Violet Lightning – A Blueprint for Japanese Victory in the Pacific, 1941–1942, By John Eric Vining

Reviewed by Dr. Mitch Arnold, History Instructor, Wright State University


                Could there have been another outcome to the war in the Pacific during WWII?  Did the Japanese really have the ability, and the technology to compete with the United States?  Using their full potential might they have been able to fight the allies to a standstill in the Pacific and in Asia?   Author John Eric Vining argues for just such an assessment of Japan’s capabilities in the early–1940s.

            Vining’s area of expertise is not History, but Business Management.  It is with an eye toward the distribution of materials and the development of product, whether fighter aircraft or submarines, that Japan’s capabilities are measured.  The question is not whether or not Japan mismanaged their war effort – they undoubtedly did on many levels – the question which Vining tries to answer is, what if Japan had managed the war well, and had done everything right?

            For those who fear that by picking up this book they will get lost in the minutiae of long lists of facts and figures and the dry recitation of supply and demand curves, there is a pleasant surprise.  Vining is not your average bean counter.  His use of pertinent facts is introduced with grace into a flowing narrative argument that is an easily digestible read.

            Two facets of his argument stand out: the utter misuse of Japan’s formidable submarine fleet, and their reluctance to develop second and third generation aircraft that would have matched or exceeded anything the US built into 1944.  The development of these aircraft and the competent use of its submarine fleet coupled with a revised naval strategy might have allowed Japan to force the US into an armistice in the Pacific Theater as early as the end of 1942.

            The most intriguing section of Violet Lightning is Vining’s Guerre Imaginaire.  In this imaginary reconstruction of Japanese strategy which omits their mistakes and includes their overlooked strengths, Vining moves the Japanese and American fleets across the Pacific like pieces on a chess board to show just how a successful Japanese strategy might have worked.  His results are chillingly believable.

            But perhaps his most controversial assertion is that the results of his Guerre Imaginaire can be compared to the results of the later Vietnam conflict.  Would the loss of life in the fight for European hegemony in Asia have been distressing enough to embitter Americans on the Pacific war?  Could political pressures associated with fighting an expensive and nearly unwinnable war been enough to make the US offer Japan a separate peace in order to concentrate on the Nazi menace?  While many may not agree with Vining’s comparison, it is certainly worthy of consideration.

            All in all, John Eric Vining’s book is well researched, well considered, and gracefully written.  Those who read it will never again look upon the history of WWII in the Pacific Theater as a certain and foregone conclusion.