How Groupthink Doomed Imperial Japan At Midway

James Holmes

Key point: A lack of creative and contrary thinking can lead to bad strategies.

A devil’s advocate is a precious commodity. That has to be one of the takeaways from revisiting the Battle of Midway seventy-five years on, and it should be etched on the internal workings of any martial institution that wants to survive and thrive amid the rigors, danger, and sheer orneriness of combat. Despite Japanese mariners’ tactical brilliance and élan, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) leadership was prone to such ills as groupthink and strategic doublethink. Worse, the IJN fleet was cursed to be led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto—a leader of such stature and mystique that subordinates deferred to him out of habit. Never mind whether his ideas concerning operations and strategy made sense.

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As they sometimes didn’t. The result of Japanese seafarers’ deference prior to Midway: the needless loss of the Kidō Butai, the IJN’s aircraft-carrier fleet and main striking arm. Worse from Tokyo’s standpoint, Midway halted the Japanese Empire’s till-then unbroken string of naval victories. The Kidō Butai had rampaged throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans for six months following its December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor, only to come to grief at the hands of a ragtag three-carrier U.S. Navy force composed of USS Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet and commanded ably by admirals Ray Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.

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