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This webpage reproduces a section of
Prelude to Pearl Harbor

Gerald E. Wheeler

published by
University of Missouri Press,
Columbia, Missouri

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 1
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p. xi  Introduction

Pearl Harbor came as no great surprise to United States naval officers. Wardroom talk for years had centered on war possibilities in the Far East. Private correspondence among ranking officers betrayed concern over American naval weakness in the Pacific, and a significant number felt that the enemy would be Japan. To the War Plans Division and the Naval War College the primary maritime enemy of the United States was "Orange" — Japan; the principal Continental enemy was "Black" — Germany. And by the 1930's uneasiness over Japanese conduct in the Far East had begun to sift down to the grass roots. The United States Navy, however, did not wait for the Manchurian "Incident" of 1931 or the Panay bombing in 1937 to begin its preparations.

The Navy Department had never been blind to its role as the strong arm of American diplomacy, but at no time did the United States in the forty years before Pearl Harbor have at hand the requisite force necessary to sustain such commitments as the defense of its territorial possessions in the Pacific, safeguarding the Panama Canal, maintaining the Open Door and territorial integrity of China, and securing the continental limits of the American nation. The force available to meet these commitments consisted merely of the United States Fleet, its Fleet Marine Force, and small army garrisons in the Philippines and Hawaii. Additional strength in the form of dependable military alliances was lacking until 1941. In the 1920's the idea of alliances was diplomatic or political heresy.

From the viewpoint of the Navy Department two basic limitations hampered the effective implementation of American Far Eastern policy: the Washington treaties of 1921‑22 and the unrealistic attitude toward military support of foreign policy manifested by the Republican administrations in the years 1921 to 1931. The Washington treaties represented an attempt to freeze the status quo in naval and political relation­ships in the Far East, but Japan was left free to use its navy as a potent agency of diplomacy where it counted most heavily — on the China coast. Furthermore, the policies of maintaining the territorial integrity of China and of defending the Open Door were not  p. xii abandoned. The Nine-Power Treaty multilateralized to some extent these unilateral American policies, but through the 1920's the nation still clung to the position that it should be the treaty's conscience. With these traditional commitments still on the record, and with a new firm policy toward the Philippines that promised nothing to the independence movement in the foreseeable future, Congress proceeded to whittle away at the remains of American naval power. Slowly and most reluctantly the legislators considered the Navy's suggestions to balance and modernize the fleet. In turning out the Wilsonians the Republicans had accepted one cliché — the world had been made for democracy — so naval power was not needed. It was too costly in view of promised economies.

By 1922 the General Board of the Navy and the Office of Naval Intelligence had come to the conclusion that the foreign policies of Japan were antithetical to America's Far Eastern interests. They believed that Japan's policies included the eventual domination of the Far East both politically and economically, and that such domination would include American holdings in the Philippine Islands. The most elementary knowledge of economic geography showed that Japan needed low‑cost, easily accessible raw materials and guaranteed markets close enough to hold down shipping costs. Labor was cheap and plentiful in the island empire, and the industrial plant was relatively new — a monument to rapid westernization. The only obstacles to Japan's further aggrandizement were policy statements by the United States, as Asiatic Fleet led by the rather aged cruiser Pittsburgh, and the American Battle Fleet tethered closely to its Pacific base in the Hawaiian Islands.

With the policy of defending the interests of the United States as a guide, and the probability of war with Japan as a premise, the Navy Department from 1922 to 1931 began to set its house in order. This study is an account of the manner in which the United States Navy was readied for action in the years between the Washington Conference and Japan's move into Manchuria during September, 1931.

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Page updated: 10 May 13