The correspondent who predicted the Pacific war

October 27, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein


William H. Honan.

St. Martin's.

346 pages. $22.95.


Hector C. Bywater.

St. Martin's.

321 pages. $22.95.

7/8 William Honan believes that the Japanese were entranced by Hector Bywater's 1925 book, "The Great Pacific War" -- so entranced that his book about it, "Visions of Infamy," is subtitled "The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans that Led to Pearl Harbor." Well, maybe not quite Pearl Harbor, but close enough, he feels.

Bywater was a naval scholar and journalist in an age in which the general public seems to have paid naval affairs much more attention than we do today. When Bywater's book came out, he was the European naval correspondent of The Baltimore Sun, working from his London home.

Bywater already had gained quite a bit of fame before his reputation flared with his coverage of the 1921-'22 Washington Naval Conference. It set the relative size of the major navies of the world, and the United States agreed not to fortify its holdings in the western Pacific (a move Bywater thought sure to encourage Japanese aggression).

Bywater managed to tell readers what the Japanese positions at the conference would be even before they were presented at the meeting. Mr. Honan speculates Bywater was helped by a Reuters friend working in Tokyo. But a more likely explanation could be that Bywater had connections to British intelligence -- Mr. Honan says he worked for it for several years -- and the British are known to have broken the Japanese code and to have been reading the Japanese messages.

Mr. Honan manages to learn quite a bit about Bywater's life and career (but next to nothing, alas, about his work for British intelligence, potentially one of the most interesting parts).

Further alas, much of "Visions of Infamy" is told in a confusing manner. Important dates are left out or fudged. Important changes in Bywater's life are not fully explained. Mr. Honan too often sacrifices accuracy or precision for narrative effect, something that definitely is counterproductive in an advocacy book. The story jumps backward and forward. One sentence contradicts another, in both little things and large. One minor episode is based on the reminiscences of a boy who was 4 years old at the time, although this is never pointed out.

The book could have used a good editor.

To prove his thesis that Japan picked up on Bywater's plan for the conquest attempt of the Pacific, Mr. Honan tries to show that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbor, had early access to Bywater's book, showed a keen interest in it and used it as the basis for his attack 16 years later.

Many aspects of the Bywater plan resemble moves the Japanese actually made, and Mr. Honan says these moves were dictated more by Bywater's ideas than by general military logic. The invasion plan for the Philippines is a prime example.

Mr. Honan does not insist that Bywater was followed right down the line. For instance, while having the war begin with a surprise Japanese attack, Bywater does not have it aimed at Pearl Harbor. He also seriously underplays the role of aviation and ignores the code breakers.

That he misjudged the air power is not unexpected. He wrote the book in an era of biplanes and not too long after Billy Mitchell showed what airplanes could do against ships. The next 16 years were full of major change, and during them Bywater amended his views.

As for the key Pearl Harbor difference, Mr. Honan says this also was a natural omission since Pearl Harbor had not become a major naval base. But Bywater many times makes references to a base there and says it was too far for the Japanese even to consider attacking. Directing the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor clearly was within the scope of his imagination, but he chose another option.

This is the worst blow to Mr. Honan, holing his theory right at the waterline.

Mr. Honan also speculates that when Bywater died rather suddenly in 1940 he may have been killed by Japanese wanting to protect their war plan. A reading of "The Great Pacific War" and its war plan shows how far-fetched this idea is; the Bywater plan is just too different for the Japanese to have been worried.

The reissued "The Great Pacific War" is worth reading even today. It is an early version of Sir John Hackett's "The Third World War" or a Tom Clancy novel.

Bywater is in his element -- water -- and he tells an exciting story, full of action and twists. Each side makes its plans and tries to execute them. Each runs randomly afoul of nature and luck. He throws in some interesting ideas, such as the prewar sabotage of the Panama Canal and submarines carrying aircraft.

In the end, as in real life, the Japanese are limited by the physical factors that should have kept them from starting the war in the first place, and lose. The real Japanese military apparently didn't accept this part of the book, maybe hoping it could eliminate some of the bad luck Bywater threw its way while doubling the American quota.

There is another part of the script that wasn't followed. In the book, the Japanese were most chivalrous after victories and treated prisoners with respect.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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