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If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War: An Analysis of World War II Naval Strategy (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1295-1297 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0382

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The author of this monograph selects what he regards as the salient strategic principles of the American naval strategic theorist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, and then uses these principles to assess the rightness or wrongness of American and Japanese strategic and operational behavior in the Second World War. Adams divides Mahan’s thought into two grand postulates and five subordinate propositions. The two grand postulates are “No nation can become a great world power without a great navy. Overseas colonies are required to support naval bases on which to project a globe-girdling navy” and naval warfare is characterized by a rapid stream of events presenting incomplete and conflicting information about the true state of affairs. The sine qua non of the naval officer is to employ his judgment to separate the critical from the peripheral and to make rapid decisions that shape and dominate the action before conditions change yet again” (pp. 3–4). Adams’s five subordinate propositions are: “The objective of your fleet is to destroy the enemy fleet. . . . Never divide the fleet. . . . the nation that would rule the sea must always attack. . . . Well-trained crews and officers who understand war are decisive fleet attributes. Over time, the better leadership will prevail. . . . To interfere thus with the commander in the field . . . is generally disaster” (pp. 4–7). Adams’s justification for his methodology is based on his personal success in business, which he attributes to the application of sound principles of action.

Space limitations preclude a comprehensive assessment of Adams’s findings. Prospective readers of this book should, however, consider the following. In the first place, Adams’s representation of Mahan’s thought is based upon his reading of one book, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660–1783. He did not take into consideration Mahan’s eighteen subsequent books. Adams also does not seem to have read either the standard critical biographies of Mahan (by W. D. Puleston and Robert Seager II), or the three volumes of Mahan correspondence. Other major works that might have broadened the author’s knowledge of Mahan are either not cited or if cited seem to have had little if any effect. In light of the foregoing, readers cannot (and indeed should not) have confidence in the author’s command of either Mahan’s thought or manner of thinking. In the second place, important secondary literature on the Pacific theater in the Second World War has been overlooked, including the books of Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully on Midway, H. P. Willmott on the early and late stages of the fighting at sea, and Mark Parillo on the Japanese merchant marine. Such lapses must raise serious doubt about Adams’s knowledge of state of the art historical writing on his main subject. These fundamental defects indicate the author has not developed a viable approach to the productive study of a broad, difficult, and complex subject.

The central reality of the Pacific War, on which any realistic analysis of its conduct must rest, is that it was not possible for Japan to defeat the United States unaided. There was nothing the Imperial Japanese Navy could have done—nothing it could have seized or sunk—to alter the overwhelming imbalance of power and resources that, left undisturbed, would insure Japan’s defeat. As H.P. Willmott calculated long ago, if on December 7, 1941, the Japanese had contrived to sink not just the entirety of the Pacific Fleet, carriers and all, but in addition every other vessel in the United States Navy on that day, the American navy would still have been larger than Japan’s at the start of 1944; which is in fact when the “Biblical retribution” phase of the Pacific War began.

Whence, then, did hope arise for the Japanese? Chiefly from the expectation that Germany would either win its war in Europe, or fight so long and hard that the eventual victors, including the United States, would lack the stomach to prosecute a major conflict in the Pacific. This expectation was not insane, merely mistaken, though it was a desperate gamble by any standard. Japan’s willingness to take it was reinforced, however, by the notion that the...



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