The current warm relationship between the United States and Japan on economic and military matters was not the case on December 7, 1941. On that date 75 years ago, Japanese planes, with no warning, bombed and torpedoed our naval fleet at Pearl Harbor and then attacked our military bases around Hawaii. That attack had been predicted 32 years earlier, but like Cassandra’s prophesy at Troy, the warnings about Japan went unheeded. The disaster at Pearl Harbor was the price we paid.
The warning advisory appeared in The Valor of Ignorance, a 1909 book by a young American named Homer Lea. Lea was physically disabled with a curved back and partial blindness, but his vision related to military matters was unparalleled. In a later book, The Day of the Saxon, Lea wrote of Japan and Germany teaming to conquer much of the world and predicted the decline of the British Empire. But it was his forecast about Japanese aggression in the Pacific that showcased his genius.
Lea attended Stanford University, where he developed a deep interest in the Far East, especially China and Japan, which led him to travel extensively in Asia. He served as an advisor to the Chinese military during the Boxer Rebellion, and for his efforts was made a general in the Chinese army. He was a friend and military advisor to Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China. While Lea was in Japan, Japanese naval officers offered him an officer’s commission and showed him a map of the Pacific indicating all lands they hoped to put under Japanese control. Lea declined, but the Japanese plans became the basis for his predictions, including:
“Silently, without haste, slowly, with an intentness that is conscious of neither hesitation nor diversion, this militant empire [Japan] moves across the sea. The nation has vanished. It has been metamorphosed into a soldier. Japan draws near to her next war — a war with America — by which she expects to lay the true foundation of her greatness.
“In a war with America, there are other conditions of preparedness that will augment the rapidity of Japan’s conquest, that is the movement of her troops and naval forces to positions adjacent to the theater of war prior to a formal declaration of hostilities.”
Lea then discussed how the Japanese would take the Philippines. “The conquest of these islands would be less of an undertaking than was the seizure of Cuba by the United States; for while Santiago de Cuba did not fall until nearly three months after the declaration of war, Manila will be forced to surrender in less than three weeks.” (Lea’s reckoning was off by two days. Japanese forces made their first landing on Luzon on Dec. 10, 1941, and they entered Manila on Jan. 2, 1942, 23 days later.)
“The conquest of the Philippines is no complex military problem. Japan, by landing simultaneously one column at Dagupan [Lingayen Gulf] and another column the same size at Polio Bight [Lamon Bay] would strategically render the American position untenable. These points are equidistant from Manila.” A U.S. War Department study of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines released in November 1942 stated, “The subsequent landing of the two main invasion forces at Lingayen and at Lamon Bay … [was] one of the most brilliant moves of the entire war in the Far East.”
Lea continued, “The U.S. and Japan are approaching, careless on the one hand and predetermined on the other, that point of contact that is war. Nothing can better serve the interests of Japan, or any nation under similar conditions, than the characteristic indifference of the Republic to the dangers threatening it.”
Lea’s uncannily accurate prognostications were ignored or ridiculed by all but a handful officials within both the War Department and the State Department, but his books were read and praised by such figures as Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, Russia’s Vladimir Lenin, and Britain’s Lord Roberts. Valor of Ignorance became required reading for all Japanese officers; it was a textbook at the Japanese War College. The book went through 24 printings in Japan, with some editions titled, The War Between Japan and America.
One of very few American military personnel supporting Lea’s analysis was the Army’s former Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Adna Chaffee, who wrote the introduction to Valor of Ignorance: “We do not know of any work in military literature published in the United States more deserving the attention of men who study the history of the United States and then the science of war than this book.”
One of Lea’s important sources of information was Japan’s record of aggression against its neighbors. It disproves the belief by some that we provoked the Japanese attack by boycotting essential goods needed for its growing industrial complex.
As early as 1871, Japanese strategists felt that to make Japan supreme in the Pacific, they had to occupy both territory on the Asian mainland and on the numerous islands extending thousands of miles across the ocean. To implement this strategy, that year Japan assumed occupation of a Pacific island. Then in 1875, it occupied Russia’s Kuril Islands, and a year later seized the Bonin Islands. The country’s first real military test came in 1894 when it attacked China without declaring war. That victory resulted in Japan annexing Formosa (now Taiwan) and the Ryukyu Islands. This was followed by occupation of the Pescadores Islands.
Finally it was time to go after big game. Japan set her sights on Russia’s Liaodong Peninsula, which included Port Arthur. On the night of Feb. 8, 1904, Japanese torpedo boats made a surprise attack on the Russian fleet based at Port Arthur, completely crippling it. Two days later, Japan declared war on Russia. Under Admiral Togo Heihachiro, the Japanese annihilated the balance of Russia’s fleet. Japan next seized the southern half of Sakhalin Island and made Korea a protectorate, annexing it in 1910.
As Lea predicted, Japanese conquests continued after his death in 1912. Germany controlled hundreds of islands in the Pacific, known collectively as Micronesia. The three major chains were the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Caroline Islands. Some of these islands evoke bitter memories among U.S. soldiers who served in the Pacific in World War II. In World War I, Japan declared war on Germany and occupied all the German islands, including Kwajalein Atoll, Palau, Yap, Saipan and Truk Lagoon.
In 1922, Japan became a signatory to the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited both the size and the number of capital naval ships, then proceeded to ignore the agreement, building battleships and carriers and fortifying many occupied islands. Japan next used China as a military practice ground for both its warriors and weapons it had developed. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria. In 1933, Jehol. Then, in 1937, the aggressive nation made a full-scale attack on the heart of China. That struggle was ongoing when they attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. Japan believed that Russia would not be a problem because the nation was reeling from attacks by the German military juggernaut on its Western front.
Homer Lea received no recognition until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. His forecasts of future events were factual, specific and amazingly accurate. The early success of the Japanese proved that The Valor of Ignorance was more than just a title. Through our ignorance of the aggressive plans of the Japanese, and Germany in Europe, many millions of lives were lost. Lea saw the smoldering long before the flashpoint. Today, his message, “eternal vigilance or eternal sleep,” holds true.
Edwards is a Folio Weekly contributor and WWII veteran who served as navigator on the de Havilland Mosquito spy plane.