Midway in Retrospect: The Still Under-Appreciated Victory
by James R. Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defense
I am delighted to be here with you tonight as we commemorate the 61st Anniversary of the Battle of Midway--and honor those who turned the tide of battle with a victory over ostensibly overwhelming force. There are too few of us who understand Midway's world-historic significance. And, as I will develop, it is essential for us to go forth and proselytize.
Since I wrote a piece a year ago in the Wall Street Journal on the 60th Anniversary of Midway, I have continued to be puzzled that the assertion that Midway played the crucial strategic role for the war in Europe--came as something of a revelation. So the question before us is: Why is not Midway recognized as the crucial battle for the West of World War II--just as Stalingrad is recognized as a crucial battle for the Soviet Union? The comparative neglect of Midway is a great historic puzzle--and, in a sense, a great injustice.
So, this evening, I shall talk about history and, in particular, in relation to what Churchill and others call Grand Strategy. Midway was far more than a decisive naval victory. It was far more than the turning of the tide in the Pacific war. In a strategic sense, Midway represents one of the turning points of world history--and in that role it remains under-appreciated.
Consider the Grand Strategy of the allies, which Churchill quite naturally preferred and Roosevelt was eager to endorse. It was quite simply: to deal with Hitler and with the threat in Europe first. It had been embraced, shortly after Pearl Harbor, at the Arcadia Conference. Roosevelt clearly recognized--and acted on the conviction--that the Third Reich was the greater menace. Dramatic as had been the Japanese advance after Pearl Harbor, it was into slightly developed colonial regions--to be sure possessing rubber and tin. Yet, at the base it was far less dangerous than was Hitler's continuing advance, crushing and then organizing the industrial nations of Europe, while to that point almost entirely obliterating far more formidable resistance.
Yet, it was Japan that had attacked the United States, and it was Japan on which the anger of the American people had focused. Though Churchill could almost automatically concentrate on Europe, it required considerable courage for Roosevelt to carry through on the Grand Strategy. Germany's declaration of war on the United States on December 8th, 1941, provided a small opening. Yet, had it not been for Midway, Roosevelt could not have persevered with a Europe-first policy. Public opinion would not have allowed it. Indeed, even after Midway, he paid a substantial political price. In the mid-term election of 1942, the Democrats lost 44 seats in the House of Representative, barely retaining control--with comparable losses elsewhere! In a subsequent poll of all the Democratic congressional candidates, the principal reason give for the debacle: "...frustration and fury at Roosevelt's Germany-first strategy, which translated into failure to punish the Japanese more aggressively for Pearl Harbor." Nonetheless, despite the inclinations of the American people, Roosevelt recognized that the larger threat lay elsewhere--and was prepared to pay that domestic political price for that larger national objective, defined by his Grand Strategy.
Now consider the overall military situation in the spring of 1942. Japan was on a roll. The Philippines had fallen, including the final outposts of Bataan and Corregidor. The Japanese had swept down through the Malay Peninsula from French Indochina, and on 15 February, the supposedly "impregnable fortress" of Singapore had fallen--to numerically inferior Japanese forces. The Dutch East Indies had been captured. Japanese forces were advancing into Burma and might proceed to India. Even Australia appeared to be threatened. American naval forces, significantly weakened by the attack at Pearl Harbor, appeared vastly inferior to the armada that Japan was gathering to advance eastward in the Pacific toward Midway--and then possibly to the Hawaiian Islands or even the West Coast. Additional Japanese victories would have made it politically impossible for Roosevelt to continue to pursue the Grand Strategy of Europe-first.
Then came Midway. Through an extraordinary combination of the skill and courage of our pilots, splendid intelligence, prudent risk-taking by our commanders that paid off, and sheer good luck, the apparently inferior American forces were victorious. This victory occurred despite the inferiority of our aircraft, the ineffectiveness of our torpedoes, the substantial absence of backup surface ships, and our overall numerical inferiority. You know the rest! Four Japanese carriers had been sunk. It all confirmed the dictum of Otto von Bismarck: "the Lord God has special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America." The Japanese offensive had now been blunted. The Japanese fleet turned back toward the Home Islands and the opportunity for victory had been lost forever. Roosevelt could now execute his Grand Strategy, with all that was to imply regarding the condition of post-war Europe.
After Midway, the United States could, to the chagrin of Douglas MacArthur, turn its primary attention back to the European theatre. After the stunning surrender of Tobruk, which appeared to jeopardize both Cairo and the Suez Canal. Roosevelt, thus, could accommodate the somewhat distraught Churchill's request for 300 of the new Sherman tanks to bolster the defenses in Northeast Africa, ultimately leading to the victory at El Alamein. The Battle of the Atlantic gradually turned--with the steady improvement in anti-submarine warfare, thereby helping to ease the shortage of shipping. By the fall, Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa, initiated offensive operations, which ultimately led to the destruction of Rommel's Afrika Korps. The invasion of Sicily would soon follow succeeded by the invasion of Italy, and eventually the landings in Normandy.
Had these events not taken place or been much delayed, it is possible that the Soviet Union would not have survived. But, if it had, and succeeded in its march westward, the face of post-war Europe would have been vastly different. Soviet forces would have deployed further to the west. Germany would likely have been occupied in its entirety. The West's foothold in Europe would have shrunk, perhaps dramatically. The ability of France and Italy to survive Communist pressures, precarious as it was in 1947, would have been much reduced. In brief, it was Midway, that battle in the distant Pacific, that shaped the face of post-war Europe.
Yet, despite the crucial historic role of Midway, its gets scarcely more attention in out history books than the naval battles on Lake Champlain or Lake Erie--let alone the scant attention that Europeans have paid to it. Let us reflect for a moment on a few of the other notable battles that turned the tide of history.
In 480 B.C., Athens had fallen to the Persian army, but Athens had in a sense survived in the form of its 200 naval vessels that Athens, prodded by Themistocles, an early apostle of naval construction, had created. On the 28th of September in the straits of Salamis, before the very eyes of the Emperor Xerxes, the combined Greek naval force delivered a devastating blow, sinking some 200 Persian ships--with the loss of only 40 of their own. Xerxes, as Herodotus describes, had wanted to rule Europe as well as Asia. Fearing an attack on its bridges over the Hellespont, the Persian army largely withdrew. Greek (and European) civilization had been preserved. Indeed, if I may indulge in a lapse from political correctness, Europe had been saved from Oriental Despotism. It was a naval battle that decided the fate of a civilization, a world/historic event, a turning point of history.
Each year, the English-speaking world celebrates Trafalgar. Yet, it is not clear that even in the absence of victory that England would not have survived. Midway, at a minimum, was the most decisive naval victory since Trafalgar, and perhaps the most strategically decisive victory since Salamis.
Let us turn to the crucial battles here in the United States. Yorktown is, of course, appropriately celebrated. Yet, after the Battle of the Capes, Yorktown was but the frosting on the cake, an almost inevitable triumph. Saratoga, by contrast, is rightly seen as the turning point of the Revolution.
One is, no doubt, obliged to speak of Gettysburg. Yet, while Gettysburg may have been the high water mark of the Confederacy, the outcome of the Civil War was never much in doubt. Just recall the remarks of that military logistician, Rhett Butler, at the beginning of Gone With The Wind, when he rebukes some Southern hotheads by pointing to the overwhelming industrial domination of the North.
Well then why, if Midway had such world/historic strategic significance, has it received so much less attention than it deserves? A recent documentary supposedly detailing the Pacific War, produced by Steven Spielberg and Stephen Ambrose, moves smoothly from Pearl Harbor to island-hopping in the western Pacific, with scarcely a mention of Midway. How could such a momentous victory come to be overshadowed? There are, I believe, three prominent reasons.
First, the Europeans are quite naturally even more Euro-centric than are we. For them the crucial battle for the European theatre had to be in the European theatre itself--and not some remote spot in the Pacific. There is still little sense in Europe of what a vast enterprise the war in the Pacific was. El Alamein continues to be celebrated in the United Kingdom. Similarly, the Battle of the Bulge is annually celebrated here. But the outcome of both those battles was almost foreordained by the balance of forces.
Moreover, the most prominent, indeed almost the canonical, history of World War II was written by Winston Churchill himself. And where would Churchill look? Not to some purely American engagement in the distant Pacific. Midway is only mentioned in Churchill's six-volume history--with no indication of how it shaped the outcome in Europe.
Second, Midway always has lain in the shadow of D-Day, which occurred two years later, but which coincides with Midway in the calendar year. D-Day, which was truly touch and go, deserves all the attention that it has received. But, it should not be to the detriment of Midway itself. For without Midway, there would have been no D-Day on 6 June 1944--with all that that implies about the condition of post-war Europe.
Third, it is also in a sense the fault of the U.S. Navy itself. The Navy (take no offense) is both too shy--in blowing its own horn--and too complacent--for in naming a carrier after a battle is so high an honor that nothing more needs to be said.
Moreover, Midway may be the victim of intra-service politics or more exactly intertribal fights. If one glorifies what was so dramatically a carrier victory, it might be interpreted to the detriment of the surface navy and/or the submarine force. So, tact required a relatively discreet silence. Thus, regarding the crucial significance of Midway in world history, it is more than the submarine force that has been the Silent Service.
Our British allies have perennially demonstrated a masterly touch in displaying, not to say marketing, their armed forces and their accomplishments. Go to London! See the centrality of Trafalgar Square in the city! Observe that obelisk for Admiral Nelson towering over the Square! It all provides a setting and a reinforcement for the annual celebration of the naval battle itself. By contrast, Farragut Square is a very dim competitor. And where, pray tell, is Midway? It is, of course, the Midway, a part of Chicago, named after the 1893 World Fair--or a nearby airport, a transition point halfway across the United States.
So, gentlemen: Now Hear This! It is time to go forth and proselytize--and underscore the world/historic role of Midway.
MIDWAY DESERVES NO LESS!
For further information and links to related resources, see: Battle of Midway Showcase.
Note: James R. Schlesinger delivered these remarks during a commemorative dinner to recognize the 61st anniversary of the Battle of Midway at the Army & Navy Country Club, Arlington, Virginia, on 5 June 2003.
The Naval History & Heritage Command gratefully acknowledges former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger (1973-1975) for graciously permitting the Command to post his remarks on our website.