06/09/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Midway: 70th Anniversary of One of History's Most Pivotal Battles Came in Midst of Obama's Big Strategic Pivot to the Pacific

The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, one of history's most important battles, has come and gone, with little attention paid. The anniversary, June 4-7, took place while Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in the midst of a very important trip to the Asia Pacific region which also passed with little notice.

The former CIA director and veteran California political figure's nine-day trip was merely to lay the groundwork for a major re-set of America's geopolitical priorities, what's been called "the Pacific Pivot" (though lately re-dubbed the "rebalancing" to calm Europeanists), from over-engagement with the Islamic world to increased engagement with Asia.

And Midway? In my opinion, this Pacific battle was merely the most important American battle since Gettysburg. No, I don't think the most important battle since the hinge of the Civil War, without which the Union would have been rent asunder, was D-Day, as epic as that was. By June 6th, 1944, the fascist forces in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East had been driven back, and Hitler was hunkering down in his "Festung Europa." The Allies were winning with greater numbers and materiel. D-Day was a culmination of a process years in the making. It might have failed, but that was unlikely, for it had massive, even inexorable, might behind it.

The battle footage in John Ford's The Battle of Midway was shot in large part by the then three-time Academy Award-winning director himself from the roof of the power plant on Midway using a small handheld camera. The Grapes of Wrath director, a naval reserve commander, was sent there by new Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz shortly before the battle.

Midway, in contrast, was a far more perilous encounter. It found the US Navy at a decided disadvantage against the Imperial Japanese Navy. In the six months between Pearl Harbor and Midway, the US and its allies in the Pacific had suffered an endless string of losses. If the Navy lost its precious handful of aircraft carriers off Midway, to the superior Japanese force, Hawaii's defense would have been untenable and an already romping Japanese military would have had free reign across the Pacific, where it had already made incredible progress in setting up an empire under the rubric of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The sacrifice of the US Asiatic Fleet, virtually forgotten today, except for aficionados of one of John Ford's greatest films, 1945's They Were Expendable, a mostly true life story about the PT boats and others fighting a losing battle in the Philippines to buy time for the US to regroup after December 7th, 1941, was huge. The larger US Pacific Fleet, devastated by the Pearl Harbor attack, survived with a series of raids, largely to boost morale, by the handful of aircraft carriers that fortunately escaped the carnage of Oahu. Franklin Roosevelt had perhaps his greatest test of public leadership in keeping American spirits up during this very dark period.

This otherwise valuable AP story, the only major article to mark Midway's 70th anniversary, is misleading in making intelligence sound far more precise than it was, extensively a retired officer who'd been a young ensign at the time. The US was able to read Japanese code, but only parts of messages, here and there. In fact, it took a faked American message about a non-existent drinking water crisis on Midway, which the Navy knew that Japanese would pick up and report on, to determine that it was Midway under discussion in the Japanese plans.

But even that left vast elements to chance. There were no satellites in those days. Radar was unreliable. All the aircraft were propeller-driven. Slow-flying scout planes, were used extensively to try to find enemy ships. Aircraft navigation and communications were spotty.

The reality is that the battle was marked by massive uncertainty and the groping in the dark of broad daylight that one would expect of only the second sea battle fought with ships out of visual contact. The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought a month earlier to a stand-off, though Japanese invasion forces were repelled, was the first such battle.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered the commencement address on May 29th at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. The veteran California political figure and former CIA director says that building U.S. maritime strength across the Asia Pacific region will be the main project of the new generation of America's naval officers.

Most of the the most dramatic and consequential action took place on June 4th. When all was said and done, four Japanese aircraft carriers had been sent to the bottom of the Pacific, with only one of America's precious carriers lost. In addition, the Japanese lost many of their best pilots, as well as highly skilled and experienced air crews.

After Midway, the US was able to turn to the offensive, with the Marines invading Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands two months later. Which is not to say that there was not hard and heavy fighting through most of 1945, especially with most of the US effort going to the fight against Fascist Italy and especially Nazi Germany.

The story of Midway is highly dramatic, making the rather dull and soapy 1976 movie made about it all the more regrettable. But that doesn't explain why it gets such short shrift compared to D-Day, a story endlessly retold in film and literature.

Part of the reason, of course, is that this is an ahistorical, moment to moment culture, and getting more so all the time. But there's another reason.

Midway is a tiny atoll roughly "midway" between North America and Asia -- it's 3200 miles west of San Francisco and 2500 miles east of Tokyo. It is no tourist destination. Unlike Normandy, a natural beacon for tourists in France, Midway, which I have visited, is just a couple of tiny islands around a lagoon. Nobody lived there before it became a stop-over point for maritime and aviation ventures. And since the Navy closed its Midway base, hardly anyone lives there now.

But despite the lack of a glamorous locale, Midway was absolutely central to our past and present. And the big geopolitical pivot, again centered on the Pacific, now underway looks to be central to our future.

I discussed the Pacific Pivot last Thanksgiving here on the Huffington Post in "Darwinian: Obama Goes Post-Iraq in Oz, Republicans Race To the Past."

The big pivot will make Darwin, Australia, where we are liked, much more important to US strategy than Kabul, Afghanistan, where we are not liked.

Panetta laid out the approach, first in his little-noted commencement address late last month at the U.S. Naval Academy, then in a session at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue on security issues in Singapore.

Last weekend, at the Shangri-la Dialogue on security policy in the Pacific Basin, Defense Secretary Panetta discussed the scenario.

Panetta said that the US Navy will shift most of its ships to the Asia Pacific region in coming years, and that six of the fleet's 10 aircraft carriers and their supporting strike groups will be based and on patrol in the Pacific.

He stressed that the US seeks cooperation with China and not confrontation. But having more USN firepower in the region will backstop Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, all of which share the South China Sea but which are having serious problems with China, which attempts to claim nearly all of it.

Panetta went on to the Philippines, and to Vietnam -- an historic visit for a US defense secretary -- where he visited the massive US-built base at Cam Ranh Bay and requested its use by the Navy.

Then he went to India for two days of talks.

The Obama Administration is trying to make India a much closer ally, which would help tremendously in providing a counter-weight to China, an effort that began early in Obama's first term. The first state dinner of the Obama White House was in honor of India, but naturally the substance was overshadowed by a pair of reality TV yo-yos who snuck in.

Speaking in India's capital city New Delhi, where the veteran California political figure continued a big tour of the Asia Pacific region as part of the US geopolitical pivot, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended US drone strikes inside Pakistan. In the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda's second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Panetta made it clear that the drone strikes will continue.

While India has long history of serious trouble with neighboring China, it also has a very long history of non-alignment.

Panetta is also trying to get more Indian help in Afghanistan, where its efforts to date have focused on economic development and humanitarian aid.

But Panetta's push for help from India may make the bad situation with Pakistan, India's bitter rival, even worse.

Speaking in New Delhi, Panetta defended US drone strikes inside Pakistan. In the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda's second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Panetta made it clear that the drone strikes will continue.

Skipping over Pakistan, which he hasn't visited as defense secretary, Panetta wrapped things up in Afghanistan. Speaking at a press conference in Kabul, he indicated that US patience with Pakistan on the disrupted supply route and on safe havens for jihadists is at a breaking point. We can probably count the courting of India as a further tear in the US/Pakistan relationship.

We won't know for some time how India is really responding to the US move. But there are signs of more joint exercises, and a desire on India's part for more advanced American weaponry.

Another major question surrounds Vietnam's response. We just normalized trade relations with the victor of the Vietnam War five years ago. Hanoi lets the US Navy use its former base at Cam Ranh Bay already, but only for non-combatant ships. What about combat ships using the finest deep water shelter in Southeast Asia? Vietnam's desire for advanced US weapons and technology may hold the key.

As Panetta made clear in his talks in Annapolis and Singapore, the Navy takes the lead in the big pivot. That is because of vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific occupies one-third of the Earth's surface. It's more than twice the size of the Atlantic, containing nearly half the world's water. In fact, the Pacific, which can be anything but peaceful when its truly terrifying storms hit, covers more space than all the land area of the Earth combined.

Much of the rationale for the big strategic pivot is provided by the rise of China. But here we are moving back into more normal geopolitical territory than we've had since the rise of Al Qaeda and the disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a nation-state, defined by territory and predictable interests, can be influenced and negotiated with much more readily than transnational, essentially stateless, jihadists.

The fact is that the US and China have a symbiotic relationship. China needs our markets for its export-oriented economy. And we need their finance. War between the two countries makes no sense.

But China could bully its neighbors, absent assistance to them.

And in the South China Sea, there are major disputes over China's extraordinary claims to sovereignty there.

Will the US still be involved with NATO? Sure. Europeanists, in the US and Europe, needn't worry about that. But NATO, which has no obvious rationale for its existence with the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago, is in deep trouble. The mission in Libya, driven by the UK and France, succeeded, but only with the US backstopping it every step of the way with a technological infrastructure that no other NATO member could match even before the crisis of the Eurozone.

Will the big pivot happen or will we be dragged back to our quagmire in the Middle East and Central Asia?

Panetta became the first US defense secretary to visit the massive former US Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

Some, like Obama's conservative Republican challenger Mitt Romney, really seem to want war with Iran. And we're not out of Afghanistan, which has become a big embarrassment, yet.

As the great sociologist Max Weber put it: "Politics is the slow boring of hard boards. And anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul."

Though there is much truth in that saying, it can also be a massive excuse. But let's assume that no real world administration is going to simply pull up stakes and lose face.

Changing a big country's geostrategic posture, which is what the Obama Administration is fixing to do, is like turning around not a speedboat but an aircraft carrier. Especially when the country is still heavily engaged in the old direction.

Of course, Obama himself made it harder to do by ramping up dramatically in Afghanistan, which has turned into the predictable cluster, ah, scene.

And, as long as America is stuck on oil, it's going to be involved in the Islamic world. All the more reason to focus at last on the need to shift away from the old energy economy of fossil fuels to the new energy economy of renewables and efficiency.

But there is involvement and there is disastrous entanglement. And that's the distinction that must be drawn as the big pivot begins and carries on.

It's all going to be quite fascinating, with many questions to raise and answer as we go.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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