by Larry Parker
"In war great events are the results of small causes."
History is replete with examples of Caesar's observation. Concerned about
German progress in nuclear energy research, the physicist Leo Szilard urged his
friend Albert Einstein to use his prestige to alert the American government to
the very real danger of an atomic weapon in fascist hands. Albert Einstein
complied with a short letter to President Roosevelt dated 02 August 1939.
President Roosevelt approved what became the Manhattan project on 06 December
1941. The next day Japan struck Pearl Harbor. Six years after Einstein's note
two American atomic bombs ended World War II.
By the same token small changes could result in equally great and
completely different events – the ‘what if' scenario that makes history so
fascinating! On 13 September 1862 soldiers of the 27th Indiana found three
cigars wrapped in a copy of General Lee's Order Number 191 written and
dispatched on the ninth. Intended for General D. H. Hill but intercepted by
Union soldiers when the package was carelessly lost, this windfall gave General
McClellan the opportunity but not the audacity or skill to destroy the Army of
Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg ending the Civil War in the fall of 1862.
Instead, the increasingly bloody conflict continued for another three years.
What follows are further examples of small causes that could have had a huge
impact on the great events we know as history.
My Kingdom for a (decent) horse
While inspecting General Banks' army at Carrollton 04 September 1863, General
Grant was given a large, nervous horse to ride for the pass in review ceremony.
In his Personal Memoirs Grant recounts, "The horse I rode was vicious
and but little used, and on my return to New Orleans ran away and, shying at a
locomotive, fell, probably on me." Grant lay insensible in a nearby hotel for
over a week and was on crutches for two months afterward. Imagine the American
Civil War fought without Ulysses S. Grant, thrown from his horse and killed two
months after the fall of Vicksburg. Other than General Sherman, could President
Lincoln have found anyone with the innate tenacity, tactical skill and
strategic insight to defeat Lee?
The Anarchist and the Bull Moose
Consider the case of Premier Canovas of Spain, a strong man whose policies
might have suppressed the growing insurrection in Cuba. Assassinated in 1897 by
Miguel Angiolillo, an obscure Italian anarchist long since forgotten by
history, the Cuban rebellion escalated into the Spanish-American war one year
later. San Juan Hill launched the career of Teddy Roosevelt, who succeeded to
the Presidency when yet another anarchist assassinated William McKinley. No
Miguel Angiolillo, no Spanish-American war, no San Juan Hill, no Teddy
Roosevelt Presidency, no Bull Moose Party to split the Republican Party and,
consequently, Woodrow Wilson loses to Taft in 1912, altering the course of
World War I.
The Big Apple and the Fate of England
In December 1931 New York City was a most ungracious and inhospitable host to a
distinguished visitor from England. Attempting to cross a busy street and
forgetting the rules of the road were reversed in the colonies, he looked in
the wrong direction before stepping off the curb and was struck by a taxicab
traveling north on Fifth Avenue. While under treatment at Lenox Hill Hospital
for a badly gashed forehead, cracked ribs, numerous deep bruises and a crushed
right foot the former Member of Parliament, Home Secretary, First Lord of the
Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer and noted author developed Pleurisy. Had
he died could anyone other than Winston Churchill have lead England to her
finest hour nine years later?
Timing is Everything
On 07 December 1941 an Imperial Japanese Navy Task Force consisting of six
fleet carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser
and nine destroyers commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo struck Pearl
Harbor, devastating the American battleship fleet. At a cost of nine fighters,
fifteen dive bombers and five torpedo bombers the Japanese sank the Arizona,
California, Utah, Oklahoma and West Virginia
and badly damaged the Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania
and Tennessee, as well as destroying or damaging over three hundred
military aircraft stationed on Oahu. Fortunately the Enterprise, Lexington
and Saratoga were underway at the time of the attack along with
thirteen, in this instance, lucky cruisers and escorting destroyers. On 17
December Vice Admiral William S. Pye temporarily relieved the disgraced Admiral
Husband E. Kimmel. With orders from President Roosevelt to, "get the hell
out to Pearl and stay there until the war is won" Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
took command of the shattered Pacific Fleet two weeks later.
In January 1941 President Roosevelt had offered Admiral Nimitz the job of
Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT), bypassing many senior officers.
Considering the negative effects this might have Nimitz declined and the
position went to the ill-fated Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. Had he accepted
Nimitz would have fallen in disgrace on 07 December. Roosevelt and King would
have been hard pressed to find anyone as capable as Nimitz, who could have
counterbalanced MacArthur, managed the egos of Admiral Halsey and General
Holland Smith, and co-ordinated the operations of thousands of ships and planes
while simultaneously directing the dual advance which brought the war in the
Pacific to a successful conclusion.
An airplane fails, an Empire falls
The Japanese were quick to exploit their tactical success at Pearl Harbor.
Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Burma rapidly
fell to combined army and navy forces in a Japanese blitzkrieg. At this point
most Japanese admirals argued for a concerted push toward Port Moresby, Papua
to complete the conquest of New Guinea, combined with a continued drive to
Tulagi in the Solomon Islands to seize control of the Coral Sea region. Control
of these critical areas would isolate Australia and quite possibly lure the
remnants of the American navy to its destruction, leaving Hawaii, Midway and
the Aleutian Islands vulnerable.
On 18 April 1942 American audacity changed everything. The Doolittle raid on
Tokyo humiliated the Imperial Army and Navy causing grave loss of face. While
tactically insignificant, those sixteen B-25 twin-engined bombers flown from
the aptly named carrier Hornet stung the Japanese psyche and,
radically altering Japanese strategy, focused complete attention on Midway, the
perceived weak link in the Empire's defensive perimeter.
Overriding all opposition with his tremendous prestige, Admiral Yamamoto pushed
forward a convoluted plan calculated to finish the destruction of the American
fleet begun at Pearl Harbor. Practically every unit in the Imperial surface
fleet (sixteen submarines, seven aircraft carriers, eleven battleships, ten
cruisers, sixty destroyers, eighteen troop transports, five seaplane carriers
and four minesweepers) played a part in Yamamoto's master stratagem. Designed
to deceive and confuse the Americans, luring her carriers into an enormous
trap, Yamamoto's plan took into account every contingency except American
capabilities and intentions and the element of chance, what Clausewitz called
the "friction" of war and others term the fortunes of war. The primary
objective, destruction of the American carriers, got lost as the grandiose
scheme evolved. Disregarding the basic principles of war, Yamamoto divided his
enormous fleet into five separate forces. The Midway Occupation Force was
further subdivided into five distinct groups. Sailing independently, none of
these forces could support the others. J. F. C. Fuller aptly describes
Yamamoto's strategic concept with this analysis, "This plan was radically
unsound and the distribution of forces was deplorable. Both were complex; the
aim was confused and the principle of concentration ignored."
Even so - even taking into account the intelligence gathered through
cryptographic analysis - Yamamoto's Carrier Striking Force consisting of
four aircraft carriers, two battleships, two cruisers and twelve destroyers
under the command of Admiral Nagumo should have been more than a match for the
American fleet lurking northwest of Midway. The United States could muster only
three carriers, seven cruisers and fourteen destroyers for this crucial battle.
At 0430 on 04 June 1942 Nagumo's Carrier Striking Force turned into the wind,
launching the first wave of fighters and bombers against Midway. Search planes
from the carriers Akagi and Kaga as well as seaplanes from
the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma
immediately followed, seeking the American fleet. Completed in 1938 and 1939
respectively, Tone and Chikuma were Japan's latest, most
modern cruiser design. Measuring 650 X 61 X 21 feet and displacing 15,200 tons,
they carried eight 8-inch guns in four turrets forward, eight 5-inch guns in
secondary batteries amidships, up to fifty-seven 25mm antiaircraft guns and
twelve 24-inch torpedo tubes. Purpose-built for scouting operations, the after
decks were fitted catapults, cranes and facilities for five seaplanes. Ideal
reconnaissance platforms, Tone and Chikuma were given the
center lanes of the planned search pattern.
As it had at Pearl Harbor, however, fate intervened once again. The catapult
aboard Tone malfunctioned, delaying the launch of its aircraft until
0500. Engine trouble also prevented the Chikuma from launching her
seaplane as scheduled. Its flight path would have taken it directly over the
American carriers a scant 215 miles away, but further engine trouble caused it
to turn back early. Consequently it was not until 0820 that Nagumo received
confirmation of the presence and location of the American carriers from Tone's
aircraft. By then it was too late. American torpedo planes and dive-bombers
were already inbound.
Although the American torpedo planes were ineffective, their heroic attack
prevented the Japanese carriers from launching additional planes and drew the
fighter cover down to sea level, setting up the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu
and Hiryu for the follow-on dive bombers. Decks crowded with planes,
fuel and ordnance, the pride of the Imperial Fleet were soon flaming wrecks.
300 miles astern with the main body consisting of three battleships, one
carrier, two seaplane carriers and twelve destroyers, Yamamoto could do nothing
to avert disaster.
In exchange for the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann,
American forces sank all four carriers of Nagumo's Striking Force as well as
the heavy cruiser Mikuma. Badly damaged, the cruiser Mogami spent
the next year in Truk undergoing repairs. More importantly, the Japanese lost
their best naval pilots and most experienced aircrews. This was a loss from
which they would never recover. Midway ended the Japanese threat to Hawaii and
Australia. The initiative in the Pacific now passed to the Allies and was never
seriously challenged again.
Had Chikuma's aircraft launched as scheduled, Admiral Nagumo might
have finished what he began at Pearl Harbor, radically altering the course of
World War II.
Keep your enemies close and your friends closer
Ironically American involvement in Vietnam began in 1945 when an OSS (Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA) team parachuted into the jungles of Vietnam. There they found Ho Chi Minh in a remote camp deathly ill with malaria. After nursing him back to health and providing him with supplies, his guerilla forces were unleashed upon the Japanese to prevent their transfer to more active sectors of the Pacific. After Japan's surrender Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh took control of North Vietnam, while French colonial rule was restored in the South. Predictably peace in Southeast Asia was short lived. By December 1946 open war broke out between the French and the Viet Minh.
On 03 December 1950 thirty-five Americans arrived in Saigon to establish the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). United States' support for France rapidly grew and American involvement continued even after the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu 07 May 1954. Six months later President Eisenhower pledged ongoing support for South Vietnam in its struggle against Communism. In February 1961 President Kennedy greatly extended this policy by sending combat advisors to South Vietnam and establishing the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon commanded by General Westmoreland. From these modest beginnings American involvement rapidly escalated and the build up of troops followed apace peaking at 650,000 in 1969.
On 02 August 1964 North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyers USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy with an alleged second attack two days later sparking the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On 07 August 1964 President Johnson sought and received a virtual blank check from a willing congress to wage war in Vietnam.
On 06 April 1965 President Johnson authorized United States forces to seek out and engage the enemy in combat, a radical departure from their former ‘advisory' role. At the same time he offered an extensive aid package to North Vietnam in exchange for a peaceful settlement with South Vietnam. Much to his astonishment, his offer was scornfully dismissed. The rest as they say is history, albeit a tragic history.
In war great events are indeed the result of small causes. The future may hinge on a temperamental horse or a speeding cab. The slightest change in those small causes potentially alters what we know as history.
. Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku
and Zuikaku .
. Hiei and Kirishima .
. Enterprise was delivering aircraft and supplies to the doomed
garrison on Wake Island. Lexington was on a similar mission to Midway.
Just completing overhaul Saratoga was moored at San Diego.
. Rightly or wrongly blamed for the Pearl Harbor disaster the public
associated his name with negligence, incompetence and utter failure. His
position irretrievably compromised Kimmel could not continue as CINCPACFLT.
. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD, 1976), 9.
. The unlucky Chickuma was crippled by aircraft from Task Force
77.4.2 North East of Samar and was scuttled by torpedoes from the destroyer Nowake
on 25 October 1944. Given command of naval forces in the Marianas in March
1944, in the final stages of the battle for Saipan Admiral Nagumo committed
suicide rather than surrender.
. Officially the destroyers were on "routine patrol". In reality there were engaged in an aggressive intelligence-gathering mission supporting coordinated attacks upon North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force. The North Vietnamese may have inadvertently attacked the Maddox, mistaking it for a South Vietnamese vessel on 02 August. The second attack on August 4th has since been attributed to freak weather conditions, unconfirmed sensor reports and strained nerves.
. One of the most effective legislators in American history and a consummate politician Johnson could not understand why Ho Chi Minh could not be bought with a generous aid package as he had bought so many others during his career.
Copyright © 2006 Larry Parker
Written by Larry Parker. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Larry Parker at:
About the Author:
Lieutenant Commander Larry Parker, United States Navy, served as a Surface Warfare Officer, with afloat tours onboard USS De Wert (FFG-45) as
Ordnance & Fire Control Officer, USS Portland (LSD-37) as First Lieutenant, and USS Butte (AE-27) as Operations Officer.
Rotations ashore included Navy Reserve Center Cheyenne, Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Center Denver and Navy Reserve Readiness
Command Region 16 Minneapolis. He retired in July 2000 and taught Navy Junior ROTC until June 2011. LCDR Parker holds a Bachelor's
degree in English and History from the University of Kansas and a Master's degree in Military Studies - Land Warfare from American Military University.
In his free time LCDR Parker pursues a lifelong passion for military history. His articles are the result of extensive research and personal
experience in surface warfare, fleet logistics and amphibious operations.
Published online: 03/23/2006.