Hector C. Bywater was, at three or four removes, my predecessor on the Daily Telegraph of London. As the naval correspondent of that newspaper, of which I am now defense editor, he knew everyone of note in the naval world of the 1920s and 1930s and wrote prolifically about the strategy of sea power, both in its columns and in a series of widely read books.
He did not always make himself popular. His urge to make headlines led him to tell more than his informants sometimes thought he should. It also tempted him to stray across the line that divides journalism from espionage, a temptation that serious journalists ought always to resist. Nevertheless, his name is still remembered, something for which few journalists can hope. The principal reason for that is the dramatic forewarning he gave of the danger of a Japanese naval attack on U.S. power in the Pacific in a book published in 1925.
The book was "The Great Pacific War," which described a Japanese-American war of 1931-3, in which Japan seized an island empire and defied the United States to reassert its mastery. The genre was not new. Future warfare had been a favorite subject with the reading public since the 19th Century, starting with Chesney's "Battle of Dorking" in 1871, which alarmed Victorian Britain with its picture of a Prussian army debarking on the Channel coast.
At least one Frenchman, Danrit, made a successful career out of sensationalist accounts of future German attacks on an unprepared France; ironically, he was to be killed in 1916 at Verdun, one of the places he had demanded should be better fortified against German invasion. Erskine Childers, in "The Riddle of the Sands," anticipated Bywater's alarmism in a brilliant tale of German plans to outwit British naval supremacy in the North Seas; it is still read with admiration by fans of the intellectual spy story.
Bywater's book was not in that class. It was written not as a novel but as a history of future events, and scarcely bears re-reading today. The interest attaching to it stems from the influence it is said to have had on Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet in 1941 who, as naval attache in Washington in 1926, noticed the interest its publication had aroused.
There are, however, difficulties about drawing a direct link between Bywater and Pearl Harbor. First, Bywater envisaged a long war before the two fleets met. Second, he foresaw the battle as one between battleships; his description of the operation of carrier aircraft is quite clumsy.
It is true that he correctly anticipated Japanese strategy, which was to seize an island perimeter as a barrier against an American counter-offensive. That idea, however, had been advanced by Japanese naval strategists themselves, notably Aiyama, as early as 1907. Their plans were kept secret, of course, so that Bywater deserves credit for perceiving their inner thoughts. He cannot be credited with planting the seed in their minds, since it had taken root long before he wrote.
William Honan's real success in "Visions of Infamy" is in his portrait of Bywater. Bywater was a fairly nasty piece of work, keen always to exaggerate both his expertise and his influence, and unchoosy as to how he made a buck. He fitted perfectly into the shadowy world of secret-selling and arms-trading of which Sir Basic Zaharoff was the uncrowned king; the only surprise about his career is that he did not die rich. Honan very interestingly, suggests that he died in fact by poison, administered by a Japanese agent. Alcoholic poisoning, that nemesis of a journalist down on his luck, seems more likely, but it is a testament to Honan's skill in depicting his subject's hustling rise and sleazy decline that either exit from life is made to seem equally probable.
Stanley Weintraub's book about Pearl Harbor is based not upon speculation, but is a minute-by-minute narration of the events of the day of infamy itself. He paints a broad canvas, from Hawaii to the German front lines outside Moscow, the decks of an American cruiser in Icelandic waters, the Chinese tenements of Hong Kong and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, among many other places.
This kaleidoscopic style of relating history was most recently popularized by Cornelius Ryan, who began fairly modestly with a dozen eyewitnesses of D-Day and ended by presenting a cast of hundreds at the fall of Berlin. It makes for unfailingly fascinating reading. Little matter that many of those wheeled onstage have nothing relevant to tell us about the episode in question itself. A book constructed in this fashion has the appeal of a newspaper gossip column. Any one paragraph is as interesting as any other paragraph, immediacy and the personal angle compensating for lack of a central argument.