Luther Spoehr: Review of Craig L. Symonds's “The Battle of Midway” (Oxford University Press, 2011)


Luther Spoehr is an HNN Book Editor and Senior Lecturer in Education & History at Brown University.

“In a series that focuses on historical contingency, it is appropriate, perhaps even essential, to include the Battle of Midway,” says Craig Symonds, a historian at the Naval Academy and author of Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (one of which was, yes, the Battle of Midway) and the award-winning Lincoln and His Admirals. His book is apparently part of Oxford University Press’s series on “Pivotal Moments in American History,” which already includes military histories such as David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing (about the Battle of Trenton) and James McPherson’s Crossroads of Freedom (on the Battle of Antietam), along with treatises on civilian topics such as rock ‘n’ roll, Brown v. Board of Education, and the election of 1800. But except for Symonds’s early remark, quoted above, and series editor McPherson’s 2-page introduction, one would never know this book was part of any series: there’s no mention of it anywhere on the cover or in the book.

Such an ambiguous introduction makes for a weird start (what is Oxford thinking?). But no matter. Symonds follows up his opening remark with a little over 350 pages of superb narrative, clearly, vividly, and energetically written, with attention to detail that is always relevant to his interpretation and almost never descends into minutiae for its own sake. I have read a fair amount of military history, but am hardly a specialist, so I can say confidently that this book will be read appreciatively by other non-specialists. Indeed, it demonstrates why military history should not be considered “merely” a “niche”  subject, but part of the mainstream of the national narrative.

Not that the Battle of Midway has lacked for popular attention. Most notably, Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory (1967) and Gordon Prange’s Miracle at Midway (1982) both attracted many, many readers. As their titles suggest, however, they seemed to be saying that the U.S. Navy’s triumph on June 4, 1942, was so unlikely as to defy rational explanation—or, as Symonds puts it, that victory was “the product of fate, or chance, or luck, or even divine will.” For instance, previous writers have stressed—Symonds says they’ve overstressed—the fortuitous fact that the American torpedo planes heading for the Japanese aircraft carriers arrived just at the right time to occupy the Japanese Zeroes, which were then unable to deal with the subsequent dive-bombers. Then there’s the supposedly crucial late launch of a Japanese reconnaissance plane, which Symonds, contrary to the standard story, shows may well have worked to the Japanese’s advantage.

Like a one-run, extra-inning baseball game, there were many moments where the tide of conflict seemed to shift, or might have shifted, one way or the other. But coincidence, accident, and luck didn’t matter most, according to Symonds. Instead, he argues persuasively, “the outcome of the battle was primarily the result of decisions made and actions taken by individuals who found themselves at the nexus of history at a decisive moment,” adding that “essential to understanding those decisions is an appreciation of the culture that informed these individuals.” Symonds draws upon a wealth of primary and secondary sources, Japanese and American, to illustrate and illuminate those decisions.

The Japanese prepared for battle and fought in ways reflective of their culture. Their “cultural preference for combat” and reliance on quick attack meant that they paid less attention than did the Americans to making their airplanes and carriers resistant to enemy attack. The notorious Zeroes were nimble, but it didn’t take that much of a hit to bring one down.

The Japanese respect for military craftsmanship, Symonds observes, “helped make Japan’s carrier airplanes among the best in the world, and this in turn contributed to the decision to go to war with the United States in the first place. It also meant that once the war began, Japan would be unable to produce replacement airplanes quickly or in large numbers….The Japanese thus bet on quality triumphing over quantity, but they also gambled that the war would be a short one, for they had very little in reserve.”

With the memory of Pearl Harbor and other triumphs still fresh, the Japanese also had a bad case of “victory disease.” They thought the Americans cautious, even timid, and attacked Midway atoll because they thought they had to lure the American carriers out of Hawaii to fight. It didn’t occur to them that the Americans might already be out there, waiting to pounce. Moreover, the Americans had two other advantages in this cat-and-mouse game: radar and the ability to read much of the Japanese code.

The story of Joe Rochefort’s code-breaking, including the bureaucratic battles he had to fight with dubious superiors in Washington, has been told before, but Symonds is especially good at detailing both how laborious and time-consuming it was and how much was still left to be decided by commanders on the scene. Even with radar, finding the enemy in the vast expanse of the Pacific was more than a little challenging. For a long time, neither side knew just how many carriers the other had sent out there. This was particularly debilitating to the Japanese, whose “logistical capacities were already stretched to the breaking point.” 

Once under way, the battle was a carnival of contingencies. From one perspective, American attacks on the Japanese carriers were disorganized, piecemeal, and often utterly ineffective; from another, even the most ineffective attacks—by a maverick squadron of torpedo planes, for instance—surprised and disoriented the Japanese defenses. Certainly not everything went right for the Americans—the “flight to nowhere” from the carrier Hornet, for instance, was botched from launch to landings. Yet there was enough shrewd thinking, playing of the odds, sheer persistence, technical competence, and extraordinary courage to tip the balance in the Americans’ favor. Remarkably, three of the four Japanese carriers were sunk within ten minutes of one another.

Symonds concludes that Midway was “the most complete naval victory since Horatio Nelson’s near annihilation of the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar, and, like that battle, it had momentous strategic consequences.” Japanese options, he observes, were “narrowed to one: a perimeter defense designed to wear out the Americans and force them to the negotiating table.”

That’s an important strategic observation. But Symonds’s most noteworthy achievement is to redress the balance in the Midway story between contingency and context, by calling attention to less whimsical considerations—tactical, logistical, psychological, and material factors that led the two sides to fight as they did and tilted the outcome to the Americans. Fortune may favor the brave, but there was enormous bravery on both sides. An adage from Branch Rickey, a famous strategist in a somewhat different line of work, applies in this case: “Luck is the residue of design.”

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