Surprise Torpedo Attack

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Gordon Tullock opens his Open Secrets of American Foreign Policy with a shockingly clear discussion of Pearl Harbor:

In order to understand Pearl Harbor, it is necessary to go back to 1904. In that year, the Japanese started their war with Russia with a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian Far Eastern fleet at Port Arthur. Their accuracy was not very good, but they did cripple the fleet so that it was not able to interfere with the movement of Japanese troops in to Manchuria. These troops were able to take Port Arthur by land assault, thus making the Russian attempts to repair their ships nugatory.

The Russian undertook the very difficult task of moving their Baltic fleet to the Pacific. It arrived after the fall of Port Arthur and was destroyed at Tsushima while attempting to reach Vladivostok. The Japanese success resulted from two factors, one of which, of course, was their achievement of surprise. The other was the fact that although the Russian fleet was markedly bigger than the Japanese, it was divided, and the Japanese fleet was capable of beating each half. If the Russians had concentrated both fleets in Port Arthur, it is very doubtful that the Japanese would have dared attack. As the great naval theorist Mahan pointed out, however, if they had been concentrated in the Baltic, it would have been also very dangerous for the Japanese to attack. They would have had temporary command of Far Eastern waters, but would have faced almost certain defeat when the combined Russian fleets arrived.

The American navy knew this history and their war plans took it into account. The bulk of the fleet was concentrated in the Pacific, with only three elderly battleships, a carrier, which was new, but had a serious design defect, and some minor ships in the Atlantic. This Pacific fleet was markedly superior to the Imperial Navy. On receipt of a war warning, in order to minimize the chances of surprise, the war plans called for the Pacific fleet going to sea and taking a course intended to make it hard for the Japanese to find them. With both fleets looking for the other, and the American bigger, it was more likely that they would first miss, which would mean no surprise, or the American fleet would locate the Japanese before the Japanese located it, or each locate the other, which would also mean no surprise. If, by chance, the Japanese located the American fleet before it located the Japanese fleet, the Americans would be on the alert and well able to defend themselves.

All of this was changed by a decision to move one battleship division and half of the scouting forces to the Atlantic.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    A draft copy pdf version of “Open Secrets of American Policy” can be downloaded from Tullocks official website.

    I like chapter 3 on the collapse of nationalist China, which was summarized on Overcoming Bias as:

    “Tullock goes on to describe how US diplomats in China personally favored the communists. Even if the truth is somewhere between these pictures, it seems quite at odds with the usual US-fighting-communism story.”

  2. Grurray says:

    They learned too much from the Russian war and developed their doctrine of Kantai Kessen, which was Japanese for ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’

    American Carriers, leap frogging, diversionary tactics, and good old Yankee ingenuity proved that flexibility and maneuverability could defeat Japanese concentrated power.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I’ll get to the open secret of Nationalist China momentarily, and now that I have that draft copy of the whole text I can get to Korea, etc. Thank you!

  4. cassander says:

    The US navy spent almost 50 years expecting, and planning for, a surprise attack against the Philippines, because for most of that period, an attack against hawaii was simply not possible. It became possible in the late 30s, but 5 years was a small time period to absorb a change of that magnitude sort of change. that part of the fleet was in atlantic waters, though, made absolutely no difference.

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