The Event that Triggered US Maritime Supremacy

Thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman


On Nov. 11, 1940, the British Royal Navy set the stage for the United States becoming the dominant naval power in the world. It certainly did not intend to; the British wanted to retain that title for themselves. The consequences of an action are frequently hard to anticipate and even to recognize before the fact.

Taranto was an Italian naval base located in the heel of the Italian boot. It was a logical location for a navy whose mission was to dominate the Mediterranean. The Italian navy was not a trivial force, and Taranto was a key installation. 

The Italians based a substantial number of battleships at Taranto but were cautious in allowing them to sortie. They were caught between war and peace, and had removed their torpedo nets designed to block torpedoes on Nov. 11. There were six battleships, nine cruisers and 28 destroyers at anchor.

The British saw the Italian fleet as their only challenger in the Mediterranean, which was essential to Britain’s path to the empire. The Royal Navy was ordered to destroy the Italian navy. It could not enter Taranto Harbor with battleships, so it contrived a new strategy. 

The attack was based on an aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, carrying about 20 swordfish biplanes, some with torpedoes and some with bombs. The British planned a night attack to surprise the Italians. 

The Italians had sound sensing equipment that detected the plane’s engines, but the system for alerting the command was ineffective. The British sank three battleships, two cruisers and two destroyers, a substantial amount for about 20 biplanes.

The British attack at Taranto did not plant the idea of Pearl Harbor in Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s mind, but it did confirm that it could be done. Taranto, like Pearl Harbor, was relatively shallow, and the argument against attacking it was that torpedoes would bottom instead of hitting their target. 

This successful attack showed that by reconfiguring torpedoes, an air attack in a shallow harbor could work. At the time, the Japanese contemplated war with the U.S. but were not committed to it. U.S. embargos of oil and scrap metal, and interdiction of the flow of oil from the Netherlands East Indies – after the Japanese invasion of Indochina – convinced the Japanese that war with the United States was necessary. 

They knew of the American plan that foresaw the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, after which the fleet at Pearl Harbor would sortie and insert themselves between the Philippines and Japan, forcing the Japanese fleet into a surface battle the U.S. would win. Understanding this, the Japanese knew that the center of gravity of American forces was at Pearl Harbor. With a much larger fleet than the British had, and much more advanced monoplanes, they repeated Taranto on a larger scale.

Two things followed from this. First, the U.S. mobilized naval construction workers to build a massive fleet around the aircraft carrier. Second, Hitler, for obscure reasons, declared war on the United States. The U.S. had aided the British by lending them destroyers to fight German U-boats. 

In return, the British had to lease the U.S. almost all of their bases near the Western Hemisphere – hence Lend-Lease. This essentially broke the back of the Royal Navy in the Atlantic, and the U.S. shipyards, producing transport and warships, dominated the Atlantic in World War II and afterward as well. Britain was no longer a global naval power.

In the Pacific, the limited carriers under Adm. Raymond Spruance engaged the Japanese fleet at Midway and shattered it. The outcome of the Pacific War was a foregone conclusion – although much blood had to be shed – and the U.S emerged from the war in unchallenged command of the Atlantic and Pacific. 

It was invulnerable to attack save by nuclear missile, and occupied the only continent on which there could be no significant wars waged. That, the massive industrial plant built during World War II, and the little damage that was done to it, made the U.S. enormously powerful.

Yamamoto had to fight for a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor against dubious admirals, generals and politicians. Without the evidence provided by the British at Taranto, the Japanese would likely have declined what would have been seen as a completely untried risk. Its failure would have been disastrous to Japan, and the U.S. Navy would have still executed its Pacific war plan. 

Pearl Harbor was the critical alternative to a surface battle in the Western Pacific, which, if the Japanese lost, would cost them everything. In the end, they lost everything to American shipyards and the extraordinary good fortune and brilliance of Spruance, but they had not calculated the U.S. penetrating Japanese codes, knowing their next battle plan and being defeated by an inferior force. Taranto had induced the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor, a move that led to national catastrophe and American Pacific preeminence.

The ability to recognize the emergence of a new, decisive naval vessel – the aircraft carrier – and to understand how it might be used was instrumental to the war. The Americans, like the Italians, detected the approach of Japanese planes but failed to order aircraft aloft. But unlike Italy, the U.S. had the ability to rebuild its fleet, now based on aircraft carriers.

The British driving the Italians out of the Mediterranean was useful but not decisive. 

The Japanese shattering the American fleet at Pearl Harbor was decisive because it activated the American industrial base to a frenzy. Hitler’s declaration of war eliminated the political barriers to the U.S. entering the European war. 

None of this would have happened if the Japanese were not certain that the attack on Pearl Harbor would likely succeed, and that would not have happened had the British not led the way at Taranto. 

A war was likely under any case, but absent the stunning effect of Pearl Harbor on American society, it might (emphasize might) not have led to total war.

Taranto and Pearl Harbor led to the reasonable belief that an enemy might strike at any time, and that the U.S. and others must be on continual standby alert. It fundamentally transformed the American understanding of the dangers that are present in the world. 

History wasn’t changed on Nov. 11, 1940, but the coming of a new era was announced.

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