The charge sheet against Halsey is long and complex, but is nowhere rendered more grimly than in Toll’s description of his “pattern of confusion, sloppiness and impulsiveness in basic procedures,” his “slapdash habits,” his penchant “to speak first and think later,” his persistent promotion of his own “glorified public image” and his questionable familiarity with naval aviation — a requirement, you would think, in a theater that featured carrier operations. But Halsey cultivated loyalty, and received it. Vice Adm. Roland Smoot, one of the Navy’s more acclaimed fighters, called him “a complete and utter clown,” while admitting that “if he said, ‘Let’s go to hell together,’ you’d go to hell with him.” Halsey was always on the edge of being fired, and knew it: “I am most apologetic for the present mix-up,” he wrote to Nimitz after one foul-up. “I can assure you that my intentions were excellent, but my execution rotten.”
As it turned out, Halsey’s rotten execution was nearly his undoing when, in October 1944, the Japanese lured him into a pointless pursuit of a group of stripped-down aircraft carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Once Halsey took the bait, the harrowing goose chase that followed left the rest of the American fleet vulnerable, an action that came to be known as “Bull’s Run.” Nimitz should have relieved Halsey, but didn’t: Firing him would have raised too many questions with an admiring public.
Toll’s expertly navigated narrative includes a number of new insights (the kamikaze strategy, for example, was more controversial inside the Japanese military than is generally acknowledged), as well as a new approach that hypothesizes the struggle between “sequentialists” and “cumulativists” inside the American military that, as Toll argues, “colored every phase of Pacific strategy.” The sequentialists, Spruance and Halsey among them, emphasized step-by-step tactical triumphs that would bring American forces to Japan’s shores for an ultimate invasion, while King and the Army Air Corps commander Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold emphasized cumulative sea and air operations — the destruction of Japan’s merchant fleet, the strategic bombing of Japanese cities — that, they believed, would make an invasion unnecessary. Toll’s familiarity with this hitherto hidden tussle, while still incomplete, is elaborate enough to be provocative, which new historical ideas often are.
This makes Toll the fitting inheritor of a tradition of writing that began with the naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who in 1942 suggested to Franklin Roosevelt that he be assigned to document the Navy’s World War II battles as a “seagoing historiographer.” Unlike the Army, which sponsored the 78 invaluable volumes of “U.S. Army in World War II,” the Navy has never been keenly interested in its own history, which is why it hesitantly acquiesced to Morison’s request, and only because Roosevelt thought it a good idea. The Navy put Morison in uniform, made him a lieutenant commander, then dispatched him to the North Atlantic and Pacific as their official historian. While Morison’s resulting 15-volume “History of United States Naval Operations in World War II” is celebrated as classic and definitive, it is neither. Rather, it is overly triumphalist — and long. Toll’s trilogy is a departure: It is exhaustive and authoritative and it shows the Navy in World War II as it really was, warts and all.
But no history of the Pacific War can be complete without presenting an intimate knowledge of Japanese naval and political decision-making. Toll does this too, showing a tactile command of the subject that puts Japan’s war in its proper perspective — as an unnecessary fight that, in retrospect, looks like a suicide mission. For the first five decades after the end of World War II, American historians debated whether the turning point in the Pacific War resulted from the Japanese Imperial Navy’s defeat at the Battle of Midway (the preferred choice) or the Marine Corps victory at Guadalcanal — which has recently gained an increasing number of adherents.