Allied strategic incoherence in the Pacific, 1941
It was foreseeable, in other words, that Germany First was politically feasible
only on condition that Japan was properly checked by Pacific defensive strategy. When
the Allied defensive strategy brought humiliating defeats one after another, public opinion
rapidly roused against it and the US was largely unable to execute Germany First in the
first year of the war.
I have been delayed in responding to this thread both by issues relating to weather, as well as my
desire to check several sources, the best of which, ' And I Was There ' by Rear Admiral Edwin Layton,
to ensure I had my facts in the correct order.
The Primary reason for the Allied defeat in the first six months of WW2 was due primarily to one,
single element: TIME.
As Napolean told his Marshalls, " I can give you anything you ask for except
TIME ! "
From the start of the War in September, 1939, Britain and the United States had an unspoken
agreement to collaborate in the defeat of Germany, and, to further that end, to avoid making
any moves to halt Japanese aggression in China. Thus, up until the end of June, 1941, essentially,
every time Japan advanced further into China, Churchill and Roosevelt would publicly wring their
hands and denounce Japan's actions, but would do nothing more. Further, in an effort to avoid
antagonizing Japan, and providing them with a cassus belli which would create a Pacific War that
neither the U.S. or Britain desired, both of the Allies avoided reinforcing their Pacific territories
militarily to any great extent. A few obsolete warships were sent, a few squadrons of aircraft
that were aging into obsolescence, but little else.
With the Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the USSR had been a de-facto member
of the Axis, and when Japan attacked on the Nomonhan in the spring and summer of 1939,
it was seen as beneficial to the Allies. Then, after Germany attacked Poland, the Japanese
abandoned their attacks on Soviet Territory, and signed a Non Aggression Pact, similar to the
Molotov Ribbentrop Pact. In effect, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the USSR were now, to the
Allies, one single enemy. But, on June, 21, 1941, Barbarossa began, and things changed
radically. The USSR joined the Allies. Suddenly, the U. S. and Britain had to come up with
supplies to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of Japan attacking
the USSR on a Pacific Front became an absolute, existential threat to the Allies. Thus, Japan's
position with respect to the U.S. and Britain had changed - they were now an active enemy that
had to be suppressed - but this had to be done carefully. None of the Allied leaders wanted
Japan to actively enter the war against Russia, and at the same time, they wanted to prevent
Japan from either conquering China, or seizing any of the Colonial Territories of the Allies,
territories that were rich in the resources needed by both the Allies and Japan.
We must understand that the three major leaders had three different agendas. Churchill wanted
the U.S. to enter the war, at almost any cost, in order to defeat Germany quickly before a
bankrupted Britain lost control of it's Empire. The Soviets wanted the U.S. to continue supplying
them with military aid and equipment, in order that THEY could defeat Germany, and take
Eastern Europe and Germany by force. And Roosevelt, who in 1940 had campaigned on a
promise of no foreign wars, wanted to continue to supply the other two Allies with military
aid, equipment, and supplies, all sold to them at a profit. For Roosevelt, getting into the war
was NOT his first choice - he would go to war if there were no alternative, but as long as the
U.S. could profit from the war, both economically and in terms of international power, he was
content to allow the U.S. to continue to be the ' Merchant of Death ' for any of the allies,
including the Netherlands East Indies and China, who had the cash to pay for weapons.
The problem was, China. As the war in China continued, Chiang Kai Shek's Koumintang suffered
reverse after reverse. Weapons sold to them by the U.S. were invariably lost in hopeless battles,
the Japanese were gradually taking the major Chinese cities, and the entire coastline was being
occupied, which would eventually cut China off from international arms shipments, and lead
to their speedy defeat. As the U.S. was in no position, politically, to go to war, the only weapon
that Roosevelt could deploy was an economic one - the twin swords of Embargo and Credit Freeze.
( If this is sounding a bit familiar, yes, it is..... )
With the start of Barbarossa, the U.S. ramped up it's supply of materiel to Russia. Then, in
July, 1941, the Japanese, with German cooperation, invaded Vichy held French IndoChina.
To the Roosevelt Administration, this was a dramatic turning point. To Washington, it appeared
likely that Japan would use it's power in the Pacific to take ALL
of the European colonies,
including the NEI, Malaya, and possibly even U.S. territories such as the Philippines. For
the U.S., this was unnacceptable.
Immediately, while Japan was still occupying IndoChina, Roosevelt cut off their Oil, as well
as all other materials, and froze all Japanese Assets in the U.S. He then arranged for a summit
meeting at Argentia with Churchill, in which they attempted to hammer out a joint strategy.
This meeting was a failure. Churchill, knowing how weak Britain was, wanted the U.S. to
commit to continue to supply Britain and the USSR, ( But Especially Britain ! ) while at the
same time, putting all the other available assets into a war against Japan, if Japan threatened
the British Empire. He wanted the Pacific Fleet moved to Singapore, as well as large numbers
of troops to be sent to the Pacific, in order to subdue Japan by a huge show of strength. This
was, at the same time, to be accompanied by increased USN commitment to fighting the U-boats
in the Atlantic.
Roosevelt was no fool, and the result of the Argentia Conference was nothing more than a
statement supporting the ideas of the Four Freedoms. The military staffs of Britain and the
U.S. DID confer, and ideas of mutually supporting strategies were discussed, but NO commitment
of U.S. forces to support Britain in the event of an attack by Japan were agreed upon, as such
an agreement would have required the consent of the U.S. Congress, which was unlikely to go
along with any such accord.
However, the twin events of Barbarossa and the Occupation of IndoChina had lit a fire under
Roosevelt's Wheelchair. He was suddenly ending his plans to move ships from the Pacific to
the Atlantic, and further, he began a program to actively reinforce the U.S. territories in the
Pacific, particularly the Philippines.
And here is where a mass program of Self-Deception began: The USAAF had for nearly a decade
been dominated by a group of officers who were collectively known as ' The Bomber Barons ',
whose thesis was that wars could be either easily won, or even prevented, by huge fleets of
four engine bombers that could threaten any enemy nation.
This group convinced, first George Marshall, and then Roosevelt, that a force of some 200
Boeing B-17s, based in the Philippines, with protecting fighters and support equipment,
could so threaten Japan's industrial centers that the Japanese would be unwilling to risk
The U.S. began, even as the Japanese were occupying IndoChina, to carry out this plan.
On July 27, MacArthur was re-activated in the Army, and the following day was promoted
to Lt. General ( This was done so that he would NOT outrank Marshall ! ) The USAAF began
making plans to deploy B-17s to the Philippines, and the rest of the Army began to deploy
additional units to strengthen MacArthur's forces. This included light tanks, S.P Guns which
were to serve as Tank Destroyers, another Infantry Division, and support units. In addition,
some 100 Curtis P-40s were dispatched to serve as Air Defense for the islands.
The Plan by the U.S. was to send three squadrons of B-17, or 36 aircraft, each month for
six months, for a total of over 210 bombers. Over 100 fighters were being send immediately,
with more in the future. All of the ground forces were to be dispatched as soon as the summer
Army Maneuvers were completed. In all, it was believed that in less than one year, Japan
would find itself running out of Oil and in no position to seize any from the NEI. The first
three squadrons of B-17s, taken from Hawaii, were sent in November, and the next three
were to follow in December. In fact, the fourth squadron was in transit, with nine bombers
arriving over Oahu on December 7th.
The Allies had to not only move Bombers to Manila, but build airfields, hangers, train mechanics,
( and pilots for the P-40s - the USAAF pilots sent were just out of flight school, with ZERO flight
time in a P-40 ! ) , in other words, build the infrastructure to support the huge force being sent
from the United States. This was completely impossible under the circumstances, with the
constraints of time, money, manpower, and equipment available. In effect, Roosevelt and
Marshall were gambling that the mere presence of the bombers, whether or not they could
fly and fight, would be enough to intimidate the Japanese. The United States was bluffing
with a pair of threes. The Japanese were holding a straight flush, and called their bluff.
Because, for the Allies, TIME had run out !
The Japanese, from the moment Roosevelt
imposed his Oil Embargo on them, had begun preparations for their attack. They had
determined that the U.S. was the most important enemy, so the IJN was tasked with disabling
the USN at Pearl Harbor, while the IJN took the Philippines, Malaya, the NEI, and a few other
islands to help make up the Defensive Perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co Prosperity Sphere.
This massive offensive overwhelmed the Allies. The rapid conquest of Malaya, and the fall
of Singapore, ( with the loss of two British Capital Ships ) prevented the British from having
any effect on stopping the Japanese. The rapid conquest of the NEI, assisted by a native
population that was, for all intents in and purposed, apathetic to the Allied cause, meant
that the Allies could not prevent the Japanese from getting the Oil they needed for their
Empire. And, while MacArthur and his forced managed to hold out for nearly three times
the length of time that Japanese had allotted to the conquest of the Philippines, they were,
in the end, defeated. and the G.E.A.C.P.S. was essentially complete. The Japanese now had
the Oil of the NEI, the Bauxite, Rubber, and Coal of Malaya, the Tungsten, Tin, and Iron of
French IndoChina, and the Timber, sugar, and rice from the Philppines and IndoChina.
The Allies were defeated because, in large part, they never expected to be attacked everywhere
at once ! They literally could no cooperate in defense, because they were all being simultaneously
overwhelmed, and had no reserves they could allocate to their allies.
The rapid Japanese advances, at sea and on land, in the first few months were the result of
detailed planning, well trained, equipped, and supplied forces, and their opposition being
confined to weak, understrength colonial forces, many of which had little incentive to fight,
and less ability to do so.
While the U.S. never abandoned the ' Europe First ' Grand Strategy, the first year in the Pacific
put a slight crimp on their program, as did the disastrous first year of war against the U-boats,
which saw some 400 mercantile ships sunk in the Western Atlantic, including some 100 tankers,
which greatly inhibited USN operations and overall fuel supplies to the Allies until the tanker
shortage could be made up at the end of 1943.
Could the United States and Great Britain have prevented the Pacific Disaster in the first half
of 1942? Yes. it could have been easily prevented. But only if the United States had begun
in January, 1940 the preparations it instituted so belatedly in the second half of 1941.
Paul R. Ward