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Is It Possible To Get History "Right?"
And Do We Want To?
Still here? Great. With the news this week, ya gotta wonder.
This will be a slight departure from what I’ve been doing because the writing of history isn’t all this little newsletter is about. I feel compelled to share some of the content, as well. The regular feature called History Reconsidered attempts to examine the past differently: trying to stay above the needs of pedagogy and politics and stick to the hard facts.
But I’ll only do this sometimes, no more than once a month. I can hardly keep up that pace, frankly.
Getting History Right
Lately, several very loud and strident discussions about more than just the 1619 Project and “getting it right.” I’m beating up on that chestnut a lot, but there’s a lot of risk in being first.
Pioneers are the guys with the arrows in their chests.
Historians and buffs speak of “revisionism” in sneering tones that make it sound like a bad thing. Revisionism is often tied to Marxist philosophies that recast the past into a long class struggle…and nothing else. Abstractly, it is the re-interpretation of a historical account. It usually involves challenging the orthodox views held by scholars—professionals and amateurs alike. It’s bucking the trend, going against the grain, saying “no” to the accepted version.
All at once.
A version is called “revisionist” if it pops up out of nowhere, with little fanfare or introduction, especially if the source is not a practitioner in the field or area. It is also so labeled if the sources for the new version are problematic.
1619 Project and Howard Zinn are “revisionist” because they cite few historical sources for their claims
However, revisionists usually claim to be above mere facts, that their versions have the benefit of “revealed truth.” They also belittle the historical establishment as being “part of the problem” that does not accept the “obvious” supremacy of their version of “the truth” when they are criticized.
“Revisionism,” to a certain extent, is part and parcel of the history profession. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need so many versions of Gettysburg, the Normandy invasion, or even the Normans in 1066. The sudden revisionism, though, is not. If an article claimed that General Meade was assisted at Gettysburg by space aliens, scholars would look askance at such a claim. But if an article were to claim that Meade defeated Lee largely because Meade had a far superior intelligence preparation of the battlefield, that would be somewhat different—even if space aliens provided that intelligence that the article didn’t speak of. That might come out later, but one thing at a time. There’s also the process of interpretation, or the blending of versions that some scholars do better than others. But that’s not “revisionism” as much as “scholarship.”
How do we get the past “right?” It ain’t easy, and it may not be possible. Here’s a bon mot to illustrate:
The only sources of historical truth are time machines and faith in sources.
John D. Beatty
Scholars get to pick ONE only.
A school of thought also suggests that getting the past “exactly right” may not necessarily be a good thing, even if such were possible. Some heroes of the past had feet of clay. Ty Cobb, we’re told, was a notorious racist. Some villains were simply creatures of their time. Richard III, popular history holds, was a murdering villain—complicated to prove either way—just so Shakespeare’s play by that name rings true. We may have fudged some events in the books to keep some other accounts from looking too stupid. Washington and his army crossed the Delaware, all right, and he did it at night, but his attack at Trenton was less a surprise than it was just dumb luck that the Hessians found enough booze to get that drunk.
Stella’s Game is based partly on my life—the timeline and some of the events, anyway. It has a lot of me in it, but my sister, who is not only in it but read it, didn’t identify enough with some aspects of it.
It’s a story, Sis, not a history book or a time machine.
Stella’s Game takes place between 1963 and 1974 and follows four children into young adulthood. The usual bumps and starts, triumphs, and tragedies are along the way. There’s the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing, Vietnam, Watergate, My Lai, “Stairway to Heaven,” and a few funerals in there. Primarily, Stella’s Game describes how friends are made, how they are lost, and how they are made again, in the context of teenagers in suburban Detroit in the ‘60s. You can get it for as little as $0.99, get it autographed, and have it on your doorstep in one easy step.
And here’s the new part…
The Battles of Coral Sea and Midway
By the end of April 1942, the war in the Pacific had reached a tipping point. Though the physical damage caused by the Doolittle Raid on 18 April was negligible, Japanese pride had been severely stung. At the same time, the Americans were contemplating their next moves to counter probable Japanese actions. Just what those actions would be was a matter of grave speculation on behalf of the Allies…sort of.
Distractions and Offensives
On 3 May 1942, the Japanese landed a small force on the eastern Solomons island of Tulagi. This seemingly innocuous extension of Japanese holdings was intended to isolate Australia from the United States further. While Tulagi lacked the large central plain that Guadalcanal to the south had, it was adequate for a seaplane base, which concerned the Allies. Japanese seaplanes were as capable of dropping bombs as a B-17 and had the range to reach New Caledonia from the eastern Solomons.
The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) barely had the resources to put a thousand fighting men into Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the spring of 1942. Their advance into the eastern Solomons was only a springboard for further operations. But the Allies didn’t know that. The Tulagi/Guadalcanal move made the “Free French” in the Pacific—the French colonies of New Caledonia who never supported the Vichy government—nervous. To keep this shaky ally in their camp, Australia and the United States had to “do something” about Tulagi…but first, there was New Guinea to save.
The Coral Sea battle (4-8 May 1942) was triggered by the Japanese offensive against Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. In support of that offensive, the Japanese sent a twelve-transport troop convoy carrying about 6,500 troops from Rabaul to New Guinea on 4 May. They were protected by two fleet carriers, a light carrier, nine cruisers, and 15 destroyers. Their subsequent four-day battle with two American fleet carriers, eight cruisers, and 14 destroyers has been called a Japanese tactical victory, an American strategic victory, and an operational draw. It was a confusing fight, the first major naval battle where the opposing fleets never actually saw each other. The Coral Sea battle saved Port Moresby from direct attack by the Japanese.
It also accelerated what the US Navy called Task 1, securing communications with Australia. The New Guinea, Solomons, and New Britain/New Ireland campaigns were all to save contacts with Australia…and arguably keep Douglas MacArthur busy.
Politics, Politics, and More Politics
Moreover, that’s an essential point that many overlook. The politics of the US Army were such that only a few senior officers were available for the genuinely responsible posts—and yes, Virginia, there were politics in the wartime US Army. George C. Marshall was Chief of Staff of the Army as of 1 September 1939; in early 1942, Dwight Eisenhower had been in the War Plans Division and was promoted to Major General that March and was being considered for important field commands. MacArthur would outrank (or have more time in grade on) both these officers until they were all given five stars in late 1945. If MacArthur wasn’t kept busy with holding onto the Australian base, he might have moved into either post…or tried to fill both: he had a modicum of political support after his “I shall return” speech. But few other officers had the organizational skills and the audacity that MacArthur had, so his presence in Australia was essential. As Army Chief of Staff (again) or in command in Europe, his haughty attitudes would almost certainly have irritated the British to the point that Churchill might have refused to work with him.
Aside from turning the Japanese away from Port Moresby, the Coral Sea fight sank one US aircraft carrier and severely damaged another in exchange for one Japanese aircraft carrier sunk and one damaged. Crucially, it practically destroyed the air groups of both Japanese carriers. It was the first time that a major Japanese offensive was frustrated by American action. This battle had a peculiar effect on the IJN: rather than reflect, they went into panic mode.
On to Midway!
The Eastern Operation—what the Japanese collectively called anything to do with Hawaii and the environs—was part of a plan to, once again, get the Americans to stop fighting and negotiate. The entire war was directed not to conquering the Americans—they knew they couldn’t—but to get them to come to a Versailles-style settlement whereby Japan’s assets would be released, all petroleum products made available, and American support for China would end. The Japanese reasoned that they were much more likely to talk than fight with Midway under occupation. The destruction of the American carrier force was also a goal but not as crucial as taking Midway—technically a part of the Hawaiian archipelago—as a bargaining chip.
The four days of the Midway battle (4-7 June 1942) have been well documented, but the depth of the Japanese disaster there cannot be over-emphasized. When they lost 40% of their carrier strength in less than 24 hours, Japan lost more than ships and airplanes: they lost the maintainers for the aircraft, which were as hard to replace as the prewar-trained pilots. While Yamamoto’s force also sank the American carrier damaged at Coral Sea and started approaching the American fleet with surface warships, he realized that the best he could do was sacrifice some light ships for fuel if the Americans just ran away. They no longer had to give battle with all his Japanese carriers on the bottom. While he could have continued with the invasion—and possibly, technically “won” the action—there would be no aircraft to put on Midway: they went down with the carriers. Without air cover, the 5,000 men of the landing force and any naval vessels left behind to support them were doomed to slow starvation and regular battering by any US units with a mind to lob ordnance at the islands.
The “Midway as bargaining chip” narrative has been around for years, and frankly, it’s wearing thin because its value as a bargaining chip was nebulous. Japan didn’t take territory while intending to give it back. They’d had that done to them at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, when they had to give their territorial gains on the Asiatic mainland to Russia, Germany, and France. They were not likely to give too much of their territorial gains anywhere back to their original owners or colonizers. Japan was arable-land-poor, and among the many things she wanted in China was farmland and room to expand her burgeoning population. What is more, Japan’s interest in the Hawaiian Islands was far more extensive than was realized in the 1940s. Tokyo earnestly felt that annexation of Hawaii was necessary for the Japanese commonweal. It does not seem likely that they would have given Midway back without a fight.
Yamamoto certainly knew that Japan’s chances of defeating or bringing the Americans to negotiations were extremely thin from the beginning. Japan didn’t have the industrial capacity to replace the four carriers lost at Midway—and repair the two damaged at the Coral Sea—in less than a decade, if ever. Japan’s long and meticulous aviation training program couldn’t replace the flyers lost in both battles in less than two years—even if they could find enough candidates.
As a naval attaché in America, Yamamoto knew the industrial capacity of the US. He also knew, as an aviator, that many good pilots in many adequate machines could outlast a few superb pilots in fewer superior machines. He knew the Americans made many good pilots, and the Japanese made a few superb ones. This was Japan's biggest problem in 1941-42: they simply had to make the Americans quit fighting, or they would surely be outlasted, not just in the air. It is probable that after Midway, Japan’s irreplaceable strategist knew that those chances had faded to nothing at Midway.
Yamamoto probably knew that Japan was doomed as early as 7 June 1942.
The Codes: Myths and Facts
Japan’s military leadership had been told that their fleet codes were compromised in February 1942, when submarine I-124—sunk on 20 January 1942—was sunk more or less intact on the north coast of Australia, and divers were able to remove the codebooks. The Allies had tried to get the codebooks in the submarine but couldn’t get in. That’s not what they told the salvage crews, who had a Japanese spy among them who duly reported what the Allies wanted them to say.
Much has been made of the American penetration of Japanese codes in the past few decades. While these breakthroughs were undoubtedly significant, the damage they did to the Japanese is somewhat nebulous, not because the Allies knew what the Japanese were up to and when, but more because it revealed something of the samurai leadership’s mindset.
Japanese cryptanalytic operations had penetrated American diplomatic codes in the 1930s and had some successes with Russian, Chinese, British, and French ciphers. But, the Japanese often disregarded the information based on intercepts if it did not align with current plans and assumptions. Confirmation that the Japanese codes had been compromised didn’t occur until a long-range fighter raid killed Yamamoto Isoroku in April 1943, but rumors abounded long before. In other words, if the Japanese had known that the American understood their intentions around the Coral Sea and Midway, it likely wouldn’t have mattered to the Japanese at all. The upper echelons of Japanese leadership didn’t much care if their codes were compromised. This peculiar character quirk of the Japanese leadership needs to be remembered as the events surrounding May and June of 1942 are reconsidered.
Military communications were hardly new in 1942, and Japanese signals intelligence people were neither fools nor sycophants. From the Japanese perspective, the Coral Sea and Midway battles could not have been the results of either chance meetings or brilliant surmise—not twice in a row. The US fleets had to cross half the Pacific ocean twice in a single month to intercept the Japanese main fleets. After both the Coral Sea and Midway battles, Japanese military and naval communicators should have told their leaders that the indicators were that their codes had been compromised, but there’s no record of it. Japanese archives were largely trashed at the end of the war, so there’s no way of knowing for certain. In that event, we have to guess that the signaler’s warnings were just ignored.
Taken together, Coral Sea and Midway slowed the Japanese advances in the Pacific, but it did not stop them. Shifting initiative would take a while, and this commentator would argue, it would take a Verdun in the Pacific—the Solomons and New Guinea campaign. The Guadalcanal and New Guinea campaigns that followed were efforts at stabilizing Allied communications with Australia. That long battle of attrition ultimately put the German 1916 campaign to shame in terms of duration and scope.
It would be a long slog before the Allies could take advantage of Japan’s slowing down. However, it did not stop them or make them less dangerous. Coral Sea and Midway critically weakened the IJN for sure, but it also showed a fundamental weakness in Japan’s warmaking capacity and myopia in their planning.
That’s another discussion.
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