Philosophers argue over whether the Great Man creates a Great Circumstance to fit his style, or the Great Circumstance simply brings out a Great Man to fit the situation. In the case of the United States vs. the Empire of Japan, and their respective navies and national outlooks, the second proposition seems clear enough: an inevitable clash of interests.
But the British birth
of a second son to a middle-class Welshman with eclectic and piratical
instincts, a gift for fine artwork, ancient languages, secret intelligence,
and far wanderings by sea, raises the question of the first posit -- for,
though today his profound influence has almost faded into obscurity, into
that slowly coming clash there had come, if not a truly Great Man, certainly
the keynote one. Born on the anniversary of Trafalgar Day,
October 21, 1884, his name was Hector Charles Bywater. His studies and interests, which in several ways paralleled his father's, added a fillip with vast consequences: a lifetime of dedicated naval interests that resulted in publication of a closely-studied book of supposed fiction that on both sides dramatically altered both the nature and styling of what readers here know as the 1941-45 Pacific War, and it prophesied -- in detail -- not only its operational modes, but its inevitable result.
Young Bywater spent his early years hither and yon, abroad and back, with his family, a period the boy later said -- in the perfect dialectical German he quickly learned to speak -- was his Wanderjahre. At one point he lived in Brooklyn, worked as a streetcar conductor in New York City, and spent his free time at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard studying American warships -- an interest that soon got him a part time job writing naval articles for the old New York Herald newspaper, at age 19. Its publisher, James Gordon Bennett, laid heavy emphasis upon affairs maritime, and in Bywater had just the man. From there he covered opening details of the Russo-Japanese War, and did it so well that little more than a year later the paper sent him to Europe as its foreign
correspondent in London, where he finished the job -- and certain of his close readers found in him a consummate strategist of original thought.
His fascination with all things naval meant travelling, and led him to the Continent and Germany, where he learned that he not only could pass as a native German, but in an age of casual passport formalities, also as American -- even with official Americans. That led to a curiously vague invitation to visit a certain office in London, where he found himself in the obscure office of Sir Mansfield Cumming, mentioned only as "C" -- the officially unknown head of the British Secret Service.
He agreed to become Britain's naval spy during what we now call the "Great Naval Race" that preceded the Great War. In London when war broke out, in 1915 he was sent -- still a spy -- back to America to investigate suspicious activity on New York's docks; and there he again passed as American while using his languages to pass with dockers. He penetrated a German bomb-making sabotage ring and turned them over to city police. Back in London a year later, he spent the rest of the war examining data and documents -- and making critical naval friends in High Places while learning every possible detail of all major navies. But at war's end, his spying was over, along with his equally secret extra pay at the same level as an RN Lieutenant-Commander.
The spring of 1920 found him a notable member of London's famed "Fleet Street Press Gang", a group of naval-interest newsmen who'd adopted their nickname from the Royal Navy's old methods of getting sailors. His articles became increasingly sharp, detailed, and original. He made a friend of Fred Jane, founder of that great global naval encyclopaedia of ships. He could be found in the halls of Admiralty and on the cobblestones of old Royal dockyards. And began reflecting upon the true nature of the future -- which to him, had to mean the Pacific. Why? Because with the total collapse of the old Imperial German Navy, he reasoned that there simply was no likelihood of an Atlantic or Mediterranean naval challenge to Britain. That left only the United States and
Japan in the Pacific, where he already knew things were fermenting. And he began work on his first great book -- Sea Power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem .
His book was almost designed to annoy. He noted that Japan had begun building true dreadnoughts before HMS Dreadnought was launched, and that unlike the popular notion that the Japanese were somewhat irrelevant, noted that Japan's seamen were not only very good, but seriously patriotic, dedicated, and very well trained and equipped. He commented on the problem of distance: American warships could attack the Japanese only after days and weeks at sea, fuel-low and man-exhausted, where they would face a fresh Imperial Navy in waters close to home. He noted the disposition of Japan's new territories -- the ex-German Carolines, Marshalls, and Marianas Islands chains, picked up for the asking at the Treaty of Versailles, vice the relative susceptibility of, for examples, the far-off U.S. holdings of the Philippines, Guam, Wake, and Midway. He remarked ships and data, and options available. And in his final chapter concluded that Japan's sole option was to mount sudden, unannounced, widespread amphibious attacks that would envelop those distant American islands, thus eliminating any American ability to refuel and revictual; then, having done that -- and taking into consideration the American notion of striking out harshly en masse -- had the Japanese fleet meet the oncoming but by then somewhat weary American fleet at sea, and after gradually picking off the weakest one by one, then attack with the whole. The diplomatic result would be a standoff.
Published in 1921, the book was an immediate sellout among naval-interest people both amateur and professional. Its pre-publication copy got a "rave review" from influential U.S. Admiral William S. Sims, of long-time gunnery fame. But his U.S. publisher got cold feet; the book was, well, a bit too detailed, too suggestive, too warmongering ...
It got published in
Britain instead, with copies then sent back to the States for sale there.
The U.S. Naval Institute had its Proceedings magazine publish an unprecedented
19-page review, calling it "...the most important recent estimate
of the situation .. in the Pacific." But it was read everywhere --
and nowhere more avidly than in the offices of the Imperial Navy General
Staff in Tokyo. Never mind that Bywater had pointed to inevitable U.S.
victory over a long war; Japanese officers quickly grasped its projected
problems and their solutions, but did not see an eventual stalemate, much
less a defeat. They saw in it the possibilities for swift creation of a
vast new Empire, and decisive ultimate victory.
Then came two crucial events: the great 1921 Washington Disarmament Conference, and Bywater's hiring by the Baltimore Sun to cover it -- a connection that continued for years. The Conference eventually signed a charming and much-lauded treaty.
And then, on December 15, a second agreement carrying the well-known 5-5-3 formula: ratios of warship tonnage for Britain, the U.S., and Japan, respectively. To get to that meant long days of meetings public and private, paperwork common and secret, deals and tradeoffs of all sorts. Throughout, Bywater had an "edge" -- he already knew just about everything and everybody, in some cases better than they did, and in all cases more than most imagined possible. In the case of Japan agreeing to its 3, one tradeoff was that the U.S. agreed not to fortify anything west of Hawaii. That fit the IJN concept of a Pacific confrontation very nicely. American warships would remain subject to vast ocean distances before approaching Japanese home waters, while their
far islands would remain undefended. At the time, this seemed a good deal: nobody had battleships capable of sailing such long distances, much less entering fuel-exhausting combat, without a need for unavailable regular refuelling.
Bywater promptly saw this as a calamitous error by the U.S., "overwhelmingly to the advantage of Japan." That diplomatic scenario impelled Bywater to conceive, upon the foundation of his recent seminal work, what would become his major strategic opus: The Great Pacific War.
Bywater went mentally back
to basics; first was the problem of fuel/distance. Unless Guam was fortified
(and turned into a major refuelling point), which was now forbidden by
treaty, U.S. warships had no way of refuelling once closer to Japan; moreover,
Japanese forces could easily seize that island. The problem plagued him
until 1923, when he finally abandoned the idea that conflict was practicably
impossible. Technology was advancing rapidly. Above all, submarines --
following the example of Imperial Germany's long-range cargo U-boats in
the Great War -- were being built for more and more range, notably in Japan,
where huge submersibles were being laid down. (These evolved into the famed
I-class subs.) If the IJN mounted a large, long-range submarine
force to attack U.S. shipping, would America back down? The answer, to his mind, was a flat "No" -- on the contrary, such actions would inflame them, make them totally stubborn, and compel a review of that warship refuelling weakness and a rethinking of their strategy.
Such a strategy would begin by eliminating the outworn American notion of a powerful U.S. fleet simply charging across the Central Pacific to hit and sink a Japanese navy. So, very well. What then?
Out of that came what we now know as the famed island-hopping strategy -- a scheme that perfectly fit both the American refuelling weakness and a long-war scenario, and which also perfectly fit two of Bywater's prior conclusions: that Japan could easily take over vast areas early on, but could not support that over a long haul.
Meantime, the one man
who seemed most likely to back up Bywater; a man who initially wanted to
attend the Naval Academy, was fascinated with boats privately and warships
officially, and had the power and influence to make his views happen, suddenly
came to an opposite conclusion: that due to all the old problems, plus
the new Disarmament Treaty, there could and would never be a war between
the U.S. and Japan. A political pacifist overnight, that man was Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, the future President who was then a very active
Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He had read Bywater's first major book, knew Sims, knew the Navy viewpoint well, and left-handedly now picked a fight with Bywater -- in print.
Bywater saw the new, complacent
pacifism of the U.S. and Britain as a palliative for a symptom, a false
hope. By 1925, his thought-out conclusion was that despite widespread early
losses including the major loss of the
Philippines, U.S. forces could win a long war by progressive amphibious attacks, using Pacific islands as stepping-stones en route to Japan itself.
The amphibious attack idea
was itself a common heresy. Gallipoli was the latest example of colossal
failure of such schemes. U.S. Army field officers Dwight D. Eisenhower,
who headed an American military mission in the
Philippines from 1935 to 1939, and Douglas MacArthur, who fell in love with the region and worked at creating a native militia, both held that position, and saw any Japanese amphibious assault upon the Philippines as impossible. (Both persisted in that view until 7 December 1941.)
Except that Bywater did not
perceive that 1915 British attack upon Turkish shores that way; he saw
it as failing not because it was a basic bad idea, but because of improper
and insufficient organisation, preparation, training, and backup. The one
group wherein it was not heresy was the one upon which all such tactical
uses would primarily fall: the United States Marine Corps. They had made
amphibious attack a basic concept and training approach after the Great
War. By the mid-1920s it was a developing doctrine. Bywater certainly knew
this. He also knew full well that amphibious attack was by no means strange
to the Japanese, who had taken the great German Far East naval base of
Tsingtao by precisely that means in 1914 -- landing masses of troops to
the base overland from its almost undefended rear, whilst the IJN blockaded its outer reaches beyond range of its many heavy seaward-pointing guns (the same tactic later used at Singapore).
He began reexamining sea
charts, began mapping attack routes for U.S. naval forces, and came
up with three possibles: Northern, Central, and Southern routes.
He threw out the first; though the shortest, it also was the most dicey
due to constant poor weather. The second was discarded because of the old
refuelling problem, aggravated by Japan's now holding all former Central
Pacific U.S. stopover points. The third was a different matter entirely:
both nation's navies would be far stretched -- but the USN had almost unlimited
potential for constant resupply, while Japan had to rely upon steadily
diminishing supplies. The result was a scheme that took American forces
from Hawaii to the Samoas, onto Truk, then Angaur, then Mindanao, Luzon,
and up to
Japan. Meantime, about halfway through that scenario, the same American forces would begin to retake their old Central Pacific stopovers, thus beginning to reopen the Central Pacific route.
Now his chief problem: how to force a major Japanese naval force that had been gradually weakened into frontal conflict with an oncoming major American naval force that could annihilate it. This he solved by wargaming. Bywater had long been fascinated with model ships -- sizeable working models, run by internal mechanics, operating on Keston Pond. Each could represent several vessels of a given type, doing particular things. His wargame notions were inspired by Frederick Jane, whose own basic naval wargame scenarios had become a regular study at the Center for War Gaming at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island.
At the same time, Bywater
had been following Japanese politics, and dismally concluded that Japan
was headed for rule by its generals and admirals -- the new Shoguns, but
this time, looking outward, not inward. Further study of Japanese history
forced him to conclude that Japan would open any war against the U.S. with
a massive surprise attack aimed at destroying all or most of an American
navy, and has this led by an aerial attack force. Already begun writing
his new book, he has a "Lieutenant Elkins" describe that attack; the
officer reports that "Our squadron has been wiped out and upward of 2,500 gallant comrades had fallen." (At Pearl Harbor, the actual loss totalled 2,638.)
Finishing up in 1925, his
fictional history set that attack in 1929; a later rewrite began it in
1931. He said it would come "like a bolt from the blue" to Americans, with
"little heed paid to the peril which menaced the Philippines",
but that the national mood was not defeatism, but "a stern resolve to see this struggle through to the bitter end." Guam fell to joint air and amphibious assault. An American air force of some 30 "machines of a new and powerful type" had arrived in the Philippines (in fact, 35 new B-17s got there in early December 1941), but they too fell to a giant, four-pronged amphibious assault (the actual assault of Yamamoto had the identical prongs, plus three lesser ones off those) ... and on and on. His prophesies had begun.
(He did not put Japanese attacks on the Dutch East Indies into his book, but foresaw that possiblility in later newspaper articles. Likewise, he foresaw the fall of Singapore and the defence of Australia.) Bywater wrote so close to actuality that he had Japanese forces effect a diversionary assault upon the northern American naval base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. He foresaw the power of airborne torpedo planes, kamikaze attacks .. all of it. His only error was his assumption that the big guns of battleships -- in which he was a firm believer -- would decide major naval actions, rather than airpower, which he highly respected, but of which he knew relatively little.
This essay on the Pacific
War Prophet might go on and on. Suffice it that his book almost perfectly
outlined not only how that vicious side of WWII began and developed, but
how it ended -- with the total defeat, after years, of
Imperial Japan. Was it influential? That question is almost moot. Beyond question are the facts that both American and Japanese senior naval planners studied the book almost line by line. In the U.S., the great War Plan Orange was completely modified in 1926 to fit Bywater's long-war, island-hopping pattern. In Japan, it further inspired planners to believe that they actually could easily take over vast Pacific regions and all in them -- but do it with impunity.
The Japanese naval air attack on Pearl Harbor reopened Bywater's book, and almost every move thereafter was followed almost perfectly -- especially by Yamamoto through 1942. Postwar, surviving key officers acknowledged its profound effect upon their strategies. After that the second aspect of his book saw American forces following Bywater's island-hopping scheme almost equally perfectly, first with the long, time-consuming, piece-by-piece takeover of Southwest and South Pacific islands under MacArthur, as Nimitz' slowly began effecting it into juncture with a Central Pacific thrust, all whilst beginning to create a diversionary Northern assault -- which proved unneeded. And Japan indeed fell, totally.
Hector C. Bywater died in bed, at home in London, alone, sometime between August 16 and 17 of 1940. He was declared a victim of acute alcoholism, physicians bypassed anything else, and his body swiftly cremated. Modern investigation suggests he may well have been murdered, using poison. The Great Pacific War is still available in old bookstores and on the shelves of professional naval libraries -- if you search for it. It is obscure now. But what he prophesied is not.
Basic source: "Visions of
Infamy", by William H. Honan, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991; ISBN