Strategic Ladder

“WHEN ONCEyou put your foot on a strategic ladder, it is difficult to get off, unless the enemy throws you off,” wrote the great Harvard historian and U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976).

Morison, who authored the highly readable, and for the most part brilliant, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (15 volumes), wrote these words in the context of his discussion of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. This was an important battle that took place in and around Leyte Island, Philippines, near the end of October 1944. Leyte Gulf serves well to commence a discussion of strategy, because it illustrates many key points within the subject. We will be discussing strategy in this and future articles.

The War in the Pacific

By way of background, the spring and summer of 1944 had been a time of great American naval, air, and ground victories against the military forces of the Empire of Japan. American carrier aviation had decisively defeated the Japanese navy at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam had been captured and secured by U.S. Marines. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops had moved to secure Biak and New Guinea. The expansionist Japanese tide in the Pacific, with its historical roots tracing back to Tsushima in 1905 and before, was ebbing.

By mid-1944, the signal U.S. victories at sea, in the air, and on land were shaping the next critical phases of the war’s events. The central goal of the U.S. war in the Pacific was the defeat of Japan. The key strategic question by mid-1944 was would U.S. and allied forces move first to liberate the Philippines? Or would the strategic planners move to bypass the Philippines, and move swiftly toward locations that were more proximate stepping stones in the direction of the heart and soul of Japan, its main islands?

There was a school of military thought, mostly within the U.S. Navy, that viewed the Japanese army and navy as forces in retreat, if not rout. In the air, Japanese pilots were overmatched by their far more numerous U.S. counterparts. The Japanese fleet was dispersed, and chronically short of fuel and supplies. The U.S. submarine blockade against the imperial homeland was highly effective and by mid-1944 was beginning to starve the Japanese homeland of food and fuel. The occupation of China was becoming more and more untenable and simply bleeding down the Japanese army. The Empire of Japan was, at least to some eyes, a political institution in slow retreat and courting defeat.

Thus, this school of military thought focused on bypassing the Philippines and moving U.S. and allied forces directly to the island of Formosa (also called Taiwan) and invading and capturing the place. From Formosa, the plan was to move north and seize positions in the Ryukyu Islands, if not on the mainland of China, from which to launch the final assault on Japan. There was certainly geographic logic, as well as a good deal of military merit, to the plan.

MacArthur and the Philippines

The U.S. Army’s Gen. MacArthur, however, had other strategic ideas. MacArthur was insistent on first liberating the Philippines, and then using these islands from which to stage the final assault on Japan. The Philippine Islands were, technically, still a colony of the United States. The Philippines had been captured from the Spanish by the United States during the war of 1898, and were afterward under U.S. stewardship for about four decades. Prewar, America had begun to prepare plans to give the colony its independence eventually. But these plans were interrupted by the Japanese invasion of the Philippines at the end of 1941. By May 1942, and with the final defeat of U.S. forces at Corregidor, the Philippines were under complete Japanese occupation through a puppet government.

MacArthur believed that America was bound by honor to return at first opportunity and to liberate its Philippine colony from Japanese occupation. Since the onset of combat in December 1941, Filipinos had fought bravely against the Japanese, both during the Japanese invasion phase and during the very brutal Japanese occupation. Filipinos would, MacArthur argued, welcome liberation by U.S. forces. In addition, and by comparison with the Japanese colony of Formosa, the Philippines would provide a far more stable rear area as a staging base for any assault on Japan.

After liberating the Philippines from Japanese occupation, went the thinking, the United States could complete the process of granting national independence to the many people who held faith and hope in a prompt return of U.S. power to that land. Also, and in an argument that held far more water than most Westerners would tend to understand, MacArthur claimed that by abandoning its former subjects in the Philippines to their own fate under Japanese occupation, the United States would lose face in Asia.

During the Pearl Harbor conference of July 1944, the Army’s Gen. MacArthur and the Navy’s Adm. Chester Nimitz presented their respective proposals to the U.S. president and commander in chief, Franklin Roosevelt. In the end, it was MacArthur who convinced Roosevelt of the merits of first liberating the Philippines and then moving toward Japan. The understanding was, as Roosevelt summed it up, “Leyte, then Luzon.”

The Roots of Strategy

“Leyte, then Luzon” thus provides some sense of background to understanding Morison’s comment about “When once you put your foot on a strategic ladder.” But there is more to say on the subject. What else did Morison encapsulate in his turn of phrase?

We may as well ask what is the meaning of strategy? The word itself comes from the Greek language. “Stratos” means “army.” “Agein” means leader. In ancient Greece, the “strategus” was the commander in chief, who made the decisions as to how to lead the army. And so “strategy” has its historical roots in the military art of command. With these roots, the meaning of strategy is to plan or direct large movements toward a desired end. Good strategy takes into account one’s own resources and capabilities, as well as some educated understanding of the opponent. It also, of course, requires an appreciation of the many associated factors of geography, time, space, and distance. Strategic thinking involves analyzing how one set of actions will lead to other actions, if not to an opposing action by the other side.

But strategy is not the same thing as operations, although strategy and operational art are closely related and often confused as one another. And strategy is a far cry from tactics, which are the discrete steps from which operational movements (if not leaps) are assembled. Tactics are, of course, essential to the conduct of operations, but strategy must point the way. To paraphrase the great legal theorist and long-term adviser to the Royal Navy Julian Corbett (1854-1922), strategy “Does not pretend to give the power of conduct in the field. It claims no more than to increase the effective power of conduct.” Do not be confused by Corbett’s sense of understatement, however. A flawed strategy is a strategy for one’s own defeat, if not destruction.

“Effective Power of Conduct”

The U.S. strategic goal of the war in the Pacific was to bring about the defeat of Japan. But even this lofty goal had to fit in with the parallel U.S. strategic goal of defeating Germany in the European theater of the Second World War. Thus, at the highest levels of politics and policy, the selection of strategy involved keeping a focus on the objective, but within the constraints of fighting two major wars on opposite sides of the world.

The task to translate policy objectives within the Pacific theater into military strategic objectives and to present them to the political leadership for a decision fell to the able likes of MacArthur and Nimitz. Let us revisit that decision of July 1944.

One school of strategic thought in mid-1944 urged that U.S. forces should invade Formosa, then the Ryukyus, and possibly mainland China, along the road to victory over Japan. What would have been the implications of that operation if it had occurred? It is likely that the postwar map of the world would look quite different. How different?

Very different. On the one hand, it is within the realm of possibility that a U.S. invasion of Formosa (an island that had long been a Japanese colony), let alone an invasion of Japanese-occupied China, might have failed. In that case, U.S. war aims would have been dealt a frustrating setback, if not defeat. Japan may have been able to obtain a resolution of the war on relatively favorable terms, if not kept part of her Empire in, say, the Kurile Islands, Sakhalin, Korea, Manchuria and other parts of China, and Indochina. And what if this favorable resolution had occurred before America had fully developed its atom bomb? What would have been the political trajectory of the postwar world if the war had ended without the twin towers of the mushroom clouds? Would there have been any political, let alone public, comprehension of the practical power of nuclear weapons? What if Japan had continued the pursuit of its own nuclear weapons program in its secret laboratories in northern Korea?

But then again, a U.S. invasion of Formosa in 1944 might have succeeded and, in one way or another, profoundly influenced the postwar military correlation and eventual political evolution within China. Without going too far into alternatives, it is safe to say that with U.S. troops on the mainland, events in China in the late 1940s might have turned out quite differently. What would Mao Zedong’s patron, Marshal Stalin, have done if U.S. troops were garrisoning parts of China, as opposed to being stationed across the South China Sea in the Philippines? We can only wonder about all of this, and we will never really know.

The other school of strategic thought in mid-1944 urged that the United States take the time and invest the precious resources necessary first to liberate the Philippines. This kind of major operation was not going to be a mere sideshow. Japanese forces in the Philippines were numerous, possessed with significant and effective combat power that could be brought to bear and which would have to be confronted in due course. U.S. forces in the theater were also powerful and very effective, but were at the far end of a long logistical trail. Every soldier who died liberating the Philippines was going to be someone’s son, a sad truism and iron law of warfare. Also part of the decision process was the fact that every bullet, every bean, and every barrel of oil in the U.S. field kit had to make a long trek in the hold of a cargo ship, from the homeland across half the planet, to reach the front lines. And was establishing a front line in the Philippines going to be a fight that was rightfully, morally, ethically, militarily, and properly on the road to Tokyo?

This is the kind of thinking that went into the making of strategy at the highest levels. And thus it was left to U.S. President Roosevelt, at the Pearl Harbor Conference and a long way from Hyde Park, to make the strategic policy decision to invade and liberate the Philippines. By default, Roosevelt was also making the strategic decision for U.S. forces not to move toward Formosa and China. These alternative pathways, Formosa or the Philippines, were the geographic, the political, the military options. The strategy revolved around the selection of options.

This was the “strategic ladder” of which Morison wrote in his discussion of what eventually became the epic Battle of Leyte Gulf. Once committed to a certain course of conduct, with your “foot on a strategic ladder,” it is, as Morison said, “difficult to get off.” Events take on a life of their own. Your river begins its run to the sea.

There is much more to say about strategy, about strategic decisions, about operational art, and, of course, about the Battle of Leyte Gulf. These topics will be the subject of future articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder, to some extent because we like to write about history, but also because we want to write about strategy. There is much more to say about identifying strategic goals, and how to choose from among the many possible ways to accomplish your goals and how to consider the strategic options and alternatives.

There is, we believe, much more to say about how to pour the foundations of any strategy, whether it is a national military strategy or a national energy strategy.

So until we meet again…

Byron W. King
March 22, 2006