Bookshelves groan with accounts of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, but readers will not regret this thick new contribution to the literature.
Journalist and historian Nelson (The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era, 2014, etc.) emphasizes that understanding Japanese politics would not have helped the United States forestall the attack because the Japanese government was out of control. “One simple explanation for Pearl Harbor…is the great difficulty American leaders had in crafting an effective defense strategy against an enemy that had lost its mind,” he writes. The main problem with the Japanese command was that no one was in charge. Civilian leaders were subservient to the military. The army and navy never cooperated, but, most disastrously, everyone was at the mercy of a wackily patriotic movement among midlevel officers who murdered any superior regarded as insufficiently devoted to their nation’s destiny. Popular opinion considered the practice technically illegal but admirable, similar to how Americans regard the Boston Tea Party. With lively prose and many astute insights, Nelson chronicles the Japanese-American political jockeying before moving on to the action, where he does not disappoint. Battle descriptions are socially acceptable historical porn, so readers’ eyes will be glued to the page as Nelson weaves archival research, interviews, and personal experiences from both sides into a blow-by-blow narrative of destruction liberally sprinkled with individual heroism, bizarre escapes, and equally bizarre tragedies. Oddly, the author reserves the extensive investigation and scapegoating for the appendix, spending perhaps too many pages on the Doolittle Raid and a workmanlike account of the Pacific War.
Although Gordon Prange’s At Dawn We Slept (1981) is showing its age, it remains the best source on the run-up to the attack. Nelson covers this admirably but comes into his own when the fireworks begin.