A Look at Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 by Ian Toll

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942 by Ian W. Toll

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had this book on my list for a bit, and a Kindle deal got me to finally sit down with it. I am glad that I did.

I have done a lot of reading on World War II, but I suspect that I am likely in the larger (American) group that concentrated on the European theatre. I just did not have an understanding of the war in the Pacific, especially the naval war. This book, the first of a trilogy, concentrates on the naval war between the Japanese Empire and the United States. It does not pay much attention to land, but despite that manages to stick in a few shots at Douglas MacArthur. But I digress. This first book covers the period from Pearl Harbor to Midway.

Why do I rate the book so highly? Toll does not just jump into battle but rather gives us a real good overview of the political situation well before FDR even assumed office. This overview provides a short primer on some of the underlying tensions between the U.S. and Japan going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. We get a great look at how influential Teddy was on the U.S. Navy, and how when FDR was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson TR sent him some “unsolicited advice.”

“In May 1913, TR wrote to congratulate the younger man on his appointment, and also to offer unsolicited guidance. Never permit the fleet to be divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic, he warned, and added: “I do not anticipate trouble with Japan, but it may come, and if it does it will come suddenly.”

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Vol. 1) (The Pacific War Trilogy) . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” by Alfred Mahan is highlighted as a bible for naval strategists, read by all, including FDR. Toll comes back to it continually.

One of the strengths of the book, in my view, is the great look at the Japanese perspective that Toll brings. I was not at all acquainted with Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, but Toll brings us a some great insight here. The Admiral, despite being the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a war opponent before the fighting started. Yamamoto was opposed to the treaty of alliance with Germany and Italy, and correctly sized up Japanese prospects before the war started.

“… Yamamoto told Nagano bluntly that the pending war would be a catastrophe. He saw the entire picture clearly, and laid it out with devastating clarity. “It is obvious that a Japanese-American war will become a protracted one,” he said: As long as tides of war are in our favor, the United States will never stop fighting. As a consequence, the war will continue for several years, during which materiel will be exhausted, vessels and arms will be damaged, and they can be replaced only with great difficulties. Ultimately we will not be able to contend with [the United States]. As the result of war the people’s livelihood will become
indigent . . . and it is not hard to imagine [that] the situation will become out of control. We must not start a war with so little a chance of success.”

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Vol. 1) (The Pacific War Trilogy) (p. 118-119). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Before Toll gets to the fighting, in addition to the look at some of the naval figures of Japan, he gives us a great look at the true dysfunction within the government of Japan. Yes, it came to be dominated by the militarists, but Yamamoto was not the only one to discern the calamitous course Japan was on.

“Vice Admiral Yorio Sawamoto reflected on the reasons why the navy allowed itself to be pressured into a war that it was not really prepared to fight. The reasons had to do with “a competition of mediocrities; there was no outstanding leader of outstanding ability. Pressure from subordinates was the order of the day. Younger officers would not respect
their seniors and this made the matter even more difficult. . . . Everybody wanted to evade responsibility and no one had the grit to sacrifice himself to do his duty . . . The atmosphere was such that it put a premium on parochial and selfish concerns for either the army or the navy; considerations of the nation and the world were secondary.”

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Vol. 1) (The Pacific War Trilogy) (pp. 116-117). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

A competition of “mediocrities” driving the Japanese public with propaganda ended up overwhelming common sense in Japan.

Toll also gives us a great view of the American naval group. Nimitz and Halsey are there, as well as someone who does not get a lot of historical coverage, Admiral Raymond Spruance, who played a major role, replacing an ailing Halsey before the Battle of Midway. The role of the code-breakers, and the horrible treatment afforded to Captain Joseph Rochefort by the Navy, is also a big part of this story. Rochefort and his team provided key intel by breaking the Japanese naval code, giving Nimitz a look at the Japanese battle plan before the assault on Midway was launched. His reward was eventual banishment to nondescript positions in the Navy, as he had proven his critics, who were mediocrities with strong political strength, wrong.

The book goes into some of the military hardware, but in terms that laymen can understand. We see the initial shock on the American side as they come to understand the superior hardware, and skill set, of the Japanese Navy. American ideas of a quick sweep to victory after an initial mobilization were put to rest fairly quickly, as the Japanese rolled to one victory after another in the initial stages of the war. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto had foreseen early success for the Japanese, but as prior discussed felt that the industrial might of the United States would eventually overcome Japan. The only hope for Japan, by Yamamoto’s way of thinking, was to leverage that early success into a diplomatic solution that would entail Japan giving back some of its early war gains, as they had in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

“That Japan had scored so many easy victories in the war’s early stages came as no surprise to Yamamoto. In a typical passage in one of his prewar letters, the C-in-C had predicted: “For a while we’ll have everything our own way, stretching out in every direction like an octopus spreading its tentacles. But it’ll last for a year and a half at the most.” The war could only end with an armistice, followed by negotiations and concessions. The fall of Singapore, an event he had expected to occur about six months into the war, would present the ideal moment to open truce talks. Britain, he believed, would cut a deal to keep India, a colony it would hate to lose as much as an “old man” would hate “being deprived of his foot warmer.” The United States would also have to be appeased, probably through a restoration of conquered territories. Perhaps the Western powers would acknowledge Japan’s preeminence in China, as they had once acknowledged Japan’s preeminence in Korea. Fight, conquer, bargain, concede—Yamamoto had repeatedly urged that formula upon the Tojo-led cabinet, but his ideas had been ignored.”

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (Vol. 1) (The Pacific War Trilogy) (pp. 273-274). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Toll is not afraid to get at some military controversies that are still discussed today (the failure of the Japanese to win a more complete victory at Pearl Harbor, the decision by the Americans not to pursue what remained of the Japanese fleet after Midway)and in so doing gives a balanced treatment to all points of view. The change in naval doctrine that finally recognized the primacy of aircraft carriers is covered, with some relevance for today.

Toll lightly covers some of the WWII “what ifs” relative to Japanese decisions on where to strike militarily. The most obvious one was the Japanese decision not to attack Soviet Russia, which allowed Stalin to send troops west to stem the German attack. The military cohesion between Japan and Germany was simply not there, especially when compared with the British-American effort, which involved joint commands and a high level of strategic planning. The pressure on FDR on the “Europe first” strategy was immense, and maybe only he could have balanced it out. A loss at Midway by the U.S. may have made that balancing untenable, forcing additional U.S. resources into the Pacific. Good fortune for the U.S. and FDR, and very bad fortune for Germany and Hitler.

Despite some of the technical coverage I found Toll’s writing to be outstanding. We all know the results but this book, in my view, became a page turner. I read it quickly because it was so fascinating, especially for one without a lot of prior naval or Pacific war reading. Great writing, great history. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

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