The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z. (Note: There is no “X” in the Clive’s Lives series.)
If we are ordered to do it, then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months or a year, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it went on for two or three years.
—Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to Prime Minister Prince Konoe, in late 1940
Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943) was the son of a schoolmaster named Takano, and the famous surname by which we know him belonged to the family into which he was adopted. After his education at Japan’s naval academy, he was wounded at the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. He studied at Harvard after World War I and served as a language officer in the early ‘20s before becoming naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington later in the decade. His wide knowledge of the United States extended to the factory floors, where he was impressed by American powers of production, and to the gambling joints, where he always fancied his chances.
As chief of the aviation department of the Japanese navy in 1935, and as vice navy minister from 1936 to 1939, he argued both for a main force based on aircraft carriers and for avoiding any policy that would lead to a fighting alliance with the Axis powers in World War II. But after being promoted to admiral and placed in command of the Combined Fleet, he dutifully planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Romance continues to surround his name, not least in Japan, where he is a cult figure, and not exclusively on the political right. His distaste for a war with the Western allies has always rung a bell with postwar liberals aware that, if the enemy had been as pitiless as the Japanese High Command, the defeat could have been more disastrous, the occupation more humiliating, and the subsequent resurgence of both the culture and the economy much less impressive.
The Yamamoto romance benefits from his artistic tastes. Like America’s General Patton, Yamamoto wrote accomplished poetry. Again like Patton, and like other romantic commanders such as Rommel and Guderian, Yamamoto probably experienced battle as an aesthetic event: the most likely reason for his participation in a war of which he disapproved. Superior military minds share with poets the uncomfortable position of waiting for lightning to strike, and having to act on it when it does. Yamamoto knew that World War II was the wrong war, but it was the only war he had.
On at least two occasions, Prince Konoe asked Yamamoto what Japan’s chances would be in a war against the United States. Each time, Yamamoto gave roughly the same answer. Variously translated into English, and variously rendered even into Japanese, Yamamoto’s declaration of uncertainty is probably the second most famous thing any Japanese of the Pacific war period ever said, ranking only slightly behind the passage in the emperor’s surrender broadcast that conceded, in impossibly high-flown court language, that the war had developed in ways not necessarily favorable to Japan.
Yamamoto’s advice to the government seems to have predicted that the unfavorable developments would be inevitable in the long term. Later on he was much criticized for not having expressed himself more firmly, but he must have felt that he didn’t need to. Yamamoto, sometimes at the risk of his life, had spent the whole of the ‘30s preaching the necessity of staying out of a war with the United States. He had seen America’s factories and knew more than any other top-ranking Japanese officer about America’s war potential. What else could he advise Konoe?
Why, then, did Yamamoto consent to lead the Pearl Harbor attack? First, he was a gambler anyway. He enjoyed gambling, possibly because he won almost every time. But he was also Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, supreme commander, Combined Fleet, Japanese navy. That was his career, those were his orders, and he had a job to do, win or lose.
To hindsight, the second reason seems the more powerful. Like Nelson and Napoleon, Yamamoto was a short man whose military gifts had carried him to great heights. If you look at the press photographs of his funeral cortège arriving at the Yasukuni shrine, the coffin looks about the size of a shoe box. A coffin always looks smaller than the person inside, but Yamamoto, even for a Japanese man of his generation, was of small physical stature. His moral stature meant a lot to him, and long before the war, it had already grown enormous. His tactical brilliance, organizational ability, and nonconformist daring were legendary, and they were all in service of the navy. Japanese naval aviation was practically his invention. He had opposed the laying down of the last two great battleships, Yamato and Musashi. He was for more aircraft carriers and a lot more aircraft. He represented the transition from heavy steel to light metals—from deep keels to free air. The bright young officers adored him for it. Though he was always self-deprecating about his poetry, he was probably serious when he wrote this poem on New Year’s Day, 1940:
Today, as chief
Of the sea guardians
Of the land of the dawn,
Awed I gaze up
At the rising sun.
He wrote the poem onboard the battleship Nagato, his flagship as commander in chief Combined Fleet. So the rising sun would have been the ship’s pennant. The land of the dawn, of course, was Japan: The two characters Ni-hon (usually pronounced Nippon) mean Sun Source, or the Land Where the Sun Rises. Yamamoto, if we may translate a subtle 31-syllable Japanese poem into blunt English words, was on top of the heap.
It would be foolish to imagine that he did not enjoy his eminence, even as he saw the looming threat of getting into a war with the wrong enemy. He enjoyed a battle, and might even have found a losing battle more interesting. He might have quite liked the idea of being at the center of a big story, and what could be a bigger story than working the miracle of saving Japan from the doom he himself had predicted? After all, going ahead with the attack wasn’t his idea. He wasn’t that crazy. He had, however, planned an excellent attack.
Or it would have been excellent, if it had caught the American aircraft carriers in harbor. When the returning aircraft reported that the American carriers had not been present, Yamamoto, supervising the operation at long range from the Nagato anchored at Hashirajima in the Inland Sea, knew straight away that the Americans had the wherewithal to go on fighting.
In May 1942, only five months after Pearl Harbor, the American carriers fought him to a draw at the battle of the Coral Sea. At Midway, scarcely more than six months after Pearl Harbor, they destroyed him. He had been right about making things tough for the Americans for six months. Six months of supremacy were all that the Japanese enjoyed. After Midway, they had no chance of keeping the initiative. But we make a mistake if we think they were crazy not to admit defeat. There was always the possibility that they could bring their opponents to terms by making it too costly to go on fighting. Because Yamamoto died early, and because the English-speaking gambler is such a sympathetic character, he tends to be enrolled in the ranks of those who would have seen reason and sought a sane way out. For those who hold that view, a close study of Yamamoto’s face can be recommended. He knows your country well, admires its virtues, and doesn’t even think he can prevail: But he wants to fight anyway.
People of a literary bent tend to idealize the poet warriors, of whom, in modern times, Yamamoto must count as the most conspicuous, apart from General Patton. But we need to ask ourselves whether a flair for the poetic might not be a limitation to generalship, in which a considered appreciation for the mundane is essential. A poetic flair has an impatient mind of its own: It likes to make an effect, and it has a propensity for two qualities that can easily be inimical to a broad strategic aim. One of those qualities is what A. Alvarez called the shaping spirit, and the other is what Frank Kermode called the sense of an ending. Yamamoto’s plan for deciding the war on the first day was not only the equivalent of a roulette player’s betting his whole bundle on a single number, it was also the equivalent of trying to cram the whole of The Tale of Genji into a single haiku. There was bound to be material that didn’t fit. Even if the American aircraft carriers had been in harbor, they would not have sunk far enough in the shallow water to be beyond salvage. One way or another, the American fleet was bound to come back.
Spiritually, Yamamoto died at Midway. In the matter of his physical death, however, it seems unlikely that he committed suicide in expiation. Romantic interpreters sometimes favor the appealing notion that Yamamoto invited the American ambush that resulted in his being shot down into the jungle of Bougainville on April 18, 1943. But when the Japanese search party tracked down his corpse in the jungle, he was still strapped into his seat. His sword was beside him. If he had wanted to commit suicide, he would probably have done so on dry land or on the deck of a ship, included the sword in the ceremony, and written a poem first.