Michael W. Myers. The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. x + 198 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2087-6.
Reviewed by Owen P. Flanagan (Monmouth)
Published on H-War (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The Pacific War and Contingent Victory presents a staunch challenge to the widely accepted notion that Japanese defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies in World War II was inevitable. The thesis presented by author Michael W. Myers, a faculty member at Washington State University's School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, is that the Japanese war effort was not in fact doomed from the beginning. Rather, Myers contends that Japanese defeat in World War II was anything but inevitable. A fascinating, challenging, and beautifully written work, The Pacific War and Contingent Victory holds the door open for continued debate on World War II in the Pacific. Myers presents his argument through the idea of a paradigm shift, stating, "the view that Japan had no chance to win the Pacific War is the cornerstone of a historical paradigm that doesn't work anymore" (p. 1). He pointedly contends that caution is thrown to the wind regarding Japan's role during World War II. Through this contention, he seeks to pull the rug out from under what he describes as the inevitability thesis: the school of thought in which Japan's defeat in World War II was inevitable due to US economic/industrial superiority and the ability of the US military to dictate the direction of the war against the Japanese.
With thorough research and a succinct dissatisfaction with the conventional historiography of World War II in the Pacific, Myers presents evidence throughout the book to prove his point. He wastes no time before diving into his analysis of Japanese strategy for the conflict and how some of the most famous battles of World War II reflect it. The Battle of Midway and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, are cited by Myers as contributing to the overall Japanese strategy in the Pacific. That is, the Japanese Imperial Navy, rather than depending on one decisive victory against the enemy, was looking to bring the United States to the negotating table by demonstrating its strength and ability to achieve victory.
A central part of Myers’s argument concerns the contingencies of war and their effect on the success of Japanese strategy. He claims that overall, the contingencies of war played the largest role in influencing Japanese strategy as the war went on, causing reactionary measures to be taken. Myers also contends that the Japanese defeat was not inevitable but rather a great accomplishment by the United States, as the Americans and their allies proved better able to adapt to the unpredictability of war. To Myers's credit, his logic is very difficult to fault throughout. Myers is contending that the course of World War II in the Pacific was dictated by a series of contingent events and reactions by both sides. With this in mind, it is difficult to accept the thesis that Japanese defeat was inevitable in World War II. Myers further adds to his argument by claiming that while victory over the Japanese was a great feat for the United States, it was certainly not preordained.
It is on this point that The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is at its strongest, as it presents Japanese strategy to the reader while simultaneously challenging the given historiography of the subject. Throughout the book, Myers questions the historians tied most closely to the inevitability thesis, includingH. P. Willmott (The Barrier and the Javelin, 2008) and former RAND employee Roberta Wolhstetter (Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, 1962). He claims that these works, among others, tend to paint Japanese victories during the war as US or Allied intelligence or military failures rather than Japanese feats. This critical analysis of the historiography of World War II in the Pacific sprinkled in throughout presentation of Japanese strategy is a testament to Myers's wonderful writing skills. Additionally, it is during its critical review of the historiography that The Pacific War and Contingent Victory reaches its high-water mark, as it allows the reader to grasp the challenge that Myers believes his argument is facing, while simultaneously driving home his point.
As strong as The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is in its writing, argument, and presentation, it does go on somewhat of a downward spiral in its latter half. Myers spends the second half of the book presenting the inefficiencies and hardships that the United States and its allies endured during the war. Whether it was overall strategy, economics, bureaucracy, or leadership, Myers contends that the Japanese did not figuratively wake a sleeping giant and ensure its own defeat when it decided to attack the United States, and that the United States and its allies faced many logistical struggles in preparing for and fighting the conflict. While the argument is compelling, it feels rushed and would have benefited from further development.
Despite its hurried conclusion, The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is a well-researched, beautifully written, and very useful study. Myers proves his point that Japanese defeat was not inevitable in World War II. Challenging the accepted wisdom on the subject, he introduces a fascinating and careful thesis that forces a reexamination of World War II in the Pacific. The Pacific War and Contingent Victory is a must-read for anyone looking to broaden their own understanding of World War II in the Pacific, and just how fluid that theater of the conflict was as a whole.
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Owen P. Flanagan. Review of Myers, Michael W., The Pacific War and Contingent Victory: Why Japanese Defeat Was Not Inevitable.
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