23 June 2019

Japan's Great Naval Victory, 1944

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 18-20:
The Japanese propaganda between October 12 and 18 [1944] has been called “a campaign of mendacity unprecedented since Napoleon proclaimed the destruction of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.” It would, in fact, provide the basis for a fascinating study of national psychology, for it seems to have involved a whole people in the toils of self-deception. The fears with which they had long lived — the penetration of our Pacific Fleet into what the Japanese themselves described as the “Essential Sea Area” — had now materialized, and their reaction can only be described as the pathology of fear. Japanese authorities announced that in the course of an action lasting six days the Imperial Navy had destroyed “60 per cent of America’s effective naval strength,” sunk “over 500,000 tons,” and sent “an estimated 26,000 American seamen to their deaths.” Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet was claimed to be so badly shot up that it had “ceased to be an organized striking force,” while Vice Admiral Mitscher’s task force had been “completely wiped out.” The Emperor himself was directly involved in these fabrications. A special session of the Japanese cabinet met to draw up a report to the Emperor “advising him on the glorious victory,” and the Emperor received the cabinet delegation with an imperial rescript of commendation, assuring the world that “the army and naval forces acting in close co-operation have intercepted the enemy fleet and after valiant fighting have greatly damaged it.” On October 15 imperial headquarters announced a total of fifty-three American vessels sunk or damaged, sixteen of which were said to be carriers.

Any exploration of the causes of the enemy’s conduct in this regard is beyond the limits of this narrative. The extent to which the Japanese naval command was infected by the epidemic of self-deception, however, has an important bearing on the momentous strategic decisions of the next few days. Certainly the Imperial Navy’s two chief official spokesmen, Captains Kurihara and Matsushima, were implicated. It is not improbable, as Admiral Halsey and others have suggested, that the enemy was misled by the extravagant claims of his own pilots returning from their strikes against the Third Fleet. Captured documents reveal a general tendency toward consistency of exaggerations not so much by the Japanese propaganda machine as by local commanders on the spot. It is possible that Admiral Toyoda, while not taken in by extreme claims, might have concluded that the often-predicted thing had occurred — that land-based planes had so impaired the strength of our carrier force that the Imperial Fleet now had an opportunity for an all-out surface action in which it might enjoy some greater degree of parity.

Whatever the reasoning of the high command, there occurred on the 15th an abortive sortie of Japanese naval forces, which indicates something of the navy’s reaction. At midnight of October 14-15, Vice Admiral Shima’s Fifth Fleet, consisting of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers, sortied from the Inland Sea. According to the testimony of Comdr. Kokichi Mori, a member of Shima’s staff, taken after the war, the admiral left the Inland Sea “to find a remnant of American force and center attack on weak points. We expected that there must be quite a number of damaged vessels.” Enemy search planes located two of the four task groups composing our forces, and the reports of what they saw were evidently sufficient to sober the headiest expectations. At any rate, the enemy ships hastily withdrew on the afternoon of the 16th before they were brought under attack.

The inflation of Japanese propaganda claims continued, however, and reached new heights after this episode. By the 19th, the day before the target date for Leyte, imperial headquarters had raised the score of ships sunk or damaged to fifty-seven, of which nineteen were said to be carriers. The Formosa “victory” was said to be “as great as the blow dealt the Czarist Russian fleet in the battle of the Japan Sea forty years ago.” On the 21st the naval spokesman Kurihara told the press that it was a victory which “far surpasses Pearl Harbor or the action off the coast of Malaya.” It is not improbable that two days later, when the entire Imperial Fleet made its last historic sortie, visions of Japanese naval triumphs of the past were still obscuring the realities of the present.

22 June 2019

Scope of the Battle of Leyte Gulf

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 1-3:
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle of the Second World War and the largest engagement ever fought on the high seas. It was composed of four separate yet closely interrelated actions, each of which involved forces comparable in size with those engaged in any previous battle of the Pacific War. The four battles, two of them fought simultaneously, were joined in three different bodies of water separated by as much as 500 miles. Yet all four were fought between dawn of one day and dusk of the next, and all were waged in the repulse of a single, huge Japanese operation.

For the Japanese the battle represented the supreme naval effort of the war. They committed to action virtually every operational fighting ship on the lists of the Imperial Navy, which at that time still commanded a formidable surface force. Among the nine enemy battleships present were the two new leviathans of the Yamato class, which were designed as the most powerful warships in the world and far outweighed our heaviest ships. These forces, organized in three fleets, were hurled at our newly established beachhead in the Philippines from three directions.

They were guided by a master plan drawn up in Tokyo two months before our landing and known by the code name Sho Plan. It was a bold and complicated plan calling for reckless sacrifice and the use of cleverly conceived diversion. As an afterthought the suicidal Kamikaze campaign was inaugurated in connection with the plan. Altogether the operation was the most desperate attempted by any naval power during the war — and there were moments, several of them in fact, when it seemed to be approaching dangerously near to success.

Unlike the majority of Pacific naval battles that preceded it, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was not limited to an exchange of air strikes between widely separated carrier forces, although it involved action of that kind. It also included surface and subsurface action between virtually all types of fighting craft from motor torpedo boats to battleships, at ranges varying from point-blank to fifteen miles, with weapons ranging from machine guns to great rifles of 18-inch bore, fired “in anger” by the Japanese for the first time in this battle. Whether or not the Battle of Leyte Gulf will be the last of its kind fought upon the high seas, it may be said to have brought to its maximum development the tendency of an era toward heavy ordnance and armor.

The major phase of the battle opened in the Sibuyan Sea with strikes by our carrier-based aircraft against the largest Japanese surface force. The enemy replied with land-based and carrier-based air strikes against our carriers. The next phase was a night surface battle between two other forces in Surigao Strait, entirely devoid of air action but including the largest torpedo attack of the war and one of the heaviest gunnery actions. On the following day at dawn two new battles opened. The one off Cape EngaƱo to the north was a one-sided carrier aircraft action against a Japanese carrier-battleship force. That to the south off Samar Island was fought between two of the most oddly matched forces which ever joined action — the heaviest enemy surface ships in existence against our light escort carriers. The engagement had not been contemplated by either side, and came as a complete surprise to both.

In order to understand the scale upon which the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought, it might be well to draw a few comparisons with forces involved in an earlier Pacific engagement. In the Battle of Midway, one of the most important actions of the war, our forces entered the engagement with three aircraft carriers. At Leyte Gulf we used eight carriers, eight light carriers, and sixteen escort carriers — thirty-two in all. This is not to say that the latter action was ten times the size or importance of the earlier, but that the scale of air action had increased in something like that proportion. At Midway, of course, there was no surface action and our force contained no battleships. In our two fleets participating in the Philippines battle we had twelve battleships to the enemy’s nine.

29 May 2019

Bush's & Putin's Response to the Coup

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O'Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle p. 146:
By Tuesday morning, August 20, George Bush, who initially had stopped short of condemning the coup committee—on Scowcroft’s advice he had called their action extra-constitutional rather than illegitimate so as not to burn their bridges with the coup leaders—had got a better idea of what was happening. He managed to get through to Yeltsin. “Boris, my friend,” cried the U.S. president. Yeltsin was overwhelmed. “I am extremely glad to hear from you!” he shouted in response. “We expect an attack, but your call will help us.” “We’re praying for you,” said Bush.

From a balcony at the Russian White House, protected by lead shields held by Korzhakov and another bodyguard, Yeltsin read out a second statement. In it he called on soldiers and police to disobey the orders of Yazov and Pugo but not to seek confrontation.

In St. Petersburg Mayor Sobchak confronted troop commanders and persuaded them not to enter the city. At his side opposing the putsch was his special assistant, KGB officer Vladimir Putin. “Sobchak and I practically moved into the city council,” Putin recounted years later. “We drove to the Kirov Factory and to other plants to speak to the workers. But we were nervous. We even passed out pistols, though I left my service revolver in the safe. People everywhere supported us.”

Putin was concerned that his behavior as a KGB officer could be considered a crime of office if the plotters won. He expressed this fear to his boss, and Sobchak called Kryuchkov on his behalf. Astonishingly the mayor was able to get the chief organizer of the putsch on the phone to discuss such a matter of minor consequence given the scale of events—that Putin was resigning from the KGB forthwith.

Kryuchkov by now seemed to realize his mistake in not securing the arrest of Yeltsin. Public opposition was consolidating around the Russian president. The emergency committee was falling apart. Pavlov and Bessmertnykh had disappeared. Yanayev was drinking himself into a stupor. The defenders of the White House now included many high-profile personalities, including Politburo veteran Alexander Yakovlev, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner. Shevardnadze was also there, asking aloud if Gorbachev himself was implicated in the coup.

28 May 2019

Arresting Gorbachev, August 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O'Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 140-141:
Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs had been ordered from a factory in Pskov, and Lefortovo prison made ready for an influx of detainees.

The coup got under way the next day, Sunday, August 18, with the house arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev. A military plane provided by Yazov landed at the Belbek military base near Foros at 5 p.m. after a two-hour flight from Moscow. On board were Baklanov, Shenin, Boldin, and another enthusiastic putschist, General Valentin Varennikov. The four men represented the pillars of the Soviet establishment. Baklanov, with broad earnest face and furrowed brow, was head of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex. Shenin, prematurely bald with large domed forehead, was the Politburo member responsible for party organization. Boldin, besides being Gorbachev’s chief of staff, was a senior member of the Central Committee. Varennikov, in large rimless glasses with a thin moustache and lank hair combed over in Hitler style, was commander of Soviet land forces.

The delegation was driven by KGB officers in two Zil limousines to the state dacha with marble walls and orange-tiled roof, where the Gorbachevs were spending the last day of their two-week summer vacation. They were joined inside the compound gate by another plotter, General Yury Plekhanov, the stolid unsmiling head of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, who represented a fifth pillar of Soviet power, the security organs. Plekhanov deployed new guards around the perimeter of the dacha, ordered the head of Gorbachev’s security to return to Moscow and put men with automatic weapons outside the garage so none of Gorbachev’s party could get to the cars or use the radio telephones in the automobiles.

The president was in his second-floor office dressed in shorts and a pullover, reading the text of the speech he would give to launch the new Union in Moscow in two days’ time. In it he had written a warning: “If we turn back now, our children will never forgive us such ignorance and irresponsibility.”

In a guesthouse on the dacha compound, Colonel Vladimir Kirillov, one of the two plainclothes officers in charge of the nuclear suitcase, was watching television when the screen went blank. An emergency light on the chemodanchik started blinking. This was it—a nuclear alert! He picked up his radio telephone with a direct link to government communications. He was told there had been an accident and not to worry. At 4:32 p.m. he lost contact with his controller in Moscow, KGB general Viktor Boldyrev. General Varennikov appeared at the door. “How are your communications?” he asked. “There aren’t any,” replied the colonel. “That’s how it should be,” said Varennikov. He assured him that contacts would be restored within twenty-four hours.

At 4:50 p.m. the head of Gorbachev’s bodyguard interrupted the president to say that a group of people had arrived to speak with him. Gorbachev was not expecting anyone. Somewhat alarmed, he picked up a receiver to call Kryuchkov in Moscow. The line was dead. All four telephones on his desk and the internal phone were no longer working. In an outer office Anatoly Chernyaev suddenly realized that his government line, satellite link, and internal telephone were all down.

He guessed immediately what was up.

27 May 2019

Yeltsin's Foreign vs. Domestic Popularity

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O'Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 106-108:
Fearful of the gathering momentum towards the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev organized a referendum throughout the USSR to restore popular support for stability and a new union treaty. It asked for a yes or no to the question “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” (emphasis in the original). The referendum was held on March 16. Six of the fifteen Soviet republics had become so independent-minded they boycotted the poll, but in the remaining nine, 76 percent of voters responded yes. Gorbachev took this majority as a mandate to negotiate a new union treaty that would give republics a measure of sovereignty but preserve the Union of which he was president.

Yeltsin cleverly turned the plebiscite to his advantage. On the referendum paper distributed in Russia he added an extra question: Do you support the idea of a directly elected president for Russia? The voters gave their approval. The Russian congress agreed to hold the first free presidential election in Russia, on June 12, 1991.

Though his popularity swelled at home, Yeltsin found to his dismay that his high profile in Moscow did not impress world leaders. Dignitaries who arrived in Russia on fact-finding missions came with perceptions of an unstable and vodka-loving bully. On the other hand, they liked Gorbachev personally and felt protective towards him. When Yeltsin asked U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to call on him during such a visit to the Soviet president in mid-March, Baker saw it as an effort to “drive Gorbachev up the wall.” The American declined after consulting Gorbachev, who “naturally went through the roof” and raved about how unstable Yeltsin was and how he would use populist rhetoric to become a dictator. Gorbachev displayed similar childishness, forbidding his associates to attend a dinner Baker hosted at the embassy in protest at the presence of some of Yeltsin’s team.

The effete British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd took a dislike to the ponderous, blunt-talking nonconformist when they met in Moscow. He suggested to Ambassador Braithwaite as they left the meeting that the Russian was a dangerous man barely under control. Still, Braithwaite concluded that Yeltsin’s analysis was correct and that Gorbachev was by now “living almost entirely in cloud-cuckoo land.” Richard Nixon, visiting Moscow as an unofficial envoy of the White House, cursed the media for giving him the impression of Yeltsin as an “incompetent, disloyal boob.” Yeltsin might not have the “grace and ivory-tower polish of Gorbachev,” he reported to Bush on his return to the United States, “but he inspires the people nevertheless.”

Yeltsin went to France, where he believed he would at least be respected by the democratic parliamentarians of Europe. He got an unpleasant surprise. Le Monde lectured him that in Europe “only one Russian is recognized—Gorbachev.” He was greeted with an “icy shower” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where Jean-Pierre Cot, chairman of the group of socialists, reproached him publicly as a demagogue and an irresponsible politician for opposing Gorbachev, “with whom we feel more assured.” These remarks caused outrage among ordinary Russians—even Pravda called them an insult—and only served to increase Yeltsin’s popularity.

The Russian populist returned home chastened by the “terrible blow” of Western reaction. But there was a surprise in store for him. Gorbachev invited him to a meeting of the heads of all the Soviet Union’s republics at a dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, and what the Soviet leader had to say to him there, Yeltsin found, “exceeded all my expectations.”

25 May 2019

Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O'Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:
Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

24 May 2019

Russia's Vote for Sovereignty, 1990

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O'Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 87-89:
There was a whiff of cordite in the air as the confrontation with Gorbachev sharpened. Yeltsin and his staff began acquiring weapons for personal protection, helped by sympathizers in the Soviet defense and interior ministries. Within a year, he later reckoned, his security directorate had collected sixty assault rifles, a hundred pistols, two bulletproof jackets, and five Austrian walkie-talkies.

Though leader of a country almost twice the size of the United States, Yeltsin had little power. He could not raise taxes. He had no army. He was unable to speak to the people on state television, which was still controlled by the Kremlin. Glasnost had not advanced to the point at which political opponents of the USSR leadership could command time on the airwaves. The Russian Supreme Soviet remained what it had always been—a decoration, part of a Soviet-era fiction that republics governed themselves, whereas in reality they had no control over people or resources.

Yeltsin and his deputies were determined to change that. They hoped to take some power away from the center and establish enough sovereignty to get Russia out of its economic crisis. He proposed that Russia’s laws should be made superior to Soviet laws and take precedence in the territory of Russia, a popular move even with the conservative Russian deputies. “There were numerous options,” Yeltsin recounted, “but we had only one—to win!”

On June 12, 1990, the parliament adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty of the RSFSR by a vote of 907 votes to 13 against and 9 abstentions. The vote was greeted by a standing ovation. The date would be celebrated in the future as Russia Day. Yeltsin would reflect in time that “as soon as the word sovereignty resounded in the air, the clock of history once again began ticking and all attempts to stop it were doomed. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming.”

All over the USSR in the weeks that followed, other republics took their cue from Russia and proclaimed their sovereignty in a wave of nationalism. In many republics the campaign for greater independence was supported not just by nationalists but by hard-line members of the communist nomenklatura, who fretted about Gorbachev’s reform policies and aimed to grab power for themselves.

Gorbachev’s perestroika had by now created a situation in which the USSR could be preserved only by a new union treaty or by military force.

The immensity of what was happening gave Yeltsin “a bad case of the shakes.” The system could no longer crush him openly, he believed, but “it was quite capable of quietly eating us, bit by bit.” It could sabotage his actions, and him. Gorbachev still controlled the KGB, the interior ministry, the foreign ministry, the Central Bank, state television, and other instruments of control. He was commander of the armed forces, the ultimate arbiter in a physical struggle for power.

But Gorbachev was losing the people. By mid-summer 1990, most Russians had stopped paying heed to his speeches. Life was not improving. After five years waiting for a “crucial turning point” that was never reached, people were dismissing his lectures as mnogo slov (“so many words,” “a lot of hot air”). Behind his back party secretaries were calling him Narciss, the Narcissist. (Gorbachev’s secretaries termed Yeltsin “Brevno,” or The Log, the Russian equivalent of “thick as a plank.”) The shops and liquor stores were still empty.

When Gorbachev made a typically long-winded address to the Twenty-eighth Congress of the Communist Party in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on July 2, 1990, almost nobody was listening.