Ian W. Toll: A Reluctant Enemy

Roundup: Talking About History

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

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.”...

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