To Rouse A Sleeping Giant

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A fascinating video detailing the paths of Japanese and US merchant shipping during World War II.  Beginning in 1943 the US is increasingly dominant with the Japanese shipping clinging to the Asian coast down to the oil in the Dutch East Indies.  1944 shows the obliteration of those Japanese routes and by the surrender in 1945 Japanese merchant shipping is virtually non-existent.  A stark reminder of just what madness it was for the Japan to start a war it could not win with the US.

At the end of the epic movie Tora, Tora, Tora, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the combined Japanese fleet, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, refuses to join in the elation of his staff, and makes this haunting observation: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  The line is almost certainly apocryphal.  The director of the film, Elmo Williams, claimed that Larry Forester, the film’s screenwriter, had found the line in a 1943 letter written by Yamamoto.   However, he has been unable to produce the letter, and there is no other evidence that such a letter exists.

However, there is no doubt that Yamamoto would fully have endorsed the sentiment that the line contained.  He had studied at Harvard in 1919-1921, and served two tours as a naval attache at the Japanese embassy in Washington DC.  He spoke fluent English, and his stays in the US had convinced him of that nation’s vast wealth and industrial power.  He had also developed a fondness for both America and Americans.

In the 1930’s Yamamoto spoke out against Japan allying with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fearing that such an alliance would lead inevitably to a war with the US that Japan would lose.  He received frequent death threats as a result from fanatical Japanese nationalists.  These were not idle threats, as such nationalists did assassinate a fair number of Japanese politicians and military men during the Thirties who were against war with the US.  Yamamoto ignored the threats with studied contempt, viewing it as his duty to the Emperor and Japan to speak out against a disastrous course.  Yamamoto wrote in a letter to one nationalist:

Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.

After war came, and his warnings were ignored, Yamamoto fought to win it for Japan, until he died at the hands of an American P-38 Lightning raid, specifically targeting the plane he was flying in, the US eager to have their brilliant adversary no longer at the helm of the Japanese navy.  In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor raid, on January 9, 1942, when Japan was riding high on a wave of rapid conquest throughout the Pacific, Yamamoto made the following comment which indicated both his moral qualms as to the Pearl Harbor raid, and his fears as to the ultimate outcome:

“A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

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  1. If you look carefully you can see the U.S. merchant ships that sailed right past the Japanese held Kuril islands during the war. How could they do that? Simple: they just flew the flag of the USSR. The Japanese dared not touch them.

  2. In a 1991 article, “Pearl Harbor: Military Inconvenience, Political (and Strategic) Disaster”, John Mueller contended that the damage done was not extensive. The equipment was old and some of it obsolete. The US could readily repair and replace. The damage was made relatively trivial by US massive industrial capacity and replacement war machines were new, powerful, and in huge numbers.

    The US was not prepared to take the offensive. So, the attack did little to stop America. Until 1945, the US would send 90% of its war effort to Europe, anyhow.

    The political/strategic ramifications were tragic for Japan, the US and East Asia. Japan was destroyed. The US was forced into a long and ghastly war when (Mueller argues) containment/harassment strategies may have rolled back Japanese aggression. And, Japan was replaced by, arguably, worse local tyrannies, e.g., China, NK, and USSR.

    John Toland’s excellent book, The Rising Sun, has a depiction of a Japanese officer POW (from a movement in a train in the US) recognizing US industrial might and concluding the empire didn’t stand a chance.

  3. Japan coveted the Hawaiian Islands forever as a strategic base. When Hitler began his move to conquer the world, Japan had to stake its claim to world dominance. Japan needed the Hawaiian Islands. Driving the Americans out was the first step. “”To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House.”” and before Hitler, for it was Hitler’s plan to roll over England into America. Notice that Russia stopped both Germany and Japan. I believe that Hitler and Hirohito, who denied any part in WWII, would have shared the spoils. They did prepared the path for the USSR, and communism to overlord the world.

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