Book Review: War Plan Orange by Edward Miller

War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945 by Edward Miller

Edward Miller spent 20 years diving into archival records to create a review of the U.S. plans developed during the interwar years to defeat Japan in the event of a war in the Pacific. U.S. strategic planners assigned colors to different countries with the United States being blue, and Japan being orange. Hence, War Plan Orange, or simply Orange, was the plan for a war against Japan. Early plans actually began around the early 1900s, but formalized plans for a trans-Pacific offensive against Japan were mostly written between WWI and WWII.

Miller’s examination of the various Orange Plans and their variations notes that two basic lines of thought existed between those who favored a rapid advance to relieve a (presumably) besieged Philippines (the thrusting strategy) and those who favored a more methodical advance to gradually seize and develop island bases (the cautionary strategy). The ideas ran the gamut from inspired and orthodox to completely ludicrous and fantastical.

The book is extremely well-researched and cited. However, the amount detail can make parts of it can seem rather tedious. Obviously, since it takes place during the interwar years, there’s no action in this book. The reader needs to have some level of investment in reading about tons of staff work and mountains of paper that these plans no doubt generated. In fact, some may wonder why a review of dusty old archival papers would be worthwhile. I mean, who cares if we made a million different war plans? In the end, history shows that the Pacific War went a certain way. So, everything else is just hypothetical what-ifs.

Indeed, Miller notes that a review of the older war plans does seem old-fashioned with respect to what we know given our historical hindsight. However, it’s useful to see how much, and how little, things changed as the Pacific War played out. Two interesting things to note are that, one, civilian politicians contributed almost nothing to the details of the war plans. They knew about them, of course, but they didn’t dictate the actual strategies. This can be surprising for the modern reader given that everything tends to be micromanaged and politicized nowadays. Secondly, once the Pacific War began, war planning was essentially passed off to the operational commands and their associated staffs. One would think that the Army and Naval War Colleges would have played a larger role in the planning, but they didn’t, especially once the war kicked off in earnest.

In this reader’s opinion, the best parts of the book are the final few chapters where the general course of the Pacific War is compared to the overall strategy of War Plan Orange. At this point, Miller has laid out the details of the numerous war plans and the reader can now see the puzzle pieces coming together to form a complete strategic picture. The number of similarities between the original war plans and the actual course of the Pacific War are striking. Miller’s basic thesis is that the endless variations and reviews of Plan Orange during the interwar years imbued within the officers an institutionalized memory of how the war in the Pacific would be fought. So, while they didn’t follow the plan verbatim, they still adhered to the general tenets of Plan Orange throughout the Pacific War and further accounted for technological and operational changes as was necessary. In the end, War Plan Orange ended up being the way the Pacific War was fought.

Overall, I’d give the book a 4 out of 5.

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