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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Reading History - WWII In the Pacific, Part 1



I grew up with certain impressions of World War II in the Pacific. Paramount was the image of the evil Japanese Empire bent on global conquest and domination, hand in hand with the Nazis. According to this image, the Japanese planned to invade and conquer America, enslaving its people, bringing to mind] the image of America on the ropes in 1941 and 1942, fighting against overwhelming odds. As with most things, this is partially true, but the reality, the history, is so much more complicated. This idea comes to us courtesy of WWII U.S. propaganda. America was a deeply divided nation prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, with a large "America First" movement that wanted to stay out of WWII. In addition, the U.S. government understood the war would require a major effort and sacrifice. One of the things they did to help unite Americans was to generate an evil image of the enemy.

Some people will cry out that such an effort was racist, wrong, etc. The truth of the matter is that during wartime nations need to do things that in peacetime we would consider morally abhorrent. The nature of war is about killing and destroying, actions that we would find horrible in peacetime and against our nature, but they need to be done. Otherwise, a truly evil regime, the Nazis or even the Japanese, would win. I understand and accept the need to demonize the enemy, but we should understand from our viewpoint over 75 years later, that these images are not history.

In any event, these images of Japan in WWII stick to this day. However, a deeper reading of WWII in the Pacific, especially readings that include the Japanese viewpoint, reveals a more deeply complex history. These are some of the things that struck me, in no particular order, when reading about the war.

The Causes of the War

In the first half of the 20th century, Japan was a recently industrialized nation, vying for its place among the top-tier nations. The main problem with Japan reaching its desired success was its lack of natural resources. All the raw materials—oil, minerals, and even farmland to feed its ever-growing population—were severely lacking in the home islands. The Japanese had studied the great powers of the times, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, etc. They understood that these nations had risen to lofty heights through trade, a strong industrial base, powerful militaries, and obtaining colonies. The latter two supported the first two. Japan needed access to raw materials and chose China as its source. The result was a protracted war that left Japan mired in China.

The United States and Great Britain were opposed to Japan's expansion in China, especially after its brutal treatment of the Chinese people became known. However, the reality is that both nations were really concerned about Japan's expansion because it interfered with their own trade and expansion with China. The conflict between China and Japan was also reflected in the struggle for influence within the U.S. State Department between "China Hands" and "Japan Hands." These were groups of State Department officials with experience in their respective areas of expertise. This example goes a long way to demonstrate how individuals play a large role in world events. The personal views, biases, and experiences of individuals with influence can alter and shape policy, for better or worse. In this case, the China Hands wielded greater influence and had more success than the Japan hands. They won the issues by pushing for not only harsher economic measures against Japan, but also against reaching a diplomatic solution with Japan that did not result in what the Japanese viewed as total capitulation.

One of the problems faced by the US in dealing with the Japanese government was that the latter was divided over the best course to pursue. Japan was not a monolithic entity with a unified view. There was a war faction and a peace faction. Even within the war faction, there were divisions over who to fight. Japan viewed the Soviet Union as its main enemy and factions within the military wanted to pursue a policy of preparing for war with the USSR, mainly focusing on Japan's occupation of Manchuria and getting out of the rest of China. Others viewed war with the US and the UK as inevitable. Further complications were the result of an accepted view of insubordination within the military. Japanese officers frequently disobeyed orders that they disagreed with and suffered little consequences. War with China was not Japanese government policy. It was the result of the actions of officers in the army in Manchuria who provoked confrontation and committed troops to combat against orders. Instead of punishing these officers and correcting the situation, the Japanese government went along with the invasion of China.

Many will find the above hard to believe. How can a government go to war on the actions of insubordinate officers? They will assume the Japanese government was behind it and was just looking for plausible deniability. That was not the case and we should not be so surprised, we have seen this before in history. The French conquest of North Africa in the mid-19th century was the result of officers exceeding their authority. The French government had no intention of conquering Morocco, but officers in the army went ahead and conquered it anyway.

This lack of cultural understanding was complicated by language. The US had broken Japanese codes and was regularly reading Japanese diplomatic messages before the Japanese embassy in Washington. The problem was the translations. John Toland, in his excellent book The Rising Sun, does a wonderful job of putting the text of select Japanese diplomatic messages next to the US translations. It is clear that the messages US officials received were not only less than accurate but placed Japan in a harsher light and made them appear duplicitous. This was not intentional. The translators were not the best, did not have a deep understanding of the Japanese language, and had even less understanding of the formal diplomatic Japanese used by that nation's foreign ministry.

This lack of cultural understanding, on both sides, led to unnecessary issues. More on that later.

Another complication was the structure of the Japanese government. It was a parliamentary democracy, modeled to some extent on the European model, but with some differences. The Emperor was slightly more than a symbol. By tradition, he did not interfere in the governing of the nation, even though the government ruled in his name. However, his influence, especially his displeasure, had a major impact and he could, in theory, force changes to policy. In addition, the Army and Navy acted as independent branches of the government. If either expressed displeasure with the government, it would fall and a new government would have to be formed. This made dealing with Japan difficult as if almost dealing with three different governments.

Japanese Goals and Objectives

Japan had fairly straightforward goals as the war loomed. Everyone in power understood that they had no real chance of defeating the US in a protracted war. They understood America’s huge industrial base and population dwarfed that of Japan. However, the increasingly harsh embargos the US placed on Japan meant that there would be insufficient raw materials, especially oil, for approximately one year, after which the Japanese economy and military would collapse. Japan needed the additional raw materials and they were available in Southeast Asia, what was then the Netherlands East Indies, today Indonesia. Their plan called for seizing these areas and their raw materials. Understanding this plan meant war with the US, UK, Dutch, etc., they planned on conquering a series of Islands in the Pacific and building a series of bases. At that point, Japan would fight a defensive war. As the US navy moved toward Japan, these bases would inflict losses on the US via aircraft and submarines, reducing the Navy's strength in preparation for what the Japanese viewed as the great battle that would decide the fate of the Pacific and Asia. Japan would win, the US would agree to negotiations and Japan would have access to necessary raw materials.

The thing I found most interesting was that no one in Japan thought they could win a war with the US, except maybe for the first few months after Pearl Harbor. Japan knew it would lose in a prolonged conflict but felt it had no choice if it were to survive as a nation. In this, they made some major miscalculations. First, they did not appreciate how quickly the US could harness its industrial base toward support for the war. Japan did what many nations, and people, do—mirror imaging. They based their assumptions on their own industrial abilities, which fell far short of what the US could do. Secondly, they, like the US, made some incorrect profiling. They assumed the US population was soft and weak. The US would falter and recoil at the losses involved in this war. They believed the US lacked the resolve of the Japanese people. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation.

Despite all the misunderstandings and miscalculations, it does not appear that even if these things were fixed war could have been averted. The US and Japan were vying for predominance in the Pacific. Given the attitudes of that day and age, it seems that war was inevitable.

More to come in Part 2.

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