- Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented the Attack on Pearl Harbor
In approximately 200 pages of breathless prose followed by a series of unusual appendixes and citations, attorney, amateur historian, and self-described air war buff Alan Armstrong describes the operational aspects of a secret war plan conceived by a strange alliance of Chinese Nationalist diplomats, American mercenaries, and Roosevelt administration “insiders” in 1940–1941. Known as JB 355 (after the Army-Navy Joint Board that preceded the creation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ), this scheme as approved in July 1941 envisioned the transfer of several dozen medium-range bombers to a Chinese front corporation with funding provided in part by Lend-Lease. Members of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) led by former Army pilot Claire Chennault, who worked for China, would fly the planes on a series of incendiary raids against Japan. Chinese officials saw this as retaliation for the brutal war waged by Japan since 1937, and the plan’s American boosters apparently believed that the attacks would deter wider Japanese aggression without provoking a direct response against the United States. For a variety of reasons, including a shortage of aircraft, bureaucratic snafus, and opposition from Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, the transfer of bombers was delayed, and the plan was eventually overtaken by Japan’s own preemptive attack of 7 December 1941.
Examining this case of the “dog that didn’t bark,” Armstrong finds much that is interesting in this episode and explores it from a largely technical point of view. For reasons that are not always apparent to the reader, he believes that this plan, which he erroneously claims was lost in dusty archives until his detective work unearthed it, might not only have succeeded in upsetting Japan’s attack plan against Pearl Harbor but can serve as a model of preemptive military action in the 21st century. Along the way, Armstrong hints at, but does not quite buy into, the old canard that Franklin Roosevelt was looking for a “back door to war” and that the JB 355 plan might have served that purpose.
Perhaps some caution is in order. First of all, this is not really news. In the past 25 years, several authors, including this reviewer and historian William Leary, have written extensively about Chennault’s air war plans before and after Pearl Harbor. Biographers of some of the other players, such as Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and presidential adviser Lauchlin Currie, have also explored the episode at length. None of this extensive scholarship, nor the wider academic scholarship on U.S.-Japanese diplomatic and military relations, is reflected in Armstrong’s book. Instead, he offers many citations to websites created by armchair strategists, to e-mail messages from persons claiming secret information, and to History Channel television documentaries.
In fact, Stimson and Marshall were perceptive in their critical evaluation of this [End Page 143] loopy war plan. Although both Morgenthau and Currie were dedicated and well intentioned (despite later attacks on their loyalty), they were completely out of their depth in playing armchair air strategists. Had Chennault actually gotten hold of the bombers, he would have attacked Japan and almost certainly provoked a Japanese military attack. True, some of the battleships at Pearl Harbor and their crews might have been saved by an earlier war, but those vessels had little impact on the way the war actually developed. A Japanese offensive in Southeast Asia, whether begun in November rather than in December 1941, would probably have achieved identical results.
Armstrong is also way off base in praising Chennault’s purported later accomplishments in China as head of the tiny 14th Air Force. Although Chennault’s actions were hyped by publicists such as Joseph Alsop, his attacks on Japanese shipping, troop concentrations, and supply depots had only a modest impact. When it appeared in 1944 that these attacks might become more effective, Japanese ground troops launched a...