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Ultimately, Robert Conroy's alternate history of the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor—like the account presented by Harry Turtledove in Days of Infamy and End of the Beginning—serves as a morality play about good guys and bad guys. Despite their bravery, the Japanese are the dastardly villains of Conroy's novel. They attacked Pearl Harbor because, according to both the logic of the novel and the logic of the standard American tale of the event, they were militaristic curs, who needed to be taught that the twentieth century belonged to the United States with its economic might, and that the dream of Asia for the Asiatics simply would not do in a world in which Europe and the U.S. needed markets and raw materials.

The novel begins immediately after the initial waves of air attacks against Pearl Harbor. Two brilliant Japanese Young Turks in the Imperial Navy, Commander Minoru Genda and Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, remind Admiral Nagumo that the mission of strike force Kido Butai was threefold. The six carriers and two battleships of the force were to decimate the American battlewagons at Pearl, take out the two American aircraft carriers under the command of Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, and destroy Pearl's fuel storage tanks and maintenance facilities, thereby rendering the base useless. Because, as was the case in our world, the American carriers sailed in the Pacific during the attack, only the first of the three missions was accomplished. Allowing himself to be swayed by the arguments of his brilliant subordinates, Admiral Nagumo decides to launch an additional attack against the as-yet untouched fuel tanks. This mission succeeds, wiping out the fuel supplies for surviving U.S. warships and rendering the Hawaiian Islands very vulnerable.

After the oil tanks explode in flames, Admiral Yamamoto flies to Tokyo from his base in Hiroshima, pays a visit to Prime Minister Tojo, and argues for changing strategies and launching an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands. Tojo agrees, and Japanese troops wade ashore on Oahu. Given that the American ground forces are ill prepared, the Japanese overwhelm the U.S. military. Roosevelt, who has committed to a Germany-first policy, has no choice but to allow Hawaii to be taken. The plotting and character work here are very nice.

The occupation is, as one might expect given the way that Japanese soldiers actually did behave in places like Bataan, nasty and brutish. Fortunately for the Americans and Hawaiians, as the case turns out, it is also fairly short. Preparing to both pacify and annex Hawaii, the Japanese send a Gestapo-like secret police to the islands. The usual atrocities occur: the use of females as comfort women, beheadings, and rapes. As occurred in places like the Philippines, small groups of American soldiers evade capture at the formal cessation of hostilities and form guerilla groups harassing Japanese troops. Eventually, Yamamoto falls prey to over-confidence (and misleading intelligence), and he brings the entire fleet into Pearl, where the Americans surprise the Japanese.

One of the most interesting and entertaining features of the novel (as is so in most alternate history) involves characters who play roles slightly different than those they did in our own world. For example, in Conroy's novel, the pioneering aviator Jimmy Doolittle, who in the real world led a B-25 bombing raid on Tokyo from an aircraft carrier, now flies lead float plane in an attack against Japanese-occupied Pearl Harbor.

Equipment fiends will find a technological problem to their liking. In a very nice move, Conroy imports wholesale into 1942 from the real world the seemingly benign but incredibly important controversy of the Mark 14 torpedo. These torpedoes, designed during the inter-war years of shoestring R&D budgets, amazingly, had never been live fired because the warheads were too expensive to use. Instead, during test firings a piece of concrete sat in the tip of the torpedo—the "fish"—to simulate the weight of the explosives. Unfortunately, the concrete was lighter than the actual explosive charge used in combat situations. Thus, when skippers on patrol fired the Mark 14, the fish ran ten feet deeper than they thought it would, with the result that the torpedoes often glided under the target rather than into it and didn't explode. U.S. submarine commanders would a fire a fish and begin their count until the explosion. Not hearing any big bang, they would rise to periscope depth only to view what they had thought would be a destroyed warship closing on them and preparing to launch a depth-charge attack. Details like that of the Mark 14 torpedo problem make readers really trust Conroy's command of military history.

Unfortunately, although the novel is a great deal of fun, Conroy sutures up the fascinating historical rupture he creates almost as completely as Phillip Roth does a Lindbergh presidency in his The Plot Against America. While Conroy's characters don't wake up in their beds on the morning of December 8, 1941, rubbing their eyes and saying, "What a strange dream this all was," the author does manipulate events and actions on both sides so that this change in history ultimately has little effect on the overall direction of the war. Part of this refusal to let the historical rupture continue to blossom into a full scale fissure may have to do with Conroy's background as an expert in economic history. Indeed, many of the historical characters, including Yamamoto, mouth what by now is the common wisdom about the war in the Pacific: that the Japanese were doomed from the beginning because of U.S. industrial might.

But there's another mechanism, I think, that prevents Conroy's novel from creating a truly divergent historical timeline. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has become an Ur story in American popular history: a rags to riches tale. The poor innocent United States, caught napping in the Pacific, wakes up one fine Sunday morning before church to see white planes with meatballs on the wings laying waste to Battleship Row and Hickham Field. Appalled by the treachery of an enemy that doesn't look very much like itself, the United States rolls up its sleeves, produces aircraft carriers rather than just ice boxes and razor blades, and kicks Japan in the rump. The morality play ends four years later with Tokyo a smoldering ash heap and a new sun blossoming over Hiroshima. Justice has been served. Hard work and industry have triumphed. American battleships sit in Tokyo Bay and American fingers rest on the trigger of the most powerful weapon the world has ever seen. The U.S. bows to the audience and assumes its rightful place as the ruler of the world.

That's the standard popular line about U.S. involvement in the war in the Pacific, and this novel, although quite fun and meticulous in terms of its research, buys completely into this story. We're almost seventy years out now from that day that will live in infamy. Living memory of the attack mostly dwells in nursing homes. I think it's time to start taking a a more realistic look at the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific, especially in light of facts like the U.S. oil embargo leading up to the Japanese attack and European control of Asian natural resources such as oil and rubber in British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Perhaps it's also time for alternate history to start looking at the several very different mid century military conflicts around the world (collectively placed under the rubric of World War II) in terms of wider issues like European and U.S. colonialism in Asia, and the quest for markets for U.S. goods. How different, really, were the ideas of the Asia for the Asiatics and the Japanese Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere from parallel U.S. notions like Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine? From the Mexican War on, the U.S. worked hard to secure continental dominance. Once the frontier closed in the eighteen nineties, U.S. power put Manifest Destiny into its briefcase and took a steamer into the Pacific, looking for new lands to conquer, or in the case of Hawaii, to annex. From a distance of seventy years, Japanese claims to dominion over Asia and a desire to boot the U.S. and European powers out of the Pacific don't seem that much different from, say, American reaction to Soviet missiles in Cuba in the 1960s.

While Conroy's historical work and plotting in the novel are brilliant and very entertaining, 1942 thus stands as a missed chance to deliver a truly alternate history of the war in the Pacific. Conroy certainly does, though, present a very fun slug-fest morality play.

A science-fiction writer and critic, Douglas W. Texter currently teaches English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of St. Thomas. His work has appeared in venues such as Writers of the Future, Alien Skin, Foundation, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.



A science-fiction writer and critic, Douglas W. Texter currently teaches English at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of St. Thomas. His work has appeared in venues such as Writers of the Future, Alien Skin, Foundation, and The New York Review of Science Fiction.
12 comments on “1942 by Robert Conroy”

A) "How different, really, were the ideas of the Asia for the Asiatics and the Japanese Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere from parallel U.S. notions like Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine?"
Mr. Texter, go ask a Chinese or a Korean or a Vietnamese or virtually anyone else in the area about the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere".
You will get an earful. At very high volume.
There's a reason all the other Asian powers go ballistic at the slightest sign of Japanese forgetfulness about the period, or if a Japanese premier goes to the war-dead shrine.
Or just Google "Rape of Nanking".
What's next, the legitimate complaints of Germany after Versailles?
WWII is presented as a Good vs. Evil contest because it -actually was- a Good vs. Evil contest, to anyone who has those concepts on their hard-drive. Not that the Allies were angels, but the Axis were most certainly as close to devils as imperfect human beings can get.
B) "Indeed, many of the historical characters, including Yamamoto, mouth what by now is the common wisdom about the war in the Pacific: that the Japanese were doomed from the beginning because of U.S. industrial might."
Yamamoto actually did say that, and more than once; he knew the US well (he'd lived there for years) and didn't think that "Yamato spirit" could trump numbers. He expected initial Japanese victories followed by inevitable defeat, and was precisely right.
That's what actually happened. The US wasn't particulary skillful; it just bludgeoned the Japanese into the dirt.
The results of the Pacific War -were- overdetermined by the economics; that's cold hard fact and there are no grounds for any revisionism.
Given that both sides were about equally determined to prevail and both were prepared to slug it out until only one was left standing, the disparity in population and production of steel, machine tools, aircraft, petroleum and so forth was so great that no amount of Japanese skill or ingenuity was going to do more than delay matters.
It didn't matter how many battles they won or how many American carriers they sank. The Americans would build more and come again; it was like trying to sweep back the ocean with a broom.
As the Confederate States had found out, the battle isn't always to the strong but it's generally the way to bet.
Germany was in a somewhat better position than Japan because they had a bigger industrial base and seized more contiguous territory early in the war; they might have won if they had made no major mistakes at all and their opponents had made all the major mistakes conceivable, enabling them to end the war in Europe before American resources (and Soviet manpower) could be fully deployed against them.
Which is unlikely but not impossible.
Japan was going to lose even if they made no mistakes and the US made plenty.
That's how both the World Wars turned out; the side with the greater weight of men and metal won, not the side with the best troops or generals. Wars, particulary conventional wars between nation-states, are usually won by attrition.
Quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin put it.
C) "and that the dream of Asia for the Asiatics simply would not do in a world in which Europe and the U.S. needed markets and raw materials."
Oh, please, does -anyone- really still take this sort of Vulgar Marxism for Infants stuff seriously?
Well, perhaps in the English departments of American universities.

"Oh, please, does -anyone- really still take this sort of Vulgar Marxism for Infants stuff seriously?"
Nobody, apart from...
* Noam Chomsky.
* The dozens of International Relations theorists who work in Marxist-inspired traditions such as Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Approach or Neo-Gramscianism?
* Anyone left of centre who works in the burgeoning field of International Political Economy?

Dougas Texter

Mr. Stirling: Good to hear from you.
I'd like to address your concerns about my review. First, I have no doubt that the Japanese were incredibly brutal when they occupied other nations. I said as much in the review. No argument from me on this. The trouble is that the Americans and their allies weren't much better in their conduct during the war. "Not angelic" doesn't come to close to describing some of the things that the Americans, the British, and the Soviets did to win the war. I'm not trying to be gauche, but unfortunately World War II was so bloody on both sides that I can see you the rape of Nanking and raise you the firebombing of Dresden. Who wants to win that kind of game?
Much of what the Americans, the Soviets, and the British did--including wholesale bombings of civilian targets with the aim of (in the words of Winston Churchill) "de-housing" entire populations --violated almost every ethical principle of warfare I can think of, including Augustinian Just War Theory. Certainly, too, while the Soviets were our allies for about three years, they slaughtered their own people and Germans at rates that stagger the imagination. They were better than the Germans or the Japanese? I don't think so. In Asia, the Chinese battled both the Japanese and each other. I have no idea what the final death toll was in the Chinese Civil War and Revolution, but it's probably over twenty million, not counting those killed twenty years later during the Cultural Revolution. With these kinds of numbers, it's very difficult for me to see a straight dividing line between good and evil here. Not with a hundred million dead in four years or so.
In terms of the economics of the war, you are correct that Yamamoto did indeed say what Conroy has him say. The admiral did visit the US and was impressed by Detroit. However, I believe the Japanese could have in the year following the attack on Pearl Harbor defeated the Americans, if by "defeat" one means to drive the Americans to the negotiating table and get them out of the Pacific. How? Unfortunately, what the Japanese did do was to find the biggest enemy they could have possibly taken on and slap him in the face, instead of gouging his eyes out. That was a recipe for disaster. Pearl Harbor wasn't followed up with brutal and decisive force. Hawaii should have been taken. The next step would have been to have landed significant ground forces on the US West Coast and created incredible chaos. If I would have been Tojo, I would have landed say 100,000 Japanese Marines in Northern California or Oregon, grouped them into "search and destroy" parties and had them attack and destroy cities up and down the coast very quickly. At the same time, I would have tried to get the Americans to the bargaining table immediately. If there had been Japanese troops on US soil and increased German U-Boat pressure on the East Coast, the Americans might have agreed to a negotiated settlement to save US lives and deal with the Germans. But all of this would have had to have been done very quickly. It wasn't, and so, American industrial might did triumph.
Finally, while I do look at conflicts in terms of economics and think that most conflicts (including interpersonal ones) basically are economic at their roots, I am not a Marxist. There is a difference between looking at events and history through an economic lens and being a Marxist. To my mind, Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History hits the nail on the head when he says that beneath the surface of Marxism is a weak messianic impulse, one more akin to religion than political philosophy.
In any event, thanks for your comments. I hope that addresses some of them.

"Nobody, apart from...
* Noam Chomsky.
* The dozens of International Relations theorists who work in Marxist-inspired traditions such as Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Approach or Neo-Gramscianism?
* Anyone left of centre who works in the burgeoning field of International Political Economy?"
-- in other words, nobody who can be taken seriously.
I mean, -Noam Chomsky-? Who's next, Pilger?

"First, I have no doubt that the Japanese were incredibly brutal when they occupied other nations. The trouble is that the Americans and their allies weren't much better in their conduct during the war."
-- this is fatuous. As I said, ask a Korean or a Chinese. Or for that matter, a Japanese; we still have troops there. Where's the Rape of Tokyo?
"I can see you the rape of Nanking and raise you the firebombing of Dresden. Who wants to win that kind of game?"
-- that isn't even remotely an honest comparison. Nanking was -occupied- by the Japanese.

"Much of what the Americans, the Soviets, and the British did--including wholesale bombings of civilian targets with the aim of (in the words of Winston Churchill) "de-housing" entire populations --violated almost every ethical principle of warfare"
-- no, it didn't. A defended city is liable to indiscriminate bombardment (and starvation-inducing blockade) unless it is declared an "open city" and all military forces are removed from it, or unless it surrenders.
That's the traditional law of war.
Just as it may be legitimately blasted flat block by block in a ground assault, a la Falluja. Letting civilians evacuate, as we did there, is nice but not required.
The Rape of Nanking (or the Holocaust, for that matter) were atrocities not because a lot of civilians died, but because they were -unresisting civilians- who were -under the control of the occupying power- and who were -deliberately killed despite nonresistance-.
>Certainly, too, while the Soviets were our allies for about three years, they slaughtered their own people and Germans at rates that stagger the imagination.
-- so what? That's Stalin's karma; he was Hitler's loyal ally until Hitler turned on him, and while he was fighting the Germans at the same time as us, he was never anything but our enemy. Hostilities resumed the moment Germany was disposed of; that was World War Three, aka "The Cold War".

"How? Unfortunately, what the Japanese did do was to find the biggest enemy they could have possibly taken on and slap him in the face, instead of gouging his eyes out. That was a recipe for disaster."
-- they didn't have the -power- to do anything but hurt and enrage the United States. They simply weren't big enough to do anything more; they didn't have enough ships, enough fuel, enough troops and equipment.
This is what Moishe Dayan referred to as the "brutal arithmetic" of war.
"Hawaii should have been taken."
-- it's debatable whether the Japanese had the sealift capacity to carry enough troops and supplies to Hawaii for a succesful landing. If they did, it would be on the very limits of their abilities, rougly like Operation Sea Lion for the Germans, an extremely high-risk gamble with no assurance of success.
They most certainly did -not- have the capacity to do so without curtailing their lunge for SE Asia, which contained the petroleum they needed to continue the war. It was one or the other; they couldn't do both at the same time. They just didn't have the ships to spare.
That's the sort of choice you get stuck with if you try to undertake military tasks beyond your capacity.
>The next step would have been to have landed significant ground forces on the US West Coast and created incredible chaos.
-- and this is totally beyond their capacity.
It has nothing to do with decisions, planning, or intentions; it's just a matter of tonnage and fuel and equipment not being there.
They probably couldn't have managed an -unopposed- large-scale landing on the West Coast, much less fighting their way into a contested battlespace.
>If I would have been Tojo, I would have landed say 100,000 Japanese Marines in Northern California or Oregon, grouped them into "search and destroy" parties and had them attack and destroy cities up and down the coast very quickly.
-- and how would you transport them? Magic carpets? Antigravity?
None of the Japanese amphibious operations were on that scale, and the distance factors are just ridiculous. They never even did staff studies of an invasion of the American mainland because it was so obviously ridiculous. They couldn't operate at those distances, except for the odd raiding sub or long-distance flying boat.
Incidentally, do a little reading on the military difficulties of "destroying" cities.
In 1945, the Soviets lost 300,000 dead -- not counting wounded -- taking Berlin, when the German army was already virtually wrecked. That's just one urban battle lasting about a month.

"There is a difference between looking at events and history through an economic lens and being a Marxist."
-- it's not the economic analysis I object to, it's the lousy, shoddy economic analysis based on crude, outdated, disproven assumptions.
Eg., if the war was fought over raw materials and markets, Japan would have lost access to the raw materials of SE Asia after 1945, not to mention the markets of the US and its client states.
Did that happen? Obviously not. Quite the contrary; after the war Japan's supplies of food, fuel and minerals were abundant and secure to a degree they couldn't have dreamed of before it, and the US allowed its goods into the American market much more freely than in the 1930's.
Economically, Japan benefited and benefited hugely from losing the war, something that became apparent almost immediately after the American occupation began.(*)
Economics is not a zero-sum game, except to those operating on mistaken economic assumptions. Like the USSR, for example, who thought they were benefiting by stripping German factories of machine-tools and shipping them east after 1945.
Politics often is a zero-sum game because it's about rivalry for power, and power is a positional good, which is to say one party having more means others have less.
But the amount of economic output is infinitely extensible. You having more does not mean my having less; quite the contrary. The more prosperous others are, the more prosperous I will be, other things being equal.
(*) as also happened with Germany and other American client states.
Compare and contrast western and eastern Germany; or north and south Korea; or Thailand and Vietnam; or Taiwan and mainland China.

More generally, it's always a good idea to keep in mind von Clausewitz's dictum: "In war, everything is very simple. But the simplest things become enormously difficult."
Looking at small-scale maps and imagining games of "Risk" is not helpful.
For example, when you think of a WWII army moving, think of men -walking-, once they get to the end of the available railway lines. And of guns and wagons pulled by horses. Apart from the US and Britain, who had enough trucks and enough gasoline to mechanize completely, that's how they all operated.
Which means that 20 miles a day is -fast movement-.
Likewise, only the US (and to a lesser extent Britain) could move large armies globally by sea. Not just because they dominated the oceans with their naval power, but because only they had the ships (and shipbuilding capacity, steel, engineering, etc.) to do so.
Japanese armies in SE Asia had to live off the local countryside or starve; they walked once they got off their ships; they had virtually no armored fighting vehicles by our standards.
Likewise, the Japanese Imperial Navy was a painfully-accumulated capital asset.
In qualitative terms it was a very good navy, better than the USN to begin with in some respects -- better trained at night fighting, for instance, and with an excellent naval air arm with very experienced pilots.
But it was a wasting asset. It couldn't be replaced to any great extent. Japan just didn't have the steel, the heavy machine tools, the skilled labor, to replace carriers or other capital ships quickly; and the US -did- have that capacity.
That meant that the Japanese had to win the war quickly or they'd lose. But they didn't have the capacity to strike at the heart of US strength; it was just too far away.
The US -did- have the capacity to strike at the Japanese home islands, if it could beat and hammer its way through the Japanese navy -- and, if it had the determination to keep coming, it eventually would.
That was what Yamamoto was talking about when he said that the only way to beat the US was to march into Washington and dictate the treaty in the ruins of the White House. He said that to illustrate that beating the US was simply beyond Japan's capacity, no matter what strategy it pursued.

Douglas Texter

Mr. Stirling: Good to hear from you.
There's a lot here. The one thing I will reply to is your incorrect assertion that the allies didn't violate ethical principles of warfare. They most certainly did. I suggest you check out the Proportinality and Distinction parts of Augustinian Just War Theory. In addition there were clear Allied violations of the Draft Rules of Air Warfare. There is also the document Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing From the Air in Case of War, League of Nations, September 30, 1938. And even Franklin roosevelt himself discussed the matter.

John C

Oh, I think if he had carried this forward, it would have been a very different historical timeline. Yamamoto didn't just lose four aircraft carriers, like he did at Midway. He lost his entire fleet in Conroy's "Second Battle of Pearl Harbor," plus he lost all of Japan's naval aviators. In other words, Japan was utterly defenseless at sea at the end of this book. The war posited in this book would have ended well before 1945.

Jake May

Manifest Destiny was still in force in the 1900s Philippines, where civilians were targeted by the US military. It was 'sport' to kill/torture civilians; soldiers sent letters home describing the fun. When Hawaii was stolen from the original Hawaiians, there wasn't the wide scale slaughter as in the Philippines, but the end result was the same.

 

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