16

(I am writing this from memory, so please forgive inaccuracies in my citations.)

In Shattered Sword I found this mention-in-passing that roughly said:

"While not thinking that a war with the US was winnable, Yamamoto was also against pursuing the Southern Strategy without militarily confronting the US".

The context is that, in 40-41, Japan is planning to expand. The Southern Strategy involves taking over Indonesia and Singapore, as their colonial masters (Netherlands, UK) are busy fighting Germany. Japan had already done that with Vietnam (claimed by France) and was in hot water with the US because of that and its behavior in China, resulting in an embargo.

The Northern Strategy involved attacking the USSR instead.

Now, it may very well be that the US would have declared war on Japan if it had "only" attacked Indonesia and British territories. At the least it would have kept the embargo going (but Japan would have had the Indonesian oilfields to itself after repair). On the other hand: Roosevelt really wanted to focus on Hitler while the US public opinion wasn't keen on war anywhere.

Now, I understand that Shattered is about Midway, and Midway only. Japanese activities and doctrine only matter as far as they impact what they brought to Midway. So while I found it tantalizing, I was not surprised to hear no more of "Singapore/Indonesia, minus Pearl Harbor".

Then I read Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy and I kept on looking for that Southern Strategy minus attacking the US.

But I never found any reference to it. All the numerous actors mentioned favor either:

  • the Northern Strategy
  • a strategic pause, i.e. averting war with the USA
  • the Southern strategy, with the full understanding that this means going to war with the US.

At no point did Eri Hotta (1941's author) mention anyone in the Japanese military that said: let's attack European colonies in Asia, but avoid fighting the USA (at least until we've brought aboard the raw material resources).

This is what was hinted at in Shattered Sword about Yamamoto, but 1941, which seems to be a pretty definitive exploration of how Japan went to war and looks at all other permutations of decisions they went through, never talks about it.

Did anyone in Japan that mattered propose this line of action?

1941 depicts many in the Japanese Navy, not just Yamamoto, as somewhat apprehensive about their prospects fighting the US. In Japan's consensual decision making leading to war, no one wanted to come right out and pull the plug on the whole sorry idea, but Southern minus USA seems an obvious compromise.

p.s. amusingly enough, neither book trotted out the oft-repeated Yamamoto quip about running wild for 18 months but then running out of gas.

p.p.s adding a map to provide some geographical context

enter image description here

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    Conjecture: before Pearl Harbour, many Japanese military officials were rightly concerned about war against the far larger USA. After Pearl Harbour, hubris allowed Japan to believe that the USN was no longer a threat, and without the USN the remainder of the USA's military could not be deployed - so Japanese planners entirely discounted the USA as a threat. By the time that the USN proved to be far more resilient than expected, Japan was already too deeply committed to those plans (and too rigid) to change them.
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 9:59
  • @IanKemp - I would argue that Japan swiftly executed the pre-Pearl Harbor plan to perfection (Malaya/Singapore, Phillipines, Indonesia). There problem was then 'what next?' which suffered from overexuberance. Attacking Midway was not in the original plan.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 17:28
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    @JonCuster They did not execute Pearl to perfection. Even skipping the hard-to-fix bit that they nuked the battleships, but missed the carriers, the thinking is generally that they should have gone back with another wave and taken out the oil storage facilities which would have complicated USN supplies for about a year more. Commented May 19, 2023 at 23:49
  • 1
    Please add some circles to the map
    – SPavel
    Commented May 20, 2023 at 18:28

1 Answer 1

17

Avoiding conflict with the United States was apparently briefly considered and rejected.

Found in the postwar Japanese monographs, number 150: Political Strategy Prior To Outbreak Of War Part IV starting on page 7:

Operational Policy Against the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands East Indies

With the complete breakdown of negotiations between Japan and the Netherlands East Indies on 18 June 1941, Japan became highly apprehensive of her vital oil supply. It was feared, also, that unless Japan took the initiative, that the United States and Great Britain, by launching a political, economic, and military offensive against Thailand and French Indo-China, would gain control of those countries. In order to cope with this situation, therefore, an Outline of the Empire's National Policy to Cope with the Changing World Situation was decided upon at an Imperial Conference on 2 July, and, in accordance with this policy, Japanese forces entered southern French Indo-China on 31 July. (Monograph 147, Political Strategy Prior to the Outbreak of War, Part III). This move was made in order to strengthen Japan's strategical position and to enable her to threaten force against the Netherlands East Indies, to compel that country to come to terms in regard to oil. To the complete surprise of both Imperial General Headquarters and the Japanese Government, this led to a general United States embargo against Japan. Japan had hoped to adjust the situation by diplomatic negotiations but the United States and Great Britain applied drastic economic pressure by freezing Japanese assets overseas and placing an embargo on oil to Japan. This, together with the Netherlands East Indies' refusal to supply Japan with oil, virtually forced Japan to study plans for war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands East Indies.

An operational policy was formed by supplementing, unifying and adjusting the operational policy against the Netherlands to the annual operational policy against the United States and Great Britain. In forming this policy it was necessary to attach primary importance to the various requirements of a war plan and to subordinate the operations policy to them due to the paramount importance of Japan's seizing the southern area, rich in natural resources in the shortest possible time, before her domestic resources were depleted. (The term operational policy as used here refers to military plans for the armed forces. War plan designates mobilization of the entire country for total war, to include manpower, industry, transportation, etc.)

On 29 July 1941, having in mind President Roosevelt's announcement of 24 July that the United States would impose an embargo on oil shipments to Japan unless the Japanese forces were withdrawn from French Indo-China, President of the Planning Board Suzuki felt it necessary to submit to the Government and to Imperial General Headquarters a report of the resources it would be necessary for Japan to mobilize in the event of war, and urged them to execute a war aimed at the acquisition of resources in line with these demands (Appendix 1). He concluded the report by saying:

Since the actual condition of Japan's material resources is as stated in this report, once we have formed actual plans for war we must adhere to them and not be swayed by local changes in the international political situation. Under present conditions, it is extremely difficult to develop our national power by depending on the United States and Great Britain for the acquisition of materials. If steps are not taken to remedy the position, Japan will find herself completely without resources and unable to defend herself in the future. Japan, therefore, is now forced to make a final decision without hesitation. In view of the inseparable relationship between the southern and northern areas of the international political situation, it is hoped that a command plan will be formed to guide armed warfare so as to convert operational gains into productive use in the shortest possible time.

Under such circumstances, even the minimum demands of a materials mobilization plan could not be met unless Japan seized the southern area, rich in natural resources, at the outset of war and gained command of the sea and air by swiftly destroying the military strength of the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands in that area. With this in mind, the following operational plans were carefully studied.

  1. An attack to be launched upon Malaya and the Philippines, after capturing the Netherlands East Indies during the opening phase of hostilities.

  2. Advance to be made clockwise along the operations line running from the Philippines to Borneo, Java, Sumatra and Malaya.

  3. Advance to be made counter-clockwise along the operations line running from Malaya to Sumatra, Borneo, Java and the Philippines so as to delay the outbreak of war with the United States as long as possible.

  4. Attacks to be made on the Philippines and Malaya simultaneously and then successive and swift advances to be made southward along these two lines of operations.

Several discussions took place between the Army and Navy High Commands in regard to these four plans. It was agreed that Plan No 1, whereby the Netherlands East Indies would be occupied in one swift movement, leaving at the rear of the line of operations, the United States and British powerful bases of the Philippines and Malaya was not feasible. The Navy was in favor of Plan No 2 while the Army insisted on Plan No 3. The Navy felt that Plan No 2 was the best method from the standpoint of sequence for the concentration and employment of forces and extension of the operations line. It was feared, however, that by the time Sumatra and Malaya were attacked, that their defenses would be so powerful that they could be able to withstand our offensive. Plan No 3 might, as a political maneuver, delay the United States' participation in the war, as Germany asserted it would, by by-passing the Philippines. Even if Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies were occupied as strategic moves, however, if the powerful United States Navy and Air Forces were deployed to strengthen the Philippines, they could possibly disrupt our line of operations and cause us to abandon already occupied areas. Moreover, if the attack on the Philippines, the most powerful area in the line of operations, mere postponed, eventually these islands would become impregnable.

After serious study of the merits and demerits of the plans, Plan No 4 was finally adopted. This plan called for the swift advance southward of our forces along the two lines of operations to the oil fields in simultaneous operations in the Philippines and Malaya, insofar as strength permitted.

This was the situation about the middle of August 1941.

The Japanese Monographs were produced by the Military History Section Headquarters, Army Forces Far East through the collaboration of Japanese participants. The link above is a transcription. In their original production they can be found here

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    Almost certainly #3 was rejected because the Japanese needed oil more seriously than they needed to avoid fighting the USA. After all, without oil they wouldn't be able to fight anyone!
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 9:50
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    @Ian Kemp: Is there a typo in your comment? Plan no.3 would have delayed war with the USA in favour of getting the oil more quickly, albeit not as quickly as under plans 1 and 2.
    – Matthew
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 15:58
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    Yes, that actually makes sense. Easy to criticize with hindsight, but the US-fortified Philippines would be sitting right on top of the Indonesia-to-Japan oil route. If they had any strong reasons to believe the US not stay neutral then they could not expect their conquered oil to yield resources with the US @ Manila. Commented May 19, 2023 at 23:11
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    If Japan had avoided war with the United States, by laying off the Philippines but attacking all of the other Far Eastern targets, the US would not have declared war on Japan. First, the mood of the US population was anti-war because of World War I. Two, declaring war on Japan would have caused Germany to declare war on the US due to the German-Japanese Pact, forcing the US into a 2 front war, Three Japan was attacking colonies of European powers (Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.) so that the US population would not be happy about sending their sons to protect such territories.
    – Barry
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 23:56
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    @Barry That is clearly the premise behind plan 3, but as the monograph says, the likely outcome would be a fortified Philippines. Therefore, this solution to the acute problem of oil supply would leave Japan in an untenable strategic position, putting its security indefinitely dependent on the mood of the US population.
    – sdenham
    Commented May 21, 2023 at 11:56

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