By a peculiar twist of fate, the Japanese admiral who masterminded the attack had persistently warned his government not to fight the United States. Had his countrymen listened, the history of the 20th century might have turned out much differently.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto foresaw that the struggle would become a prolonged war of attrition that Japan could not hope to win. For a year or so, he said, Japan might overrun locally weak Allied forces — but after that, its war economy would stagger and its densely built wood-and-paper cities would suffer ruinous air raids. Against such odds, Yamamoto could “see little hope of success in any ordinary strategy.” His Pearl Harbor operation, he confessed, was “conceived in desperation.” It would be an all-or-nothing gambit, a throw of the dice: “We should do our best to decide the fate of the war on the very first day.”…

As navy vice minister from 1936 to 1939, Yamamoto staked his life on forestalling an alliance with Nazi Germany. Right-wing zealots condemned him as a “running dog” of the United States and Britain and vowed to assassinate him. A bounty was reportedly placed on his head. He received letters warning him of an impending punishment “on heaven’s behalf,” and authorities discovered a plot to blow up a bridge as he passed over it.