Eight decades on from the attack that brought the US into the Pacific War, the United States faces a similar conflict in similar geography.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 demonstrated how a major power, despite its intelligence and a robust defense planning apparatus, can misunderstand its strategic weaknesses, and incorrectly assess the probability of a potentially crippling first strike.
Eighty-one years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the US should recognize a sobering possibility: despite all potential indicators and warnings, the People’s Republic of China can still achieve strategic surprise, and can still cripple US combat capacity by striking ships in-port throughout the Western Pacific.
Pearl Harbor has achieved a mythology in American public discourse only otherwise reserved for the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, these two instances of strategic surprise diverge.
On September 10, few American policymakers knew of, or gave much thought to, a small organization that termed itself al-Qaeda. It seemed a remote threat, akin to a host of nagging sub-threshold issues, that simply faded into the background.
In retrospect, it was abundantly clear that al-Qaeda had the means and motive to attack the US. Indeed, it had waged a coordinated campaign for several years against America and linked with various anti-American groups. However, the country’s attention, alongside that of its major policymakers, was focused elsewhere.
By contrast, it was abundantly clear that a US-Japanese war was likely years before Pearl Harbor. The US Navy in particular, and military in general, had planned for a war with Japan since the early 1920s. By the late 1930s, Japan’s invasion of China and attack on the USS Panay indicated its hostile intentions to the American public.
Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland inaugurated a broader European ground war. Germany and Japan, formally bound by the Anti-Comintern Pact, were thus waging war across Eurasia. It was deemed only a matter of time before the war expanded to the Pacific.
A similar situation exists today. The Sino-Russian Joint Declaration of “No-Limits Cooperation” just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be read as a modern-day entente.
Moscow and Beijing both harbor revisionist ambitions. Their clear target is the US-led international system, particularly its security elements that deny both powers their hegemonic Eurasian ambitions.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.