Yes, it is possible history could have been very, very different.
There are three basic ways to win wars according to the great Carl. One, you can trounce the enemy’s armed forces and dictate whatever terms you please. Short of that, two, you can levy a heavier price from the enemy than he’s willing to pay to achieve his goals. The value a belligerent assigns his political objectives determines how many resources he’s prepared to expend on those objectives’ behalf, and for how long. Taking measures that compel an opponent to expend more lives, armaments, or treasure is one way to raise the price. Dragging out the affair so that he pays heavy costs over time is another. And three, you can dishearten him, persuading him he’s unlikely to fulfill his war aims.
Let’s face it. Imperial Japan stood next to no chance of winning a fight to the finish against the United States. Resolve and resources explain why. So long as Americans kept their dander up, demanding that their leaders press on to complete victory, Washington had a mandate to convert the republic’s immense industrial potential into a virtually unstoppable armada of ships, aircraft, and armaments. Such a physical mismatch was simply too much for island state Japan — with an economy about one-tenth the size of America’s — to surmount.
Quantity has a quality all its own. No amount of willpower or martial virtuosity can overcome too lopsided a disparity in numbers. Tokyo stared that plight in the face following Pearl Harbor.
So Japan could never have crushed U.S. maritime forces in the Pacific and imposed terms on Washington. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have won World War II. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But the weak sometimes win. As strategic sage Carl von Clausewitz recounts, history furnishes numerous instances when the weak got their way. Indeed, Clausewitz notes that it sometimes makes sense for the lesser contender to start a fight. If its leadership sees force as the only resort, and if the trendlines look unfavorable — in other words, if right now is as good as it gets — then why not act?