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"Execute against Japan"

The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

By Joel Ira Holwitt

Publication Year: 2009

Less than five hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, U.S. naval leaders reluctantly chose to pursue a form of warfare they despised—targeting not only Japanese military assets but also civilian-operated fishing trawlers, freighters, and tankers. The move to unrestricted submarine warfare represented a major change in the longstanding American adherence to the classic doctrine of "freedom of the seas," under which commercial vessels were held to have the right to navigate the oceans without threat of attack. This dramatic about-face in naval policy, potentially as controversial as the decision to use the atomic bomb, has never been seriously challenged and, until now, closely examined. Holwitt combed archival sources from the National Archives, the Naval Historical Center, the Naval War College, Yale University, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in order to reconstruct the development of both the U.S. submarine fleet and the policies for its use during World War II. As he shows in this meticulously researched book, the U.S. move to launch unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan was illegal. "Execute Against Japan" offers a new understanding of U.S. military policy during World War II. This thoughtful analysis will be a vital resource for military and maritime historians and professionals, as well as students of World War II.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press


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p. ix


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. 1-4

At 1752 Eastern Standard Time on Sunday, December 7, 1941, about four and a half hours after the initial chaos unleashed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations released a simple but dramatic message: ...

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1. Freedom of the Seas, the Submarine, and the First World War

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pp. 5-18

The U.S. decision to conduct unrestricted warfare was intimately tied up with a change in conception regarding a parallel concept—freedom of the seas. Unrestricted warfare deliberately targeted noncombatant merchant ships, leaving survivors of an attack to the mercy of the elements and the sea. ...

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2. The U.S. Navy and the Submarine Question

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pp. 19-28

Although it took the First World War to launch submarines to both strategic importance and universal outrage, many nations looked unfavorably upon submarines long before the war began. Even before the U.S. Navy or the Royal Navy had their first commissioned submarines, the issue of banning submarine construction had already been discussed at The Hague Conference of 1899. ...

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3. The Failure of International Law in the Interwar Period

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pp. 29-47

Only two decades after the First World War, a new unrestricted submarine war raged in the Mediterranean Sea. Without regard for nationality or destination, unidentified submarines sank belligerent and neutral merchant ships without warning. One submarine even chased a French passenger liner from the Aegean Sea into the Dardanelles Straits. ...

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4. Legislating Away Freedom of the Seas

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pp. 48-62

In 1931, the tenuous world peace that had generally lasted since the Peace of Versailles was broken when Japanese troops invaded and occupied Manchuria. Within a matter of years, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany began campaigns of overt and covert aggression and Spain dissolved into civil war. ...

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5. The Accidental Commerce Raider:U.S. Submarine Development, Strategy, and Tactics

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pp. 63-83

As the Washington and London Naval Treaties toyed with the fate of the submarine, the U.S. Navy forged ahead with a submarine design that met its strategic vision. It was not a vision that accepted unrestricted submarine warfare. Instead, the U.S. Navy’s leadership believed the submarine could play an important role in supporting the battle fleet. ...

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6. Laying the Strategic Groundwork

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pp. 84-96

Ever since the First World War, unrestricted submarine warfare had been considered immoral and illegal. But as the Second World War progressed, new strategic realities facing the United States made American unrestricted submarine warfare increasingly necessary. ...

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7. Debating Law, Ethics, and Strategy

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pp. 97-119

When the Tentative Instructions was issued in February 1941, the U.S. Naval War College was under the leadership of Rear Admiral Edward C. Kalbfus. At the time, Kalbfus was one of only two admirals to hold the post of president of the Naval War College twice (the other being William S. Sims). ...

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8. “Immediately upon the Outbreak of War”

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pp. 120-138

The first sign that Admiral Stark and Admiral Turner’s vision of strategical areas had changed came in May, when the War Plans Division released the working copy of RAINBOW 5 or Navy Basic War Plan 46 (WPL- 46). RAINBOW 5 built directly off RAINBOW 3, but there were important differences. ...

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9. Day of Infamy, Day of Decision

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pp. 139-149

For the United States, the Second World War started with a surprise attack, one that most naval officers expected. The Japanese, however, surprised virtually everyone with their choice of target. Between 0753 and 0755 on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor time, the first Japanese bombs fell on Oahu, bringing the stunned U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Army units in Hawaii straight into battle. ...

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10. Unrestricted Warfare and the Civilian Chain of Command

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pp. 150-161

Within hours of Admiral Stark’s message ordering unrestricted warfare, on the evening on December 7, Admiral Turner mentioned the U.S. decision to conduct unrestricted warfare to Admiral Little of the Royal Navy, who was part of the British naval staff in Washington, D.C. Turner explained to Little that the United States had decided to begin unrestricted warfare “in retaliation for the...

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11. The Victory of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

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pp. 163-180

The smoke had not even begun to clear over Pearl Harbor when Admiral Hart and Admiral Stark issued their orders to destroy all Japanese shipping. These orders turned out to be more easily transmitted than executed, however. For the first year of the war, the U.S. submarine force was continually hampered by malfunctioning torpedoes, timid commanders, and improper doctrine. ...

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pp. 181-184

With the passage of so many years since the Second World War, it may be difficult to understand how unrestricted submarine warfare could have been considered so controversial and despicable before the United States entered the war. And yet, the United States did go to war in 1917 over unrestricted submarine warfare, and during two subsequent decades national and military...


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pp. 185-228


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pp. 229-236


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pp. 237-245

E-ISBN-13: 9781603442558
E-ISBN-10: 1603442553
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603440837
Print-ISBN-10: 1603440836

Page Count: 262
Illustrations: 14 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 680622491
MUSE Marc Record: Download for "Execute against Japan"

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Subject Headings

  • Submarine warfare -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations -- Submarine.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations, American.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Pacific Ocean.
  • United States. Navy -- Submarine forces -- History -- 20th century.
  • Freedom of the seas.
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