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Japan's Mistake

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Although the accepted view of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (see p. 40) is one of a calamitous disaster for the U.S. and a stunning victory for Japan, a University of Rochester political science professor believes just the opposite. John Mueller, 54, fires a contrary salvo in the winter issue of the scholarly journal International Security, arguing that Pearl Harbor was apolitical and strategic disaster for Japan. Mueller, a graduate of the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA, specializes in teaching defense policy and in 1989 authored Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War. He spoke with Boston correspondent Sue Avery Brown in Rochester, N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Judy, 53, an archivist and calligrapher.

Why do you believe the Pearl Harbor attack was not a U.S. disaster as well as a Japanese victory?

It strains the English language to call it a disaster. It may seem a callous disregard for the men who died, but in strict military terms the damage was really quite limited and easily recoverable. As for Japan, [Pearl Harbor] was ultimately catastrophic. They ended up with 2 million people being killed in the war. It was also a short-range disaster for them because it gave them “victory disease.” After Pearl Harbor they tended to be much too cocky and reckless and just blundered into battle after battle.

Why do you maintain there was only modest damage suffered by the U.S. fleet and aircraft?

From the photographs it looked pretty bad—they suggest the end of the world. But you have to look at the 21 ships that reports said were “destroyed or severely damaged.” Most were repaired within two or three weeks or a couple of months. Only two very old battleships were totally hopeless. Many of the airplanes destroyed were obsolete aircraft. By Dec. 20, there were almost as many functioning planes at Pearl Harbor as there were on Dec. 7, because a lot of damaged planes were repaired quickly and others were shipped in from the mainland.

Didn’t the attack slow America’s ability to respond?

The U.S. simply wasn’t prepared for war at that point. Even if the U.S. had had zero losses at Pearl Harbor, it would have been able to react only a little more quickly. And it still wouldn’t have been able to relieve the Philippines, which was the key initial issue because the Japanese were attacking there. In the long-term, the attack made little difference in the pace of the war.

Did the Japanese accomplish what they intended to do at Pearl Harbor?

It’s a little hard to know what the hell the Japanese thought they were doing. But if they thought they were going to knock the fight out of the Americans and later cut a deal, then it was the world’s most counterproductive move. It galvanized the country, triggered the war and impelled this rage against Japan. What Americans were able to turn out was awe inspiring. Even with millions out of the labor market, industrial production and agricultural output rose significantly during the war. Neither Hitler nor the Japanese were anticipating that.

Do you think your views might be offensive to Pearl Harbor veterans?

To lose that many men was tragic. But in military terms replacing them was quite easy. Again that’s sort of callous. But I’m looking at it to judge whether or not it was the worst military disaster in American history. Many have chosen to call the attack a disaster, but the word inconvenience is closer to reality. That’s essentially what it was. It didn’t slow down the pace of the war, and when you can recover that fast, I wouldn’t call that a disaster.

If not a military disaster, was Pearl Harbor a significant loss for the U.S. in any sense?

That’s the part where I don’t get much agreement. In hindsight, I believe our going to war after Pearl Harbor was a bad idea. The attack propelled us into this long and ghastly conflict when other strategies might have accomplished the same goal at much lower costs to all involved. The war liberated East Asia—but only into decades of bloody civil and international conflict. I just don’t think it was worth the cost or that what came out of it was better.

Could the Japanese have been pushed out of their expanded empire without a war? Yes—if there had been a policy of containment and harassment or basically the same policy we applied to the Soviet Union after World War II. In other words, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that cold war can work.