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A SUNDAY IN DECEMBER : The Strategist : Yamamoto Opposed a War With America

December 03, 1991|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, is regarded as the brilliant mastermind of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet he was personally opposed to war with the United States, convinced that Japan could never win, and two months before the attack wrote of his depression:

"I find my present position extremely odd--obliged to . . . pursue unswervingly a course that is precisely the opposite of my personal views."

His reservations came from a direct knowledge of the United States. As a boy growing up in the northern rural area of Niigata, the sixth son of a school principal who was later adopted by the Yamamoto family, he attended the church of an American missionary. After graduating from the Naval War College in 1916, he was sent to the United States for two tours of duty--once to study at Harvard University and a second time as naval attache in Washington, D.C. He also spent nine months touring the United States and Europe and was a delegate to the London Naval Disarmament Conference of 1930.

Yamamoto's international experience helped convince him that the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy would be disastrous for his country by inviting war with the United States, and his strident opposition to it marked him as an assassination target by right-wing extremists.

Yet the admiral rarely backed down. He was a taciturn man but imposing intellectually despite his small size--just 5 feet 3 inches, weighing 130 pounds. He had lost two fingers of his left hand in a bomb blast during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Self-conscious, he would often go to the public baths only after midnight to minimize exposure of the bomb scars on his lower body.

He was supremely confident, however, when it came to military strategy and often argued against the grain of conventional naval thought. Thanks to his U.S. experience, during which he toured Texas oil fields and studied Charles Lindbergh's first solo transatlantic flight, Yamamoto became convinced that the world was shifting from coal to oil and iron to light metal. He thus became an early advocate of redirecting naval resources from battleships to airplanes and vociferously opposed construction of the giant warships Yamato and Musashi. His stand was a kind of blasphemy against the service's glittering traditions. But just as the admiral predicted, the two "unsinkable" ships were in fact sunk by American aircraft.

Yamamoto also rejected the conventional naval plan for attacking the United States, which envisioned luring the U.S. Pacific fleet to the Philippines. Instead, he proposed the "do-or-die" surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. When first proposed, the plan was opposed almost to a man by the staff officers of the Combined Fleet. But Yamamoto was certain that America's technological superiority could be offset only by one initial, telling blow, and he told his superiors he would prefer to resign than order a conventional frontal attack doomed to failure.

Had Americans more closely studied the admiral's character--a love of gambling and heavy reliance on rush tactics in the Japanese game of shogi-- they might have guessed that he would start a war with a sudden assault, wrote his biographer, Hiroyuki Agawa.

But Yamamoto was not infallible. He presided over the debacle at Midway. And, on April 18, 1943, at age 59, his plane was shot down by U.S. aircraft over Bougainville Island in the South Pacific after the Americans broke Japan's military code and ambushed him. His body was found with one gloved hand gripping the sword to his side, a collection of poems by the Emperor Meiji in his pocket.

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