? Differently than it did, one imagines.

Historians frown on alt-history, and oftentimes for good reason. Change too many variables, and you veer speedily into fiction. The chain connecting cause to effect gets too diffuse to trace, and history loses all power to instruct. Change a major variable, especially in a fanciful way—for instance, positing that machine-gun-toting Confederates took the field against Ulysses S. Grant’s army at the Battle of the Wilderness—and the same fate befalls you. Good storytelling may teach little.

What if Japan had never attacked Pearl Harbor? Now that’s a question we can take on without running afoul of historical scruples. As long as we refrain from inserting nuclear-powered aircraft carriers sporting Tomcat fighters into our deliberations, at any rate.

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