Of Pearl Harbor and Clouded Crystal Balls

Some people seem so fond of the thought of shocking or cataclysmic events that they manage to convince themselves they will happen tomorrow. Consider, for example, the predictions of civil war, “just around the corner,” we’ve seen on social media for the last decade and more. Recently our media have regaled us with stories about “imminent” invasions of Ukraine by Russia, and Taiwan by China. I won a dollar bet with a friend a year ago who had convinced himself that release of the Covid virus would inevitably result in the fall of the Chinese government. Of course, shocking and cataclysmic events do happen once in a while, and since the myriad Cassandra’s out there generate enough predictions to suit every occasion, some small number of them must inevitably come true. A case in point is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that took place 80 years ago today.

Consider, for example, an article entitled “Stop Japan Now,” that appeared in the December, 1941 issue of “Flying and Popular Aviation” magazine. The author was James R. Young, who had worked as a journalist in Japan for the previous 13 years. It starts with the following quote by Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana:

Several months ago I stated that, before this war was over, our Government would have to engage in war with Japan. I know of no better time than now to do the job.

It didn’t take long for his wish to come true. Young agreed, advocating a quick, surgical preemptive war against Japan in order to release our Pacific naval squadrons for convoy duty in the Atlantic, thus averting a British defeat. According to the first paragraph of his article,

Japan’s threat in the Far East is perpetuated by an Axis plan to keep our Pacific Fleet from being released for immediate convoy duty in the Atlantic. America can and must call Nippon’s bluff and free our Naval squadrons in the Pacific, if we are to get the necessary aid to Britain in time. This is the hour to act. Japan is vulnerable to an attack by our Army and Navy air units operating from bases in Alaska, the Philippines, and even China. Almost single-handed our air power, as it now stands, can cut the lifeline of Japan’s only real menace – her navy – destroy her crowded cities, demoralize her army and render the nation worthless to the Axis.

Beneath a picture of a Japanese aircraft carrier one reads the caption,

U.S. Navy experts long have considered Japanese air and sea power third-rate.

Such hubris was probably similarly common among Russian naval experts back in 1904, before their attitudes about Japan’s “third rate navy” were adjusted by Admiral Togo in the Battle of Tsushima. A bit later on we read,

Less than 1,300 miles away from her industrial centers near Tokio, at Alaskan air bases, are U.S. Army Air Force bombardment groups, standing ready for action. And facing her Gibraltar of the Pacific, Formosa (largest island in the Japanese group), are strong U.S. land, sea and air forces in the Philippines. Japan could not withstand the highly developed and speedy striking ability of America’s new Pacific might. She would quickly crumble.

Indeed, we could knock out the feckless Japanese with one hand tied behind our backs. According to Young,

One effective attack from an American aircraft carrier, bombers from Siberia, or a squadron from China could cripple Japan’s transportation system. Night attacks on any part of Japan will leave her practically helpless… Important naval bases also will be vulnerable to bombardment, in view of the fact that antiaircraft defense cannot function until the attacking forces are over their objectives. Such airports as Japan has could be bombed completely out of commission as they have few such bases and cannot move freely to newer fields, due to the condition of the terrain.

As Young pointed out, the Japanese were particularly helpless when it came to military aviation:

In aviation, as in the auto industry, the Japanese have always had something of everything from everywhere. A big handicap is the development of carburators to contend with notoriously bad Japanese weather conditions. The have French carburetors, American piston rings, German and Italian cylinder heads, Swedish ball bearings and all kinds of machine tools – plus American cotton, Dutch rubber, and imported aluminum… For a number of years the Japanese have developed aircraft through adopting a type purchased through a manufacturing license from some other country. These licenses and designs have become obsolete by the time they have gone into production.

The Zero fighter had become operational in April, 1940, and had been used extensively in China for more than a year before Young’s article appeared, but, apparently, he hadn’t noticed. When war did begin in the same month as the article was published, Japanese fighters and bombers made short work of opposing air forces as they swept south through the Philippines and southeast Asia. Young continued,

The answer in dealing with such a nation is to take Vladivostok, Dakar and Martinique – and do the arguing afterward. If we find we do not need the bases, we can hand them back. (!)

Right! I’m sure Comrade Stalin would have meekly accepted our seizure of Vladivostok while his nation was fighting for its life against Nazi invaders. And, after all, it would only take a few days for Japan to crumble beneath the hammer blows of our vastly superior military, and then we could just hand back the city, good as new.

The same magazine had an article by Major General L. H. van Oyen, head of the Dutch air force in the Netherlands East Indies entitled, “The Netherlands Indies are Ready.” According to the general,

The Netherlands East Indies has two air forces, army and navy, The army air corps, which I head, is equipped with Rayan trainers, made in the United States, a formidable array of Brewster Buffalo fighters, Fokker reconnaissance planes (now used only for training), and Curtiss interceptors, known over here as the CW-21. We also have many Curtiss P-36 fighters.

Japan’s air force would soon make short work of the general’s Brewster Buffalos and P-36 fighters. Eventually, of course, nearly four years and two atomic bombs later, Japan did crumble beneath the weight of U.S. military and industrial might, but the job was somewhat more difficult and protracted than Young imagined. I find little about what happened to him and his “expertise” after the war. However, if our own times are any guide, he made out just fine. Consider, for example, the case of Gordon Chang, who predicted that the Chinese government would collapse in 2011 in his “The Coming Collapse of China,” published in 2001. Now, a decade later, the Chinese government seems to be doing just fine, and yet I continue running into articles citing him as an “expert” on China.

According to Julius Caesar, “Men willingly believe what they wish to believe.” It’s as true today as it was 2000 years ago.

Oswald Spengler got it Wrong

Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines.  There are page limits, so they have to get to the point.  It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage.  Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler.  His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918.  Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean.  He should have quit while he was ahead.

Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak.  The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli.  Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels.  Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!”  It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself.  It was also wrong.

According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse.  Man had dared to “revolt against nature.”  Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man.  At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:

A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation.  Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength.  But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal.  The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…

Spengler went on to explain that,

Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.

No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia.  Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history.  Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book.  It was a rash assumption.  Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology.  He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all.  For example,

The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose.  In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.  In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out.  Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.

Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book.  At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields.  He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives.  However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”

It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially.  Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power.  It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time.  For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then.  No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.

Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later.  Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.”  As he put it,

Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition.  the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.

In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races.  They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West.  Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:

For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose.  This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon.  The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close.  It will be eaten up from within.  When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.

Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”  (Matthew 24:36).  However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that.  Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time.  Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7).  In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:

The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War.  This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries.  It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.

Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well.  Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:

This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work.  The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost.  Their numbers are their death.

Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:

Only dreamers believe that there is a way out.  Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him.  That is greatness.  That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.  The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.

One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world.  And who can blame them?  After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova.  When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”