This isn’t a read on how great American military might was back in 1941. Rather this is a perspective of how strategically unwise Axis power Japan was by striking Pearl Harbor. In fact, I would argue that this strategic blunder cost the Axis the war, or more specifically, the Russian campaign.
State of the War Prior to Pearl Harbor
In North Africa, the Britain launched Operation Crusader which later resulted in a major victory for the British in this theatre. In the European Theatre, the main focus for Nazi Germany was advancing on the Russian front. It’s important to note that the Soviet Union had a numerical and terrain advantage over the Germans, however, Germany started out with a distinct advantage in technology and the capability of using it. After clearing the Balkans and Greece because Axis power Italy couldn’t, Germany commenced Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. The campaign was off to a good start but Bock’s Army Group Center was forced to relieve the campaign in Kiev, one of Hitler’s most disastrous decisions. This decision bought Moscow more time to prepare. By December 5th, two days prior two Pearl Harbor, Moscow was heavily reinforced.
Image from Westpoint
What Japan should have done
The United States was Japan’s naval rival in the Pacific. America could collectively outnumber Japanese forces. This is similar to Germany and USSR prior to Operation Barbarossa. However, there were many prizes to be won from Britain, France in the South. Japan should have pursued those. But in an effort to help their allies and gain crucial resources, Japan should have launched an attack on the Soviet Union. Japan hadn’t had a whole lot of success attacking the Soviets in the past. At very least, this would have prevented the Soviets from reinforcing their western front with the well trained Siberian forces, designed for winter. This would have changed the Battle of Moscow in Germany’s favor. Odds are, Moscow would have fallen without these reinforcements. Japan’s gains in the north may have been nominal but the damage to the Soviet Union would have been devastating. With the fall of Moscow, Hitler could have devoted Army Group Center and Army Group South to seize Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucus Mountains. With immediate attention to the west, Japan could have eventually worn away Russian forces and made significant gains of their own.
In the Pacific, Japan could have simultaneously handled anyone who wasn’t the United States. They could have isolated Australia and have developed grand infrastructure for a maritime empire. This would have left the Philippines surrounded discouraging the US from intervening.
What Japan actually did
Instead of helping allies, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Believing Americans didn’t have the stomach for war, they expected America to take it. Japan to their credit launched several successful attacks to seize land from European nations. Eventually, America cracked their code and was a step ahead in crucial battles such as Midway.
Hitler was then coerced into declaring war on the US without any major preparations. The US helped Britain turn the tides in the Mediterranean and eventually invaded Europe from multiple fronts. With the reinforcements from the east, the Russians were able to hold Moscow in one of World War 2’s most crucial battles. Russia was bought enough time to make some technological advancements that turned defense into offense.
Fighting on multiple fronts is not a recipe for success unless you’re America. It’s very possible the Soviet Union would have fallen in a two-front war. The demise of Nazi Germany is often credited to Operation Barbarossa, but Russia was a beatable opponent for Hitler. I would say Hitler lost because his allies sucked. Japan got Germany into wars they didn’t want, and Italy couldn’t hold their own and always needed Nazi support. Perhaps Hitler should have allied with Spain to help cut off supply lines for Britain. There are a lot of what ifs in World War Two, but its a good thing evil has a hard time finding quality friends unless you’re Stalin, but even that didn’t last long. Japan attacking Pearl Harbor ensures we’ll never know what would have happened if they had simply been strategically minded.