Book Review: The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable

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by Michael Myers

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. vii, 198. Maps, appends., chron., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700620877

Why Wasn't Japan's Defeat Inevitable?

Prof. Myers (Washington State University) has constructed a short, readable, and valuable framework to analyze the decision-making process of both sides in the Asian-Pacific Theatre of World War II, leading to his conclusion that Japanese defeat in World War II was not inevitable. The inevitability of Japanese defeat is ultimately based on presuming United States willingness to endure everything necessary to achieve complete “victory”, which should be questionable considering the United States acceptance of less than complete victory in many conflicts, including even Japan’s World War II surrender which was conditioned on the survival of Japan’s emperor. Unfortunately for Myers, his arguments require an open-mindedness unfamiliar to those who routinely dismiss counterfactuals. In fact, Myers’ many concrete examples do seemingly provide a superficial basis for a 20-20 hindsight presumption of the inevitability of Japanese defeat. But if a rigid faith in inevitability is put aside in favor of accepting what could possibly occur “for the want of a nail”, if several important chips fell in certain ways, it becomes readily apparent that Myers has provided a concise collection of critical decision points that, if altered, indeed could have led to alternative endings for the Asian-Pacific Theatre.   The apparent tautology does not diminish Myers’ contribution to the historical and cultural context of a theatre which often, perhaps because of its vast distances and the separate competing views of independent military services, could be overly marked by piecemeal and personal accounts. 

Myers first introduces some existing approaches to the inevitability issue, particularly those in the respected works of Richard Overy and H.P. Willmott, comparing the relative resource advantages of the United States over Japan. Myers then examines the context for the Japanese strategic decisions, starting with the Sino-Japanese conflict which set the stage for Pearl Harbor. Myers then considers the illusory initial successes of the Japanese advances, with an examination of how the advances fell short of the actual objectives of the longer term Japanese strategy. He also compares how the contemporary United States strategy and Japanese strategy actually mirrored each other, with jointly shared assumptions that support finding that Japanese strategy was not as irrational as the hindsight presumption of inevitability could mislead observers to believe. His discussion ranges from high level policy disagreements in strategy and objectives, such as inter-service rivalry within both Japanese and Allied forces, and opposing Allied national objectives; to the more technical aspects, such as performance comparisons of aircraft and design failures of equipment. Myers notes how each decision point could have shifted the war, possibly cumulatively affecting the end result.

Much of Myers’ presentation is a review of other historians’ works, necessary for his attack on the prevailing presumption of inevitability fostered by some of those histories. Michael Barnhart, Asada Masao, James B. Wood, John J. Stephan, John Ray Skates, Ken Kotani, Hayashi Saburo, Alan D. Zimm and many others are addressed in quick but sometimes quite detailed succession; providing an overview of existing views. Myers combines sources sometimes as support, sometimes as a foil, for Myers’ ultimate thesis that Japanese defeat was never inevitable.  

Whether Myers proves his case that Japanese defeat was not inevitable of course remains open for debate. However, he does at least offer a framework to question the inevitability of historical events, to debate when history is fated at what decision point, and whether hindsight is overly precise. The issue is not merely academic, as the tendency to criticize past decisions which did not have the benefits of current knowledge looms in many modern debates of international “war crimes” and domestic police use of force. The continuing World War II disputes over the use of atomic bombs, appeasement, and avoiding the Holocaust are all historical discussions often skewed by presumptions of inevitability. The presumptions of inevitability also affects the perceptions of the roles played by other actors in the theatre, such as China and Russia. In such a context, Myers’ work is a valuable addition to the discussion, especially in light of its easy reading.             

Note: The Pacific War and Contingent Victory, a volume in the University Press of Kansas “Modern War Series”, is also available as an e-Book, ISBN 978-0-7006-2088-3.

 

Our Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin, a NYMAS board member, has lectured and written on East Asian History.

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Reviewer: Ching Wah Chin   


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