Pearl Harbor: Deterrence Theory and Decision Theory

AuthorBruce M. Russett
Date01 June 1967
DOI10.1177/002234336700400201
Publication Date01 June 1967
SubjectArticles
PEARL
HARBOR:
DETERRENCE
THEORY
AND
DECISION
THEORY*
By
BRUCE
M.
RUSSETT
Yale
University
1.
An
’inexplicable’
decision
When
General
Hideki
Tojo
was
Japa-
nese
Minister
of
War
in
September
1941
he
advised
Premier
Konoye
that
at
some
point
during
a
man’s
lifetime
he
might
find
it
necessary
to
jump,
with
eyes
closed,
from
the
temple
of
Kiyomizu-dera
on
the
heights
of
Kyoto
into
the
ravine
below.’
Other
Japanese
officials
used
less
colorful
words
invoking
the
necessity
to
take
great
risks,
or
to
plunge
with
faith
into
the
sea
of
the
unknown.
Partly
because
of
these
remarks,
but
more
because
objectively
Japan
was
so
obviously
overmatched
in
resources
for
undertaking
a
war
with
the
United
States,
many
observers
have
attrib-
uted
the
Japanese
decision
to
an
act
of
irrationality,
a
choice
that
cannot
be
ex-
plained
by
any
calculation
of
utilities
and
probabilities
that
would
be
arrived
at
by
decision-makers
of
another
nation.2
Such
an
interpretation
easily
leads
to
an
empha-
sis
on
those
peculiarities
of
Japanese
na-
tional
character
that
could
bring
them
so
grossly
to
distort
reality
in
their
calcula-
tions,
or
to
a
reiteration
of
the
risks
in-
volved
in
a
strategy
of
deterrence
under
high
tension.
According
to
the
latter
argu-
ment,
it is
precisely
those
times -
great
crises
-
when
deterrent
threats
are
most
immediate
that
men
are
least
able
to
weigh
calmly
the
cost
of
their
acts
and
the
likelihood
of
counteraction.
Probing
the
personalities
of
decision-
makers
is
often
an
essential
task
in
ex-
plaining
or
predicting
political
events.
Provided
that
one
brings
a
sophisticated
approach
to
the
analysis
of
national
char-
acter,
looking
for
modal
behavior
patterns
(How
is
the
average
Japanese
different
from
the
average
American,
not
how
are
all
Japanese
different
from
all
Americans ?),
explanation
in
terms
of
particular
be-
havior
or
attitude
patterns
may
be
essential
to
understanding
the
motivations
under-
lying
a
decision.
But
although
such
con-
siderations
have
sometimes
been
invoked
for
the
decision
to
attack
Pearl
Harbor
and
cannot
be
ignored
as
potential
influences
on
any
foreign
policy
decision,
I
contend
that
a
satisfactory
explanation
can
be
offered
with
a
model
that
is
more
general
than
those
which
depend
heavily
upon
the
personality
characteristics
either
of
nation-
al
cultures
or
of
more
limited
aggregates.
Most
especially,
an
explanation
does
not
require
postulating
that
the
Japanese
leaders
acted
’irrationally’.
Rationality
is
a
poorly
defined
and
ambiguous
concept
in
much
of
social
science,
but
in
this
con-
text
its
absence
presumably
could
mean
one
of
several
things.
The
decision-maker
may,
because
of
high
stress,
fail
to
perceive
information
or
alternatives
that
would
otherwise
be
apparent.
Second,
despite
the
receipt
of
information,
he
may
distort
it
so
seriously
that
his
assessment
of
the
prob-
abilities
of
various
events
differs
markedly
from
what
another
observer
would
con-
clude.
Thus
he
might
wildly
exaggerate
the
probability
of
conducting
a
successful
attack.
Finally,
he
may
have
a
grossly
distorted
set
of
value
preferences
that
affect
his
motivations.
For
example,
a
retreat
might
be
so
painful
to
his
personal
self-esteem
that
he
would
unconsciously
take
action
which
imposed
very
severe
risks
on
his
nation.3
90
Most
of
these
explanations
depend
either
upon
a
situation
of
great
stress,
which
would
warp
the
actions
of
all
or
most
of
the
participants
in
the
decision
process,
or
really
apply
only
to
circumstances
where
a
single
individual
in
fact
makes
the
de-
cision.
Some
of
Hitler’s
most
costly
mis-
takes
in
World
War
II,
for
example,
were
highly
individualistic
decisions
for
which
he
alone
was
responsible.
Typical
of
the
pattern
was
his
order
to
stand
and
fight
at
Stalingrad
rather
than
allow
his
army
to
retreat
and
regroup.
High
stress
plus
the
peculiarities
of
the
Fuehrer’s
person-
ality
produced
a
command
different
from
what
other
men
would
have
given.
The
Japanese
decision
to
attack
Pearl
Harbor,
however,
was
neither
the
decision
of
a
single
individual,
where
much
of
his
behavior
could
be
explained
by
his
own
personality
structure,
nor
a
decision
ar-
rived
at
under
time
pressures.
It
was
reached
incrementally
and
reinforced
at
several
steps
along
the
line.
On
July
2,
1941,
it
was
decided
to
press
ahead
with
expansion
in
Southeast
Asia
even
though
this
meant
a
high
risk
of
war
with
the
United
States.
After
deep
consideration
by
high
Japanese
military
and
naval
officials
for
months,
a
formal
commitment
was
made
at
the
Imperial
Conference
of
Sep-
tember
6
that
either
negotiations
must
result
in
lifting
the
United
States
embargo
on
strategic
raw
materials,
or
Japan
would
have
to
fight
the
Americans.
October
15
was
set
as
the
deadline
for
success
in
nego-
tiation.
But
even
though
the
strategic
com-
mitment
(in
the
sense
of
a
decision
for
the
next
move
dependent
upon
the
opponent’s
reaction
to
this
one)
had
seemingly
been
made,
it
was
the
subject
of
a
great
deal
of
reexamination
over
the
subsequent
three
months.
Prince
Konoye’s
government
re-
signed
following
the
expiration
of
the
dead-
line,
but
the
new
cabinet
formed
under
General
Tojo
took
office
not
as
a
regime
determined
to
take
the
nation
into
war,
but
rather
as
one
still
seeking
a
way
out
of
the
dilemma.
Serious
negotiations
with
the
United
States
continued
through
November;
a
new
secret
deadline
of
No-
vember
25
was
once
set,
‘after
which
things
are
going
to
happen
automatically’,
but
it
too
was
extended
until
November
29.4
Whatever
the
nature
of
the
decision
to
go
to
war,
it
was
arrived
at
and
rein-
forced
over
a
long
period
of
time,
and
was
not
the
result
of
anyone’s
possibly
’irratio-
nal’
impulse.
In
any
case,
the
decision
was
in
no
important
sense
the
act
of
a
single
man
whose
personality
traits
can
thus
be
used
to
explain
it.
Premier
Tojo
never
had
a
control
over
his
government’s
actions
that
even
remotely
approached
Hitler’s.
Though
he
was
formally
in
the
key
posi-
tion,
the
decision
to
go
to
war
was
pressed
upon
him
by
the
Army
High
Command
and
was
fully
approved
by
the
Navy
and
even
by
the
relatively
pacific
Foreign
Minister
Shigenori
Togo.
The
decision-
making
machinery
was
extremely
loose,
with
an
attempt
to
co-ordinate
policies
being
made
by
such
institutions
as
the
Four
Ministers’
Conference,
the
Liaison
Conference,
or
the
Imperial
Conference.
The
central
problem
was
of
reaching
and
carrying
out
decisions
at
all,
not
of
having
them
imposed
by
the
Premier.
Tojo
said
after
the
war
about
these
problems:
When
the
Prime
Minister,
to
whom
is
entrusted
the
destiny
of
a
country,
has
not
the
authority
to
participate
in
supreme
decisions,
it is
not
likely
that
the
country
will
win
a
war.
Then
again,
the
Supreme
Command
was
divided
between
Army
and
the
Navy
-
two
entities
that
would
not
work
in
unison.
I
did
not
hear
of
the
Midway
defeat
till
more
than
a
month
after
it
occurred.
Even
now
I
do
not
know
the
details.5
I)
Tojo
certainly
knew
the
details
of
the
proposed
attack
on
Pearl
Harbor,
but
he
did
not
impose
it
-
in
fact
he
only
found
out
about
the
plan
after
the
Navy
had
already
adopted
it
as
its
preferred
strategy.
Further
examples
of
Army
and
Navy
in-
dependence
could
be
multiplied.
The
out-

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