FC137: World War II in the Pacific (1941-45)


FC137 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1288.
I am become Death, the destroyer of Worlds. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Hindu scripture, The Bhagavadgita, upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test in July 1945

We have already seen how the stalemate between Japan and China, Hitler's failure to keep Japan informed about his plans against Russia, and France and Britain being distracted by the outbreak of war in Europe caused Japan to turn south and threaten the European colonies in South-east Asia.  The Japanese planned to consolidate their gains there by forming the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, an organization of states that would provide Japan with raw materials as well as markets for its manufactured goods.  All this seriously damaged the reputation of the West and set the stage for colonial revolts and independence after the war.

Up to this point, Japan was careful not to antagonize the United States, which then held the Philippines.  However, in 1941 the United States, nearly as concerned about aggression in Asia as in Europe, cut off its oil shipments to Japan to persuade it to back off from invading Indonesia.  The Japanese, desperate for oil, took the fatal step of attacking the United States' naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands (12/7/41).  This did cripple American naval power in the Pacific for the time being, but it also brought into action an industrial giant that Japan would have a hard time matching blow for blow.  Still, the opening months of 1942 saw a virtually unbroken string of Japanese successes, including the conquest of the Philippines.

However, in the long run, these victories would cause some serious problems for Japan.  For one thing, the Japanese generals became overconfident of victory, which in June, 1942 helped set up a serious defeat at the hands of the American navy at Midway, a battle which proved to be the turning point of the war.  Secondly, the Japanese advance caused American industrial production to intensify and create overwhelming numbers of ships and planes for the war in the Pacific.  In fact, by 1944 American production was twice that of Japan, Germany, and Italy combined.  Another major problem Japan had was that, although its empire covered nearly 1/10 of the globe, most of that was water.  This spread the Japanese army very thinly over a large number of islands.  That in turn stretched the Japanese navy's resources to its limits as it tried to supply the army on the various islands.

As a result, everything started going wrong for Japan.  First of all, the widespread nature of the Japanese Empire meant that American warships, especially submarines, could destroy most of the Japanese navy and shipping, thus isolating forces on the islands from each other and Japan.  This in turn allowed the allies to concentrate their forces on each island separately and destroy the forces there in detail.  Finally, the stepped up industrial production of the United States wore the Japanese down with its superior numbers and firepower.  The Japanese fought ferociously, often to the last man, despite being supplied with no food or ammunition and sometimes having to fight with bamboo spears.

By 1944, the Allies had taken islands within bomber range of Japan and were launching devastating raids on Japanese cities.  One raid over Tokyo in 1945 triggered a firestorm, much like the ones that hit Hamburg and Dresden, killing 200,000 Japanese civilians in its flames.  Japanese houses, made of wood and paper, were much more susceptible to Allied incendiary bombs than European cities of brick and stone.

By the time the war in Europe was over, the Allies were preparing to invade a Japanese homeland whose 60 largest cities were 60% destroyed, whose fuel supplies were depleted, and whose railroads and industries were near collapse.  However, an invasion of Japan was not a thought the Allies treasured, since some estimated Allied casualties would reach one million while Japanese casualties might reach 10-20 million.

Complicating this situation was the fact that Stalin had promised to enter the war against the Japanese 90 days after the conclusion of the war in Europe.  That would put his entry into the war in early August. The United States, not wanting to give Stalin a chance to expand in Asia, needed to win the war quickly with as few casualties as possible.  They found that way with a new weapon: the atomic bomb, which they had been developing through the Manhattan Project since 1942.

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States Air Force launched nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.  The level of destruction and suffering was unprecedented and signaled a dangerous new era in history.  Debates continue about whether the U.S. should have dropped these bombs.  Some see it as a needless act of mass destruction launched against a country on the verge of collapse.  However, to Americans still caught up in the fury of a world war, it was seen as a way to shorten the war and save American (and Japanese) lives.  Whatever one's opinion, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided a grim and frightening vision of what the future could hold for us.  The direct result of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that Japan soon surrendered on September 2, 1945.  However, Asia was anything but calm as civil war in China would put the Communists in power there in 1949 and the Cold War between the United States and Russia was starting .