The North Korean nuclear test is in a sense a replay of a gamble that has been tried with mixed success in the Asia/Western Pacific region in the past.
It hangs on an idea that goes back to the early years of the last century at least, when American industrial pre-eminence was becoming obvious to all: it is a gamble that the U.S. will find exerting its power not impossible but overly troublesome and costly.
In its editorial of January 28, 1911, the Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of the fears that had prompted Australia to begin acquiring its own relatively expensive navy. If, it suggested, an aggressive Asiatic power (in this case Japan) attacked Western interests in the Pacific area, it could not match American wealth and industrial might. (The Great White Fleet of 18 American battleships had visited Australia shortly before to a rapturous welcome.)
But despite the undoubted fact of American material superiority, the editorial asked, could it be taken as certain that the aggressor would not get away with it -- "Would the game be worth the candle for America?" Would America have the resolution and will and be prepared to make the sacrifices of lives and treasure necessary to beat the aggressor when the continental United States was not directly threatened?
This foreshadowed Japanese strategic thinking leading up to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese military knew American power was many times greater than their own. They also knew they could not invade, damage or even reach the continental U.S. in any significant way.
Although there was disagreement among the Japanese high commanders on tactics, they all counted on a failure of America's resolution and will, once they had consolidated and fortified a defense perimeter, to fight a war thousands of miles from its own shores, or to rebuild a fleet once its fleet had been sunk, either at anchor in harbor or in a "decisive battle" at sea.
Propaganda, possibly influenced by Nazi ideas, portrayed America as being soft and decadent. And so, as my old children's encyclopedia puts it: "Japan made what was surely the worst mistake in her history."
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan's best Naval strategist and commander of the day, who had lived in America between 1919 and 1921 and studied at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard and had two postings as a Naval attache in Washington, warned against this thinking. Yamamoto knew that Japanese will could be taken for granted, but American will was the crucial thing and the Japanese warlords had no conception of it. He told Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye in 1940 that "If I am told to fight, I shall run wild for the first six months...but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year."
There is an old Humphrey Bogart film, set shortly before the war, Across the Pacific, and made in 1942, in which the Japanese villain tells Bogie: "We will start it." Bogie replies: "And we'll finish it!"
In another key, in the film of the battle of Midway there is a scene which may be fiction but which contains an important point. The Japanese Admiral watches wave after wave of American Devastator torpedo-bombers flying in to certain death, and tells his staff in the voice of a man experiencing a terrible revelation: "They die like Samurai!" Though the Devastators have no hope against the Zeros, this demonstration of American will is for him a death-sentence. Winston Churchill made the same point in his history of the Second World War: the survivors of the Japanese fleet steamed home after Midway knowing that they had met a foe whose resolution, warrior spirit and bravery at least matched their own and on whose power and resources no limit could be set. The Japanese had begun the war with about six big aircraft carriers. Four were sunk at Midway. America had the capacity to build hundreds.
The Korean War may be seen as a re-run of the same gamble: North Korea could not harm the continental U.S. -- it did not even have a Navy -- but it hoped that if the U.S. forces in South Korea could be thrown into the sea, that made a counter-attack prohibitively costly politically.
While the enemy gamble of America finding "The Game not worth the candle" failed totally in World War II and at least substantially failed in the Korean War, it succeeded for North Vietnam in 1975. When the great North Vietnamese attack against Saigon came, American intervention could have been decisive. But the South Vietnamese were denied not only direct American support but even the basic equipment and supplies, such as small-arms ammunition, to continue fighting -- not for military but for domestic American political reasons.
The story of some of the South Vietnamese Army's desperate valor in those last days, such the 18th Division's transcendentally heroic stand at Xuan Loc from April 9 to April 20, 1975 -- a stand to rank with that of the Spartans at Thermopylae -- makes deeply moving but terrible reading. America's political will -- as least as expressed by key political and media figures -- had then become so exhausted that it did not send even air-support which might have turned the whole battle around, and which would have carried minimal risk of further American casualties.
History never repeats itself but Kim Jong Il's gamble is part of the same pattern: he, or at least his saner advisers, know what America can do. They are betting the bank that it won't do it.
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