Book Review: Pearl Harbor: The Missing Motive by Kevin O’Connell

I will admit that when I first got the request to review Pearl Harbor: The Missing Motive I was skeptical. After finishing it I remain skeptical but will admit that the author makes a well-written, if not necessarily compelling case for his premise.

First about the book. The book is 300 pages of text divided into 7 parts/chapters. It has 46 pages of notes and a 14 page bibliography. Also included is an index. One thing about the notes; the notes are endnotes of a sort except that they are not annotated within the text. That is, they do not follow a recognized standard citation system such as MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian. They are organized by chapter and section with no reference to where in the text each citation is referring. I find endnotes in historical monographs irritating enough as it is, but they are doubly irritating when you cannot even tell where specifically in the text they reference. I asked the author about this while reading the book and he replied that this is the system he found most useful. It is his book so whatever works for him I guess.

There is also a lack of primary resources in the books bibliography. The vast majority of the works in the bibliography are secondary sources such as books. There are some primary sources, primarily diplomatic communications that have been subsequently declassified and all the sources are in English with only a few being translations of Japanese originals. Given the premise of the book I would have expected some original archival research but there is none that I could discern.

The first 5 parts of the book are a fairly straightforward history of Japan and wider Asia from ancient times to the outbreak of World War II. This part is well written and I have aero complaints about it. I cannot think of a better and more concise history of Japan that I have read. The issues come in the final two parts of the book where the notion is presented that Pearl Harbor was mounted in order to preserve liberal democracy in Japan.
The premise of this book is that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was some kind of Machiavellian move by the emperor to safeguard liberal democracy in Japan. I scoffed at the idea when approached about reviewing the work and warned the author that I was skeptical from the outset. I remain skeptical after finishing the book, here is why. The premise is that Emperor Hirohito acceded to the attack on Pearl Harbor and war with the United States fully expecting that Japan would be defeated and that the US would impose a liberal democracy post-war. This supposes that the emperor was at a minimum sanguine about the massive loss of life of his own subjects and physical destruction that Japan would incur in waging a pointless war with America and that he further believed such losses were justified in pursuit of the goal of liberal democracy. Japan suffered 2.3 million military and civilian deaths in World War II ( and the centers of most major cities were devastated. It took Japan almost 20 years to recover from the physical destruction of the war. Yet we are supposed to believe that the Japanese emperor was okay with Japan fighting a war they could not win if it meant his long-term political objective was achieved.

In order to prove such a claim, the author has to get inside the head of the emperor and show what he was thinking, that he fails to do. There is a lot of supposition and speculation in the conclusion but it is essentially bare of incontrovertible evidence.

There are a couple of problems with the premise from a historical perspective. The first and biggest that I see is that in order for liberal democracy to be preserved there has to be some semblance of liberal democracy to be preserved in the first place. That was simply not the case in Japan from the time of the Meiji Restoration to the outbreak of World War II. Japan had many f the forms of democracy but not the reality. As the author makes clear in the first part of this book, liberal democracy was farce in Japan from the get go. The military and/or aristocracy always played an outsize role in Japanese government and that did not change until the United States imposed a liberal constitution on Japan post-war.

The second major issue is the notion that the author somehow divines the thoughts of the emperor from his actions or lack thereof. This is the part that I find hardest to swallow. The idea is that the emperor knew that the only way for Japan to survive in the modern world was for it to become a true democracy and that he recognized that he was powerless to force such a transition. There is absolutely zero evidence that I am aware of whether reports from confidants of the emperor or documentary evidence that such is the case.

If the author had stuck to writing a history of Japan this would be an excellent book. He did not. The claim of why Pearl Harbor was attacked is specious at best and is pure speculation with little but the author’s assertions as evidence. If you are interested in a history of Japan pre-World War II with emphasis on post Meiji restoration japans government developments then this book is for you if you stop reading after part 5. This could be a great book and the argument would be more compelling if there were more evidence to support it. Unfortunately, there is not, or at least no such evidence is forthcoming in this book. It is an interesting hypothesis but unsupported and therefore not really history per se, but pure speculation.
I must conclude that the standard account is still the most plausible. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 in hopes of dealing so severe a blow to the US Pacific Fleet that the US could not respond effectively before the Japanese ad completed their conquest of the South Pacific and made the defenses of their newly conquered territory secure. It is a mundane explanation but one that fits the known facts.

If you are looking for an excellent and clear history of Japan up to the immediate post-war years then this book fits the bill. If you are looking for an alternative explanation for why Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941 then this book also delivers that. If however, you want a plausible explanation for the Japanese attack, you will not find it here. While this is an overall well written book the conclusion is pure speculation and I cannot recommend it on those grounds. This is simply not good history. That being said, feel free to read it yourself and then tell me I am wrong in the comments.

As is my policy when I post less than stellar reviews I give the author an opportunity to rebut the review if they feel the desire to do so.  The following is Mr. O’Connell’s rebuttal to my review:

On the book cover the insignia on the Soviet soldier’s hat, superimposed over the map, is a clue to the Missing Motive. That is, Red Star over Japan.