“Why should there be a war with Japan?”: Winston Churchill and Great Britain’s Strategic Predicament during the 1920s

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“Why should there be a war with Japan?”: Winston Churchill and Great Britain’s Strategic Predicament during the 1920s (Audio)

In the aftermath of the First World War, Great Britain faced a serious strategic challenge in the emergence of imperial Japan as a rival naval power. The rapid growth in the Japanese nav’s strength threatened the security and interests of Britain’s empire in Asia. At the center of British strategic decision making about how to respond to Japan’s naval challenge was Winston Churchill.

Determined to take an active role in directing Britain’s grand strategy, Churchill assessed the price tag and risk of alternative strategies for hedging against Japan’s rising power. Churchill downplayed the likelihood of war with Japan. In an oft quoted letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill wrote: “why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.” Of course, in a tragic irony of History, Churchill’s words would later come back to haunt him, fated as he was to serve as Britain’s prime minister when Japan attacked the British Empire in December 1941.

Professor John H. Maurer, Chair of the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College, and member of the <cite>Orbis</cite> editorial board, will give a presentation about how Churchill and British leaders faced awkward political, economic, and strategic tradeoffs in contending with a rising naval challenger in Asia. A combination of adverse economic factors—a slow growing economy, high unemployment, an overvalued currency that hurt international competitiveness, a heavy debt burden, and growing entitlement costs—put immense pressure on the British government to economize in defense spending.

By the 1920s, Britain had become a “frugal superpower” that could ill afford an arms race against a rising power in Asia. It was Churchill’s hard lot, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to face these economic and strategic realities.  That as sagacious a statesman as Churchill misjudged the danger of war with Japan, believing that Japanese leaders would act as responsible stakeholders on the international stage, highlights the pitfalls that can bedevil even the very best strategic assessments.

Churchill’s assessment of the constraints hurting Britain’s strategic competitiveness in meeting the challenge posed by Japan provides a parable, a warning of potential dangers looming up before the United States in the twenty-first century.

Professor Maurer serves as the Chair of the Strategy and Policy Department. He is a graduate of Yale University and holds an M.A.L.D. and Ph.D. in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

Before joining the faculty of the Naval War College, he served as executive editor of Orbis, and held the position of senior research fellow at FPRI. He served on the Secretary of the Navy’s advisory committee on naval history. He is the author or editor of books examining the outbreak of the First World War, military interventions in the developing world, naval arms control between the two world wars, and a study about Winston Churchill’s views on British foreign policy and strategy.

His current research includes a study about Winston Churchill and Great Britain’s decline as a world power.
At the College, he teaches an elective course on Churchill and grand strategy. In June 2001, he received the U.S.
Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award.

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“Why should there be a war with Japan?”: Winston Churchill and Great Britain’s Strategic Predicament during the 1920s