#Reviewing The Turn of the Tide

The Pacific Theater during World War II has long held a fascination for both American scholars and the general public, especially those who are drawn to the climactic aircraft carrier battles and fraught land battles scattered across a paradisaical island landscape. Works like Ronald Spector’s authoritative Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan or James Horfischer’s engaging Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour have examined the operational history of the conflict from a variety of perspectives ranging from the grand strategic narrative to the immediate and visceral experience of the individual sailor. Sean M. Judge’s The Turn of the Tide in the Pacific War: Strategic Initiative, Intelligence, and Command, 1941-1943 provides a new analytical approach to understanding the early stages of the war as well as a new analytical tool that can be applied to understand other conflicts. It also represents a work that challenges easy classification into either historical or strategic studies categories. Rather than focusing on a single key battle as the turning point in the Pacific War, Judge deploys the concept of strategic initiative to understand the shifting operational momentum between the United States and Imperial Japan from the attack on Pearl Harbor through early 1943.

Judge defines strategic initiative as “the ability to influence the course of the conflict by being able to choose to wage those battles, operations, and campaigns most suited to the accomplishment of one’s own political ends while avoiding those detrimental to the same.”[1] He argues, while the term strategic initiative has been used in the past, it has not been clearly defined nor the focus of a study on the Pacific War. Judge’s definition is effective, but, while he carefully positions it within a tactical-operational-strategic matrix, its slight vagueness does leave the reader wondering if it really is a concept that demands extensive analysis. Perhaps the term’s greatest utility, however, is as a synthesis for a variety of strategic concepts like strategic momentum, operational initiative, or the ability to engage in or deny battle.

To help elucidate his understanding of the defining factors in seizing and maintaining strategic initiative in the Pacific Theater, Judge provides a detailed examination of the military command and intelligence structures of both the United States and Imperial Japan. He demonstrates that both had flaws but the United States was much more internally coordinated and effective. Judge concludes, “Neither side’s prewar planning had envisioned warfare on this scale in the South Pacific.”[2] He shows the prewar plans of both sides assumed a relatively short conflict dominated by surface naval combat and concentrated in a few key areas, namely the Philippines. Japan’s seizing of the strategic initiative with the attack at Pearl Harbor was predicated on the faulty assumption that the United States, without its capital fleet, would be unable to launch a major offensive until 1943. The United States’ ability to quickly reorganize and launch operations—the Doolittle Raid, the Battle of Coral Sea, and the Battle of Midway—following the attack at Pearl Harbor upended Japanese intelligence estimates and strategic calculus. This resulted in a highly reactive Japanese strategy that allowed the United States to blunt the scattered Japanese attacks while realigning resources and gaining strategic initiative. Judge argues that the United States’ ability to do this was the result of a combination of factors, especially greater operational coordination and systematic intelligence gathering. In particular, he shows how signals intelligence played a significant role in structuring American strategy.

The Battle of Midway (Robert Benny/Naval History and Heritage Command)

Judge’s early chapters form a useful primer on the structure of the forces on both sides. At times they may seem overly exhaustive, but they are vital for understanding his larger analysis. This is especially true with his depiction of the internal political dynamics of the Japanese elite commanders, an aspect of the conflict that is often glossed over. At points, Judge’s presentation of the United States and Imperial Japanese internal dysfunction makes the reader question how either could have ever successfully launched a military operation, let alone conceived and sustained any large-scale campaign. For example, after he gives a detailed explication of the seemingly limitless internal rivalries and ineffectual intelligence gathering, the reader is startled by his assertion that Japan benefited from “an edge in intelligence collection and analysis” during the months leading up to Pearl Harbor.[3] Judge’s systematic examination of Japan’s intelligence gathering and analysis is one of the more engaging aspects of his work, and is enhanced by his forthright explication about the limitations in Japanese wartime records due to their destruction at the end of the war.

Judge’s use of the concept of strategic initiative as an analytical tool is novel and useful because it allows him to move beyond a focus on individual battles to provide a window into the strategic implications of operations across an entire theater, while also showing the interrelated and combined effects of multiple engagements. His active engagement with political issues also brings an important element into the analysis often lacking in more traditional military histories; the book would have benefited from an even more detailed examination of this factor. This analytical framework could easily be applied to the study of a wide variety of modern wars and would likely provide invaluable insights into the strategic evolution of those conflicts. Judge references the American Civil War and the Eastern Front during World War II as additional examples where strategic initiative played a significant role, but the Chinese invasion during the Korean War, the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, or examples from more removed conflicts like Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars seem even more ripe for this type of analysis. The synthesis between operational, logistical, and political factors that Judge’s approach entails could prove tremendously useful, although the availability of records and historical narratives to draw from might make a similar sweeping analysis of contemporary conflicts like the Second Iraq War extremely challenging to construct.

The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory, painted by J. M. W. Turner (Wikimedia)

Overall, this is an interesting book, and while it has some flaws, those are largely attributable to the fact that Judge passed away in 2012 and it was posthumously edited into its current form. This work would be useful as an introduction to strategic studies and also to those looking for a detailed examination of the early stages of the World War II in the Pacific, though it would be best as a companion to more comprehensive works. It would be especially effective in a graduate seminar setting because of Judge’s excellent citations and engagement with the extended literature surrounding strategy and the military history of the Second World War.

Perry Colvin is a PhD candidate in history at Auburn University. His dissertation focuses on the role of Winston Churchill in redefining the institutional and intellectual framework of British military planning and procurement through the application of technology at the end of World War I and the beginning of the interwar period.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Pearl Harbor on Sunday (Deviant Art)


[1] Sean M. Judge, The Turn of the Tide in the Pacific War: Strategic Initiative, Intelligence, and Command, 1941-1943, ed. Jonathan M. House (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 16.

[2] Judge, 200.

[3] Judge, 127.