Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.Mike Tyson
Turn of the 20th-century United States. The Gilded Age is in full swing, and Americans are showing their economic might on the world stage. From a backwater frontier of less than 20 million people, the population has boomed in the aftermath of the Civil War to over 70 million. Through cunning, ingenuity (and intellectual property theft), the United States – fresh off a victory in the Spanish-American War – is emerging as a new imperial power.
But off the Western coast of the Gold Rush state, beyond the outskirts of newly won Pacific Island military bases, a strange adversary is flexing its might and threatening war. American generals, motivated by fear, glory, and a healthy dose of racism, realize it’s only time before an outbreak of all-out naval War in the Pacific brings the majestic, ancient Japanese Army into conflict with a newly emergent United States Navy.
What should they do?
In Edward Miller’s War Plan Orange, we are shown the development and ultimate rejection of “War Plan Orange” – a set of formal and informal logistical, battle, and diplomatic-related plans for the coming U.S. vs. Japan showdown in the Pacific. A part of the “Color-Coded War Plans” (the United States is Blue, Japan is Orange), it is ultimately scrapped on the eve of World War II for “Rainbow Plan Five”, a strategy that spelled out the ultimate defeat of the Axis Powers. Far from replaying the elementary school tale of “a surprise at Pearl Harbor” – Miller’s book lays out how the United States had anticipated the looming Japanese threat and began preparations for a war of attrition that would lead to a “final showdown” for Pacific (and ultimately, global) supremacy.
While Edward Miller does a masterful job in evaluating all the ins and outs of planning, his narrative is completely non-chronological. Instead of tackling a forward timeline, he establishes “themes” that he visits and revisits, ultimately working toward a final few chapters on how Plan Orange itself influenced Rainbow Plan Five and the prosecution of World War II’s Pacific Theater. Here, I’d like to do the same, and dive into the major themes of the book.
Planning, or What’s in a Name? Anyone who is familiar with the works of Shakespeare may understand that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So, if you’re a member of the Army (or a corporation or a non-profit or a …), it can be hard to understand what someone means when they come up to you and say, “I think we are doing good work here, but we are missing a coherent plan for how we will accomplish our goals. We need to think more strategically! What are they even talking about?!? Edward Miller spells it out:
American war policy was determined in a varied and often informal manner. The plan was elaborated in such studies as “Estimates of the Situation Blue-Orange” and in correspondence of officials that preceded or interpreted the official versions. The plan was a matter of common understanding more than a set of documents… They must have been topics of lively discussions in wardrooms and field headquarters. Plan Orange was one of those historical credos that are said to be “noted and filed in the Navy’s corporate memory” and “genetically encoded in naval officers.” It had been absorbed by the high commanders of World War II as the descriptor of the mission that had shaped their lives and institutions… They did not usually pull the old documents from the safe to reread as manuals.
The emphasis above is mine, and even though it comes early on in the book, this was the most illuminating passage for me. Often in business we talk as if there are a set of templates, or a “Magic Powerpoint” that we can create to achieve a better, more standardized set of outcomes. But, when we get into this mindset, we should remember, the Allies won World War II with a largely informal plan for mobilizing millions of men in a foreign ocean! It is a truly awe-inspiring level of commitment to an unspoken mission.
Cautionaries vs. Thrusters – Ultimately, it is not clear why the Navy embarked on War Plan Orange. Miller notes that, since Commodore Perry had landed The Susquehanna in Tokyo and forced open the intercontinental tradelines, Americans actually had fairly cordial relations with the Japanese. There are various thoughts around how growing racism in the Western United States due to an influx of Asian immigration around 1900 bubbled its way up through American institutions, or that Japanese dominance in the Russo-Japanese War stoked fear in the hearts of American military commanders. Regardless, war planners got to work.
At the outset, naval commanders were in agreement: Japan would provoke the United States into a war through a simple, tactical assault somewhere on a Pacific military base, Alaska or the outer coast of California. Once at war, Japan would seek to entrench its land forces on islands along the Pacific to grow it’s physical footprint and prevent U.S. entry into the Orient. Therefore, if the United States were to accomplish a total victory, it would have to defeat Japanese army forces with its own naval forces. It would be a battle of land versus sea.
Despite the massive overestimation of the United States Navy – which around 1900 could hardly defeated the Pirates of Penzance – if this is accepted as the U.S. Strategy, it begs the question of detail. If the goal of the U.S. was complete victory through naval domination, how should planners effect this strategy? Here, the US Navy broke into two camps that would last until after World War II had broken out! The first camp was composed of what Miller terms “Cautionaries”. These military leaders wanted the United States to slowly prosecute the War in the Pacific island by island, moving from Pearl Harbor in the eastern Pacific, constructing mobile bases at Wake Island and the Marshalls, then onto the Marianas south of Japan, and finally using the Philippines and/or Ryukyu Islands as a stronghold for a complete economic blockade of Honshu. The second camp is labeled by Miller as “Thrusters”. These alpha males wanted to strike while the iron was hot, lurching westward all the way to Guam or Eniwetok, then the Philippines, to show the United States’ might and subjugate the Japanese quickly, avoiding a prolonged war of attrition that would sap the United States’ citizens morale for a war they could not understand.
These camps were well represented at the top levels of leadership (Admiral Robert Coontz and General Douglas MacArthur among the Thrusters, and CinCUSAF Admiral Clarence S. Williams), so the forty-year fight for ideological supremacy was even-handed. But color me surprised that even in as buttoned-down an environment as the United States Military, politics and infighting happens just like in any other organization.
A Western Gibraltar – As War Plan Orange develops, Miller provides an excellent example of how, even in the Military, branding is everything. As the Thrusters begin to advance their critique of the Cautionaries’ war strategy, they need a “killer idea” to bolster their argument. As they ascend in prominence in the leadership (most notably with Admiral Coontz’ elevation to Chief of Naval Operations), they coalesce around a simple, yet elegant, description, of how they will prosecute their rapid assault on the Pacific: “A Western Gibraltar”.
A robust plan, [the Chief of Naval Operations] observed, flows best from “plurality of perspective and the resulting competition of ideas…. The process may be somewhat untidy, but it is distinctly American. It works.” – Edward Miller, “War Plan Orange”Tweet
To understand this, we have to revisit Gibraltar and what it meant for the British. At the turn of the 18th-century, the Grand Alliance (The Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain, Dutch Republic, and Habsburg Spain) launched a series of interconnected wars to beat back the French’s rapid encroachment on European territories (namely, a monarch-less Spain). In the War of the Spanish Succession (and its related skirmishes in Hungary, India, and North America), two enormously important outcomes happened for the British. First, the Royal Navy became the undisputed global maritime power (a place it would hold for two hundred years until the U.S.’s emergence in World War II). And second, the ensuing Treaty of Utrecht ceded the small rocky landscape of Gibraltar from the Spanish to the British.
The reason that Gibraltar was so vital to the cause of British domination is that the port of Gibraltar allows whichever naval force controls it to utterly dominate global maritime traffic through a single “chokepoint”: the Strait of Gibraltar. For Americans, emulating this strategy in the Pacific caused even the most cautionary of military commanders to salivate. Thus, the idea of “A Western Gibraltar” was born: a single port the United States could control in the Western Pacific to utterly dominate the Japanese’s commercial and military interests.
There was only one problem: there is and never will be such a thing as a “Western Gibraltar”. The atolls of the Pacific vary drastically in their geography and topography, yielding a completely different terrain than in Europe. First of all, there is no single atoll that stands out as a “chokepoint” – a major reason why the United States ultimately pursued something closer to the Cautionaries’ strategy of slow advance and naval encirclement reaching from the Ryukyus south of Honshu to the Aleutians far northeast. Secondly, and more importantly, the candidates that were chosen by the Thrusters to be a “Western Gibraltar” were completely unsuitable to service the large carrier fleets and combination of water-landed and carrier-landed aircraft that would prosecute World War II. As Miller notes, “[In Guam], at best, by excavating to a twenty-foot depth and building simple marine railways for servicing, destroyers and submarines might be accommodated.”
And yet, great marketing helped keep the Thrusters’ doomed strategy alive until the outbreak of War, when General MacArthur was actually stationed in Manila Bay, ready to defend his “Western Gibraltar” and quickly prosecute an unconditional surrender of the Japanese.
Earn Your Stripes First – Thousands of miles away from the nearest base, and with Pearl Harbor in flames, MacArthur and his forces battled heroically to save the Philippines in December 1941. The cause was in vain, as Miller writes, “the Japanese reduced the Philippines with overwhelming sea, land, and air power… MacArthur’s air force was destroyed on the ground. The raw Filipino army disintegrated during rash attempts to hold the beaches.” What then, was the outcome of this disaster? A recognition that MacArthur had been acting recklessly, ignoring high command entreaties for a cautionary strategy and hubristically leading his men into battle when The Washington Treaty of 1922 had kept the nearest backup 3,000 miles away?
Of course not. MacArthur, largely due to his men’s heroic efforts in the Philippines, was forever elevated into deity status in the military. In fact, this was his second great brush with fame, having been a decorated war hero in World War I. Despite later accounts of his cowardice in World War II (earning him the disparaging nickname of “Dugout Doug”), MacArthur’s reckless behavior “earning his stripes” would forever secure his name among the pantheon of great U.S. military leaders.
History is Written By the Victors – And what happens if you have not earned your stripes? For that we need only look at the story of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Born in 1882, Husband E. Kimmel was an Annapolis graduate who served with distinction in both the Battle of Veracruz and World War I. Through diligent work, he rose through the ranks of the U.S. Navy to the post of Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet (ironically shortened to CINCUS – “sink us”) on the eve of World War II.
With War Plan Orange fully developed, then rejected, and finally replaced with the Rainbow Plans, Admiral Kimmel was put in charge of the Pacific Fleet with a simple mission: prolong survival. Rather than the valiant Thruster strategy earlier developed by Coontz and championed by MacArthur, Kimmel was left with a Rainbow Plan (at that point, Rainbow Plan Three) that called for a drastically reduced Western Fleet and an ultra-slow stalling tactic in the Pacific so that Germany could be completely defeated first. This “Europe-first” strategy, as scholars have noted, was a result of George Marshall’s realization that Hitler would have to be defeated first so as to avoid British subjugation and a denial of US footing on the European mainland. In addition, the infamous “Plan Dog” memorandum from Admiral Harold Stark lent support to Marshall’s strategic elevation of the European Theater across all military branches.
Unfortunately, Admiral Kimmel didn’t get the memo. Not a household name, but desiring to be one, Kimmel actually began placing the Pacific Fleet (largely based at Pearl Harbor) in an offensive position! Rear Admiral Charles “Soc” McMorris, an aggressive Thruster now stationed as an operations officer in the Pacific, continually updated plans to reflect boat maneuvering. As Miller writes, “For example, on 6 December 1941 the two operative carriers were delivering marine squadrons to the atolls so if war broke out in the next twenty-four hours the Lexington was to fuel at sea near Midway…“ Our stories about Pearl Harbor being a complete surprise are not true. Miller even not-so-subtly intimates that Kimmel may have intended to provoke Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto into striking: “[Kimmel] intended to engage Yamamoto. That stakeout of the [Wake-Midway] battle line makes no sense except as a disposition for that event.”
We see therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. – Carl von Clausewitz, “On War”Tweet
Of course, what happens on December 7, 1941 is known to all. On “the day that will live in infamy”, all of Kimmel’s reckless positioning proved disastrous. Having no war hero credentials to fall back on, Kimmel was immediately stripped of his post and had two stars removed from his name. His family fights this decision, attempting to reinstate his legacy still today.
Timing is Everything – At the end of the day, as Miller notes, War Plan Orange in its formal form was little (if ever) used. Largely, it became encoded into the military leaders’ DNA and the intelligence gathered from the process of planning itself became invaluable in the prosecution of the war effort (namely, where to build mobile and which islands to skip entirely).
One often-overlooked component of planning is the innovation that it engenders. For example, the slow realization that the Pacific consisted of landmasses far more dispersed than anything the United States had ever encountered led to a massive engineering effort to increase the range of aircraft in the fleet. This effort led to the ability during World War II to skip several once-critical islands and reduce the United States’ casualties by hundreds of thousands. Tales abound of bored Japanese forces staking out atolls on which the U.S. never landed. In addition, the realization that carrier fleets would be battered at sea and forced to dock for refueling every few hundred miles led to a switch from coal-fueled boats to oil-fueled boats that could easily refueled at sea from fast, small supply ships. Miller’s writing confirms that old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
At the end of the day, sadly, it is unclear if the Japanese leadership would have surrendered even to the most aggressive of attrition/starvation-based war executions. Recently revealed documents show that US leaders expected 1.2 million casualties, including more than 250,000 deaths, from Operation Coronet, the plan to invade Honshu. With the U.S. having invented the Atomic Bomb “Just in Time”, President Truman made the fateful decision to use nuclear arsenal, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Next time: we learn about rich people! Boy, this was a doozy. I recently got through “What it Takes”, Stephen Schwarzman’s new biography about his life “living above the radar”. Must be nice!
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