No Chance

This is a conversation I’ve had a number of times over the years, but this article is a great read about just how far behind the United States Japan was in industrial capability. I thought the gap was really huge, but I was wrong.

It was, in fact really, really huge. Or maybe even huger:

To an outside culture, particularly a militaristic one such as Japan’s, America certainly might have appeared to be ‘soft’ and unprepared for a major war. Further, Japan’s successes in fighting far larger opponents (Russia in the early 1900’s, and China in the 1930’s) and the fact that Japan’s own economy was practically ‘superheating’ (mostly as the result of unhealthy levels of military spending — 28% of national income in 1937) probably filled the Japanese with a misplaced sense of economic and military superiority over their large overseas foe. However, a dispassionate observer would also note a few important facts. America, even in the midst of seemingly interminable economic doldrums, still had:

  • Nearly twice the population of Japan.
  • Seventeen time’s Japan’s national income.
  • Five times more steel production.
  • Seven times more coal production.
  • Eighty (80) times the automobile production.

Furthermore, America had some hidden advantages that didn’t show up directly in production figures. For one, U.S. factories were, on average, more modern and automated than those in Europe or in Japan. Additionally, American managerial practice at that time was the best in the world. Taken in combination, the per capita productivity of the American worker was the highest in the world. Furthermore, the United States was more than willing to utilize American women in the war effort: a tremendous advantage for us, and a concept which the Axis Powers seem not to have grasped until very late in the conflict. The net effect of all these factors meant that even in the depths of the Depression, American war-making potential was still around seven times larger than Japan’s, and had the ‘slack’ been taken out in 1939, it was closer to nine or ten times as great!

Of particular interest is the discussion of how much difference a loss at Midway would have made in the long run.


  1. That discussion leaves out time scale issues. It takes nearly two years to go over to a war footing fully (something Tojo knew). That means that “American war-making potential was still around seven times larger than Japan’s” is only accurate as of late 1943, and there was “only” a smaller immediately accessible superiority of, what, two or three to one as of late 1941 just before the attack? That means that the Japanese war plan, while still a very long shot, was not 100% unrealistic. To have succeeded, they would have needed a complete knock out early on, followed by a negotiated peace before things turned around – unlikely, but not impossible if other things had turned up to preoccupy the US war effort, say in Europe, and if the very means they used to attempt a knock out hadn’t ruled that out.

  2. A loss at Midway was not possible … at worst, some Jap carriers would have gotten back severely damaged.

    While at the same time, all under construction US BB and cruiser keels had been converted on the fly to CVs.

    The US had broken their crypto … and had actually learned the lesson of Pearl Harbor … that CVs ruled.

    The Japanese didn’t figure the crypto part out … and they were still under the delusion that BBs and cruisers still had a role to play.

  3. Basically, the US brought no BBs to Midway … and the Imperial Navy brought a bunch of them. But the advantage of their loss of crypto is difficult to imagine.

    Avalon Hill use to offer a Midway game, but they had to drop it. Have the Japanese player know the US fleet was there in the area was an insolvable play balance challenge.

  4. P.M. Lawrence correct about the time factor, but do you honestly believe that the Americans would roll over that easy? The speech given by the President made sure that would not happen. Second if they did not go to Europe Japan would have much greater effort put towards them. As it was Japan all most got to the peace deal with the Americans. The turning point was Iwo Jima and the American people re-energized to take the fight to Japan.

  5. I agree somewhat with the first poster. The Japanese did not go to war with us expecting to win in the sense that they would take over the US. They wanted a quick, knock-out blow of our Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor which would leave them with naval supremacy in the Pacific.

    In fact an argument could be made that if Japan had fighting us after Pearl Harbor, they might have been able to fortify their Pacific and Asian possessions to the point where the US could never have been able to touch the home islands. Losing at Midway cost them experienced pilots in addition to their carriers.

  6. Sorry, I left out the word ‘stopped’ in the first sentence in the second paragraph. It should read:

    “…if Japan had STOPPED fighting us after…..”

  7. @ Kristopher:

    No US BB keels were ever converted to CVs. Sara & Lex were battlecruiser keels and the CVLs (excluding Saipan-class) were all Cleveland-class CL keels. CVEs were built from anything lying around.

    If all BB keels on the ways in mid-1942 had become CVs, there would have been no Iowa-class BBs.

  8. Lawrence & 11Bravo – Agreed. Even the most gung-ho Japanese General had to know that the war wasn’t going to end with an invasion of the U.S. A settlement that protected their sphere of influence was the goal.

    My guess is that the Japanese thought they could win enough battles with quality over quantity to force a settlement. In 1941 they had veteran pilots, sailors, and soldiers. They had better aircraft and (on-paper at least) equivalent ships. They didn’t predict the M1 Garands and Carbines, Thompsons and BAR’s they would meet in the jungles. Or, that Corsairs, Hellcats, Mustangs would show up two years later and would easily sweep Zeros out of the sky while B-29’s bombed their cities to rubble.

    The war was very lopsided even with our “Europe first” strategy. With 2/3 of our Navy, the Marine Corps, and a few Army divisions not deployed to Europe, we won every battle on the land and sea after 1942. Without the European war, the Japanese would have been done by 1944 in a purely conventional war.

  9. Captain Ned: Thanx for the correction.

    What state of completion were the BB keels in? If nearly finished, then I guess they had no choice. What is telling is that no more were laid after Pearl Harbor.

    Even so, I think finishing the Iowa class BBs was an error … they should have flat-topped the lot of them.

    BBs, except as artillery platforms, were done.

  10. Actually, the Japanese could get by without even a peace deal. As long as the US Navy was neutralized, it wouldn’t matter how much steel we produced. We would be trapped behind the Atlantic and Pacific. Cripple the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, mop up the remnants in a second Decisive Battle, get on with building the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    A factor not mentioned by the linked article is the much more modern approach to war taken by the US. For example, when a US pilot set a record for aerial victories, he was sent back to the US to do two things: sell war bonds and train new pilots. This must have seemed insane to the Japanese (and the Germans). OK, say that the training produced better average pilots. Wars aren’t won by average warriors, they’re won by heroes like Saburo Sakai, who was just sent back into battle.

    Well, turned out the American “operations research” geeks were right. This war, at least, was won by average soldiers.

  11. Kristopher:

    The BB-57 class (4 units) were all in commission by August, 1942.

    BB-61: Laid down 6/27/40, launched 8/27/42, commissioned 2/22/43

    BB-62: Laid down 9/16/40, launched 12/7/42, commissioned 5/23/43

    BB-63: Laid down 1/6/41, launched 1/29/44, commissioned 6/11/44

    BB-64: Laid down 1/25/41, launched 12/7/43, commissioned 4/16/44

    BB-65: Laid down 1/15/45, cancelled 8/12/45 while 22% complete

    BB-66: Laid down 3/7/42, construction suspended 2/17/47 while 22% complete, launched January 1950 to clear the ways for BB-63 after her grounding. Proposed to be completed as anti-aircraft BB or as BBG guided missile ship; never happened. Engines removed 1958 and installed in AOE-1 and AOE-2 (fast supply ships)

    Now, if you want to talk about ships that had no real reason for existing, use NavSource to look up the CB-1 Alaska-class large cruisers.

  12. Basically a Baltimore on steroids (with an Essex plant) with no clear purpose as their original purpose (countering Scharnhorst and Gneisenau). They carried enough 40mm to make for semi-decent AA ships in carrier battlegroups, but that wasn’t their design intent.

  13. Preview feature?

    I take it you’re asking about a comment preview feature. There currently is none. My apologies.

    Hopefully, I’ll be upgrading the site design in the very near future and will incorporate a number of improvements including a comment preview and a notification of follow-up comments.

    Can’t promise it will be REAL soon, though. I’ll do my best.

  14. I was asking about a comment preview feature, but didn’t phrase it in a non-cranky way. My apologies for coming off as a crank.

    As for implementation timing, whenever you get to it will be just fine. I’ll just have to read my posts before clicking the submit button; probably should have done that earlier.

  15. Information technology is now what raw industrial capacity was then. Short answer? Yes we are.

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