What a 1925 Novel Can Teach Us About a Possible US-China War

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What a 1925 Novel Can Teach Us About a Possible US-China War

The Great Pacific War reveals the insights (and mistakes) that come with discussing a future war.

What a 1925 Novel Can Teach Us About a Possible US-China War
Credit: PHAN Kathleen Gorby, USN

If a war broke out tomorrow between China and the United States, what might it look like? The exact details are, of course, impossible to know, but some general understanding may be attainable. The defense policy community is trying hard to gain just that. Ghost Fleet took a fictional approach, one that can help explain how factors like weather, confusion, and human arrogance make the outcome of war unpredictable. The RAND Corporation has published more traditional analysis on the issue.

Such works matter because they shape the conventional wisdom, and the assumptions that policymakers have about what such a war might look like influence their decisions on issues with a direct effect on the balance itself, like defense investments and deployment patterns. Put more simply, contemporary writings about a possible conflict might not only be prophetic; they could influence how such a war unfolds.

This was the case with The Great Pacific War, a 1925 novel by Hector Bywater, a British journalist focused on naval affairs. The book told the story of a hypothetical future war between the United States and Japan, and it captured the imaginations of the U.S. and Japanese defense communities at the time. The father of Japan’s World War II strategy, Admiral Yamamoto, knew Bywater personally and was familiar with the book’s ideas. The U.S. Navy found it so compelling, according to Bywater’s biographer, that Navy planners rewrote War Plan Orange to more closely resemble the operational plan described in the book.

Those thinking today about a possible U.S.-China war would be remiss not to read The Great Pacific War. Bywater set a remarkable standard for influence and prescience, and many of the issues he raised are still relevant. Even more important, perhaps, is understanding what Bywater got wrong, lest we make the same mistakes.

Bywater’s hypothetical war begins in 1931. Japan and the United States are at odds over the control of territory in China, which is divided and weak. Japan is dependent on Chinese resources and “could not carry on for a month without Chinese supplies,” according to the novel. Moreover, Japan resents the presence of the United States in the western Pacific. Faced with political unrest at home, Japan’s leaders hype the threat posed by the United States to rally their population around the rising sun flag. After a routine shift of U.S. Navy ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific is announced, Tokyo demands that Washington rescind the order. But the tone of the communique outrages the American public and “the [U.S.] Government had no option but to adopt a stiffer attitude towards Japan.” In this state of heightened tensions, a Japanese cargo ship mysteriously explodes in the Panama Canal, causing damage that will take months to repair. The flow of ships between the two U.S. coasts must now go around Cape Horn, adding roughly two months to their transit. (Later in the book, U.S. Navy ships coming from the Atlantic are ambushed by Japanese submarines in the Straits of Magellan.) The two sides are not yet in open hostilities, but the U.S. Navy begins to board suspicious Japanese merchant ships, which further aggravates relations.

Suddenly, U.S. radio communications from the Far East go dark, leaving the U.S. mainland without news from its Pacific territories. Eventually, Washington learns that its Asiatic Squadron in Manila, the primary U.S. military force in the western Pacific, was attacked and defeated by a superior Japanese force. An invasion of the Philippines follows, with Japanese amphibious landings at Lingayen Gulf (this happened during World War II) and Lamon Bay (this did not). It takes Japan about as long in the book as it did during World War II – roughly one month – to capture Manila. Bywater even predicted the rough size of the invasion force, and although he underestimated the number of defenders, the result — a swift defeat for the United States — was the same. As the story continues, it weaves an unpredictable but realistic course, with Bywater at times playfully inserting fictitious first-person accounts and historians’ summaries.

One issue of tremendous relevance today that The Great Pacific War highlights is the importance of intelligence and deception to winning in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In The Great Pacific War, Japan is unable to determine the location of the main American battle fleet, due both to its own failings and clever deception efforts by the U.S. Navy. As a result, the Americans are able to lure the main Japanese battle group into attacking a seeming vulnerable American squadron off of Yap, when in reality a superior American force is waiting to the west to ambush and ultimately defeat the Japanese fleet. Intelligence and strategic deception were similarly crucial to the U.S. victory at the battle of Midway, the decisive naval encounter of World War II.

Relearning the art of strategic deception could be a difficult experience for the U.S. military if it is forced to exercise its “conventional war” muscles after years of non-use. Some might argue that strategic deception is impossible in today’s world. For instance, given IMINT satellites and the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, it is difficult to imagine how the U.S. Navy could successfully conceal a concentration of naval forces in port, or obfuscate the battle damage to a ship needing dry-dock repairs (both occur in The Great Pacific War). But IMINT satellites might be duped by canopies, dummies, or other means, and cell phone cameras could be employed to spread false information. In short, well-organized efforts could still succeed in creating deception with strategic effects. One would hope that our intelligence apparatus is constantly thinking about how to execute and uncover such work.

Such effort is not, however, needed to build a decent order of battle for each side, as Bywater demonstrated. He could foresee exactly which ships were likely to be involved in a conflict, as well as the rough correlation of forces, presumably using just public information. Bywater went beyond counting ships, however, and wrote about the quality of personnel, their readiness, and the strength of each sides’ defense-industrial base. His thoroughness also extended to the impact of geography and the use of new military technologies. Bywater knew that geography would limit the U.S. Navy’s options in its campaign to retake the Pacific. The path to Japan would go through the archipelagos of the South Pacific, just as it did during World War II. Regarding military technologies, Bywater wrote deftly about how the range and speed of ships, as well as their guns’ caliber and range, would determine the outcome of naval engagements.

Bywater had more difficulty in assessing how new and controversial weapons, like aircraft carriers and poison gas, would impact future warfare. Poison gas is widely employed in The Great Pacific War, but during World War II neither the US or Japan used it against each other (Japan did use it against Chinese forces). Regarding aircraft carriers, Bywater underestimated the role they would play in the conflict. He recognized that planes with torpedoes could potentially be effective anti-ship weapons, but he overestimated how well ships would be able to defend themselves from air attack. This led him to conclude that “a decision must be achieved by weapons other than the air arm,” indicating his faith that battleships would still play the decisive role. To be fair to Bywater, the technological and doctrinal advances that made carriers World War II’s premier naval weapon would probably not have been ready in 1931, the year Bywater’s fictional conflict began. Nonetheless, there are potentially worrisome parallels between Bywater’s (mis)assessment of the naval aviation-capital ship balance and today’s debate in naval policy circles about the anti-ship missile-capital ship balance. Those who believe such a comparison is apt are already advocating distributed lethality as a new doctrine for the U.S. Navy.

Bywater’s most significant misjudgment was the level of destruction Japan would endure before it surrendered. In The Great Pacific War, with U.S. Navy forces closing in on the Japanese mainland, U.S. bombers release parachuted “bombs” on Tokyo filled with leaflets appealing to the Japanese people to surrender. In the book this works, and there is no bombing campaign, no nuclear attack, and no discussion of an invasion of the Japanese mainland.

If one considers Ghost Fleet a modern version of The Great Pacific War, might it too understate what it will take for a U.S.-China war to end? Would both sides be willing to cease hostilities to return to the status quo in the Pacific? Or might the U.S. Air Force have to threaten Beijing with profound damage to force a capitulation? No one really knows what it would take to compel the People’s Liberation Army to lay down its arms. If The Great Pacific War and World War II are a precedent, a war could be longer and bloodier than we expect.

Though published nearly a century ago, The Great Pacific War covers issues directly relevant to the contemporary debate about a possible U.S.-China war. Knowledgeable readers will find even more worth considering in it than has been covered in this review. Bywater died in 1940, so he never saw the conflict he predicted play out. But his story should remind those writing about future conflict that their work is not idle; success in the next war could depend in part on how well we can anticipate the character of it.

Ben Lamont works at a nonprofit that teaches courses on defense policy.