BOOK REVIEW – “Execute Against Japan:” The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

By Joel Ira Holwitt, A&M University Press, College Station, TX (2009)

Reviewed by Richard Ector

Joel Ira Holwitt’s Execute Against Japan adds to a growing body of scholarship on the development of U.S. naval doctrine between the First and Second World Wars. It joins Edward Miller’s War Plan Orange (1991) and Bankrupting the Enemy (2007), John Keuhn’s Agents of Innovation (2008), Craig Felker’s Testing American Sea Power (2006), and Al Nofi’s To Train the Fleet for War (2010) in exploring the difficult interwar years. Holwitt centers on the time when U.S. naval leaders were constrained by political reactions to the horrors of World War I at sea and ashore. The book focuses on the evolution of United States policy on unrestricted submarine warfare. He details the U.S. Navy leadership’s three-decade-long losing battle with the State Department, Congress and the White House on this issue. These struggles culminated with the Navy’s dramatic and unauthorized reversal of two centuries of U.S. policy four hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. No one objected. Holwitt ably sets the stage and examines the decisions made once hostilities began.

The study leads with a review of the evolution of United States doctrine of freedom of the seas from the nation’s founding through the nineteenth-century wars at sea. In the twentieth century, Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare caused worldwide revulsion which became the proximate cause for the United States’ entry into World War I. Because the Treaty of Versailles did not address submarine warfare, Holwitt argues that President Wilson worked indirectly via his Fourteen Points to ensure the League of Nations Treaty enshrined freedom for vessels to peacefully navigate the seas. When the League foundered, the task fell to the 1922 Naval Treaty negotiated in Washington, which included a submarine sub-treaty indirectly upholding freedom of the seas through a host of restrictions. France and Italy objected, however, so the sub-treaty was never implemented. Holwitt follows the similar trajectories of the Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1935.

The U.S. Navy found it particularly difficult to influence the 1922 submarine sub-treaty because the restrictive provisions were proposed by the U.S. delegation’s Elihu Root, Theodore Roosevelt’s former Secretary of State and a respected jurist. Holwitt criticizes Root for insisting on these requirements while ignoring the concerns of those who understood their impacts. Root’s draft treaty called for the use of “cruiser rules,” requiring that merchant ships be stopped, searched and civilians humanely treated before any military action could be taken. French and Italian objections forced Root to accept a “workaround,” requiring that commanders violating these rules be treated as pirates—a crime traditionally punished by hanging. The 1930 and 1935 treaties retreated from defining submarine attacks as piracy, but the Navy still viewed their restrictions as onerous and impractical. The Navy’s General Board and the Naval War College also voiced concerns to no avail.

The U.S. position was ironic because the United States invented the functional submarine. Holwitt traces the evolution of U.S. submarines, explaining how their use was envisioned in the interwar Orange and Rainbow series war plans. The war plans, fleet problems and war games treated the submarine as a scout tasked to find and engage the enemy fleet’s vanguard. There were no plans for unrestricted submarine warfare.

Holwitt’s scholarship is excellent. He focuses on U.S. deliberations, although the evolution of other nations’ policies receives less attention despite their importance in U.S. policy formulation. He rightly points out that submarines were seen as weapons for weaker navies—in modern terminology, weapons for asymmetric warfare. U.S. diplomats fully engaged with other countries during the entire interwar period, and naval attachés at the embassies in Tokyo, Berlin, Rome, London, and Paris reported extensively on this issue. Diplomatic access and reporting lessened once Japanese militants and the Nazis controlled their respective governments, but fully justified suspicions remain in the documentary record.

Of interest is that Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover, the post-war “father of the nuclear navy,” publicly engaged on the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1935. Naval Institute Proceedings published an article by Rickover on the 1935 Treaty that dissected the agreement’s logical flaws and proved Rickover an advocate of unrestricted submarine warfare. Rickover educated himself on international law with the help of his wife, who was then earning her doctorate in international law at Columbia.

Immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, attitudes changed abruptly. The Chief of Naval Operations, with neither approval nor objection from the White House, transmitted the famous cable: “EXECUTE AGAINST JAPAN UNRESTRICTED AIR AND SUBMARINE WARFARE.” Holwitt reviews the results of the U.S. submarine campaign briefly and explains that U.S. submarines sank over seventy percent of Japan’s shipping and completely isolated the island nation.

Execute Against Japan will be a welcome addition to the library of anyone studying the evolution of U.S. foreign policy and the intersection of ideas and decision-makers.

Richard Ector is a former U.S. Navy submarine officer and CIA clandestine operations officer. He currently works at Georgia Southern University.

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