Hector Charles Bywater (1884–1940) was a talented and prolific journalist, writer, and commentator on naval affairs. His books, evaluations, and articles were discussed both inside and outside naval circles in Asia, the United States, and Europe.
He has been compared to Alfred Thayer Mahan, but his writings never became classics the way Mahan’s work did—perhaps because Bywater was an analyst rather than an independent thinker.1
Today, Bywater is only mentioned in connection with the discussion about whether he gave Japan the inspiration for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, or somehow prophesized the attack. It is time to reintroduce Hector C. Bywater to the world and remember him as an expert who grappled with contemporary naval questions and developed a deep understanding of the challenges inherent in the revolution of naval technology and the development of the modern warship from the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century.
Bywater was born in England on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1884. He grew up with the naval revolution and had an early fascination with warships and fleet work. On his 14th birthday, he received a copy of Herbert Wrigley Wilson’s Ironclads in Action: A Sketch of Naval Warfare from 1855 to 1895—an advanced choice for a teenager. The book had an introduction by then-Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan.
The young Bywater decided to become a journalist. He got a job at The New York Herald and made his debut article at age 21 about the naval aspects of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. In the following years, he observed the development of the Japanese Navy through the frame of the strategic possibilities and necessities of the Pacific Ocean.2 He also worked as an agent for British Naval Intelligence in Germany in the years before World War I.
The Spanish-American War
As a consequence of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States played an unintended role in the strategic game of the Pacific. Because of the plans to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the U.S. government had an interest in controlling the Spanish possession of Cuba. However, the efforts to get Cuba under American control also entailed a war in the Philippines in Asia, as the Philippines were also a Spanish colony like Cuba.
The outcome of the war meant, among other things, that the United States was forced to take up the responsibility of the Philippines without considering the strategic and political implications of doing so. In the long run, the United States gained no strategic advantage in having bases on the Philippines and became a reluctant player in the political game in Asia.
The Valor of Ignorance
The Japanese Navy expanded substantially in the first decades of the 20th century. Japan’s intention apparently was to use its fleet as a tool to dominate Southeast Asia with its rich potential of oil. A 1906 naval program strengthened the fleet compared with the situation before 1904. The naval part of the Japanese fiscal budget increased to 35 percent.
In 1909, the mysterious and charismatic author Homer Lea published The Valor of Ignorance. In the book, he described a hypothetical Japanese invasion of California. The book belonged to a widespread genre at that time, novels describing scenarios in der zukunft krieg, “the future war.” These stories often featured a neglected military defense, presenting worst-case scenarios to alarm the nation and put out the call to be prepared for war. Lea’s book later was criticized by Bywater as being too hypothetical and having nothing to do with the real world. Unlike Lea, Bywater saw the strategic conditions of the Pacific primarily as a naval problem.
Sea Power in the Pacific
In 1920, Bywater began to write Sea Power in the Pacific: A Study of the American-Japanese Naval Problem. Published in 1921, it provided a survey of the geostrategic conditions of the Pacific, alongside precise evaluations of the naval development both in the United States and Japan, and implications for the European navies. Within the text, Bywater argued that the gravitation concerning the sea power of the world had moved from the West to the East.
The book revealed a profound knowledge of the topic. Bywater was familiar with the discussions inside Japanese naval circles as well as American ones. His intention was to draw attention to the naval potential of Japan and the geostrategic conditions of the Pacific Ocean through a comprehensive analysis.
The last few chapters of the book generated the most interest. According to Bywater, the Japanese strategy was forced to be defensive due to distance. The most obvious action in case of a war with the United States would be for Japan to occupy the Philippines and wait for an American response. Regardless of the size of the American squadron based there, it would not be possible for the United States to resist a naval attack on the Philippines in the event of a war with Japan. Therefore, it was necessary to find a position to base a fleet of some importance which could in short time reach the Philippines. Bywater did mention the strategic importance of Hawaii, but he claimed that a naval base at Pearl Harbor could not be part of the strategy of prevention or a response concerning a possible attack on the Philippines.
Instead, Bywater drew the attention to the island of Guam, the principal locale of the Mariana Islands. Guam came under U.S. control in 1898 and Bywater characterized it as “the key to the Pacific.”
In the closing chapters of the book, Bywater theorized on how the future geostrategic aspects of Southeast Asia could lead to a war between the United States and Japan despite the United States’ lack of interest in playing a role in Asia.
Bywater’s book was well received among politicians and officers. Though it was not known at the time, the book was translated into Japanese and distributed among the leading circles of the Japanese Navy soon after publication.
A notable reaction to the book came from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Unlike Bywater, Roosevelt believed a Japanese-American war was not a physical possibility because of the vastness of the ocean that separated the two powers. Roosevelt, ironically, was President when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The Great Pacific War
To get the last word, Bywater wrote The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931–33, published in 1925. His intention with the book was to utilize speculative fiction to give concrete examples in a nonfiction way of how a war could develop, based on his analysis of the strategic conditions of the Pacific. At first glance, Bywater’s book appears to belong to the futurewar genre. However, there are nuances to the text. Bywater exploits very precisely the description and analysis in Sea Power. There is a world between Bywater’s fiction and—for instance—Lea’s book from 1909. The Great Pacific War must be considered as a feasibility study of the book of 1921.
In The Great Pacific War, Bywater begins by explaining the various causes that led Japan to attack the United States. Japan’s own domestic problems, combined with an aggressive policy against China and the necessity to dominate Asia, caused a collision course with the United States. The war in the book opens with a surprise attack against the U.S. Fleet in the Philippines and the occupation of Luzon. Japan launches this attack using carrier-launched aircraft against the U.S. ships in their base—a remarkably prescient hypothetical scenario for the 1920s. Also in Bywater’s scenario, the Japanese block the Panama Canal by sinking a ship in the canal to ensure that the U.S. Atlantic Fleet would not be able to join the Pacific Fleet in the early stage of the war. Mines are laid off San Diego and Honolulu while Japanese submarines are placed on different positions along the West Coast. Later, the United States starts an island-hoping campaign across the Pacific. After a couple of disastrous defeats, the Americans beat the Japanese fleet in a huge decisive battle of Yap, a location near Guam. The bombardment of Tokyo and the Japanese surrender follow. Except for the attack on Pearl Harbor, nearly all the substantial elements of the 1941–45 Pacific War seem to be included in Bywater’s book.
It is a known fact that Bywater’s two books were carefully studied in the leading circles of both the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japanese naval officer Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, was stationed in Washington, D.C., as a naval attaché in the 1920s. He was, of course, acquainted with Bywater’s work.
In 1924, the U.S. Navy developed the so-called War Plan Orange, positing the American responses in case of an American-Japanese War. We know now that this operational plan was changed several times during the 1930s, obviously inspired by Bywater’s analysis. However, naval authorities never built a main naval base at Guam as Bywater proposed. Instead, the naval base at Pearl Harbor was expanded after 1928. The distance between Tokyo and Pearl Harbor is 3,374 miles. The distance between Guam and the Philippines is 1,500 miles. Both the Japanese and the Americans knew that. Thus, an attack on the Philippines was more likely than one on Pearl Harbor.
Hector C. Bywater passed away on 16 August 1940. He never saw whether his strategic analysis was correct or to what extent his predictions were fulfilled.
It is no wonder that Bywater’s book came into focus again just after December 1941, and a new edition of The Great Pacific War 1931–33 was published with an introduction by the well-known military editor of The New York Times, Hanson W. Baldwin. The subtitle of this edition was A Historic Prophecy Now Being Fulfilled. The introduction emphasized that Bywater’s book was a 16-year-old prophecy which the American military leaders should have realized as a warning many years before, and that the Japanese, on their side, had just followed the plan proposed by Bywater in 1925. But is that a correct evaluation of the book?
Since World War II, Bywater has often been connected with a touch of mystery.
In 1991, William H. Honan published the first biography of Bywater, Vision of Infamy. The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans That Led to Pearl Harbor.3 Here the aspect of the possible connection between Bywater’s book from 1925 and the attack on Pearl Harbor was strongly emphasized. The book was published in the U.K. under the title: Bywater—The Man Who Invented the Pacific War. Despite an impressive amount of research, Honan went too far in terms of presenting Bywater’s analysis as a mysterious prophecy. He spiced the biography with claims that Bywater was murdered by Japanese agents alongside a man called Melville Cox, who had been a Reuters newsman in Tokyo and worked as a reliable source for Bywater during the years.
According to Honan, Bywater and Cox were killed because they could guess the course of the impending attack. This statement is, of course, nonsense. Pearl Harbor, as we have seen, was not part of the strategic evaluation in 1925.
Often a cold and realistic analysis is better than a crystal ball. The question is: Did the Japanese naval staff really have to be inspired by Bywater’s novel to make a war plan like the strike against the United States in 1941? The answer is no.
One of Honan’s arguments is that the Japanese plans of invasion of the Philippines, devised by Bywater in his 1925 novel, is nearly the same as the Japanese produced in 1941. It is not the same as to say that the Japanese had copied Bywater’s plan, but it is evidence of a correct strategic and operational analysis of the same situation from both. Thus, numerous passages of The Great Pacific War are similar to events in the real Pacific War.
The geostrategic analysis conducted by Bywater in 1921 and 1925 was profound and excellent. The similarities between his books and the events in the World War II Pacific are not a question of prophecy but rather the result of a strategic understanding.
1. The most comprehensive account of the life of Hector C. Bywater is William H. Honan’s Visions of Infamy: The Untold Story of How Journalist Hector C. Bywater Devised the Plans that Led to Pearl Harbor (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).
2. For information about Bywater’s career as a journalist, see Robert B. Davies, “Hector C. Bywater and American Naval Journalism during the 1920s,” New Aspects of Naval History, Selected Papers from the 5th Naval History (Annapolis, Maryland, 1985), 161–67; and Andy Boyd, “Our Splendid Spy in Germany,” Warships International Fleet Review (February 2021), 44–45.
3. William H. Honan, Visions of Infamy.