World War II Theaters: The Asian War

Japanese World War II family
Figure 1.--Japan was on the eve of World War II the only industrial power in Asia. It was, however, a country in transition. While Japan had many of the outward manifestations of the industrial west, it was still a highly traditional society rooted in its medieval past. It was a country of contradictions. Here a family dressed in traditional clothing has their portrait taken with a beloved son about to leave for war. Even in the industrial sphere there were contradictions. Their modern zero fifghers were being delivered to the military by ox cart.

As in Europe, there was on country responsible for the Asian War and that country was Japan. Unlike Germany, however, the decesion for war was not that of one man, but rather a military clique. The Asian theater of World War II is often referred to as the Pacific War by Americans. This is a reasonably accurate description of the American participation in the War and it was in the Pacific that the outcome of the War was largely settled, but a better description would be the Asian War. It was in China that the Japanese launched the War. And it was American diplomatic protestations abd economic scantions to assist China that that brought America and Japan in conflict. And it was in China that the bulk of the Japanese Army ws deployed. And it was in part to force the Chinese to surender, by curring them off from outside aid that the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. And American Allies, Britain and the Soiviet Union deployed important armies in Asia to defeat the Japanese. The decesion to go to war against America and Britain has to be the most misguided decesion in the long history of the Japnese people. It wa a decesion made by a military clique with a total misaprenension of both America and modern warfare. The first is perhaps understndable the second as military men seems baffeling. It seems a decession taken on the basic of a mixture of medieval warrior code, economic natioinalism, and xeopephobic racism. With the failure of NAZI Germany to defeat the Soviet Union, Japan ever after its stunning success at Pearl Harbor (1941) and series of victories in South East Asia and the Pacific (1942) did not have the industrial capacity to succeed in a protracted war. This was especially the case because the Asian war would be decided in the Pacific by naval and air forces which would be largely fubctions of industrial and scientific capacity. Any basic assessments of the American and Japanese industrial base would lead one to the conclusion that war with America was national suiside. The Japanese militarists, however, like Hitler gambled. They convinced themselves that America despite its industrial capacity had not willingness to fight. They believed that America would not have the moral fortitude to attempt to win back the expansive empire carved out by the Japanese aggressions. It was like Hitler's gamble, also a dreadful miscalculation. In the end the Japanese were reduced to suiside campaigns in an effort to stave off defeat. The major theaters of the Asian War were China, Burma and India, and the Pacific. There was one striking difference between the Asian and European War. With the exception of China, the countries which Japan invaded and conquered were not indepedent countries, but rather European colonies and the American semi-colony of the Philippines which was about to granted independence. Thus the Japanese were not viewed in quite the same way as the Germans in Europe nor were the victorious Allied armies viewed as liberators. Here the situation varied from country to country.

Responsibility

As in Europe, there was on country responsible for the Asian War and that country was Japan. Unlike Germany, however, the decesion for war was not that of one man, but rather a military clique. And the decesion to go to war was not a long-term goal as was the case with Germany. Rather the Asian War and specifically the Pacific War between Japan and America was a war that the two countries bungled into over time. Here Japan was the clear aggresor. America had no desire for war, although the Isolationists did not fear awar with Japan as they did with Germany. Rather America was prepared to fight a war if Japan continued to persue agressive military expansion in China and Southeast Asia. Japan for its part saw that a major reordering of Asia was needed and for its economic well-being. The reordering first was to be in China and then Southeast Asia. Japan needed to control the resources of Southewast Asia to continue its war in China. And if this required military action against America and Britain than it was prepared to fight a war. American planners did not thinl the Japanese would dare attack and thus persued a forceful diplomacy and eventually economic sanctions. But these were all steps short of war. It was Japan who made the decision to first fight awar in China and then to turn their China Incident into a major world war. Modern Japan has failed to accept its respnsibility for war or the deploravle conduct of its military during the war. If you ask a Japanese school child about the War many will see Japan as a victim of the War more than the cause of the War. This attitude has complicated Japan's relations with neigboring China and Korea.

Countries

The Asian theater of World War II is often referred to as the Pacific War by Americans. This is a reasonably accurate description of the American participation in the War and it was in the Pacific that the outcome of the War was largely settled, but a better description would be the Asian War. It was in China that the Japanese launched the War. And it was American diplomatic protestations and economic scantions to assist China that that brought America and Japan in conflict. And it was in China that the bulk of the Japanese Army ws deployed. And it was in part to force the Chinese to surender, by curring them off from outside aid that the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. And American Allies, Britain and the Soiviet Union deployed important armies in Asia to defeat the Japanese.

War Decision

The decesion to go to war against America and Britain has to be the most misguided and disaterous decesion in the long history of the Japnese people. It wa a decesion made by a military clique with a total misaprenension of both America and modern warfare. The first is perhaps understndable the second as military men seems baffeling. It seems a decession taken on the basic of a mixture of medieval warrior code, economic natioinalism, and xeopephobic racism.

Failure at War

One surprising aspect of Japan's Asian War is that the decision for war was made by military men who had failed at war. One would expect that military men would make reasoned military judgements about the possibility of success. The Japanese had before striking Pearl Harbor launched two wars and failed at both. Japan invaded China (1937) and while achieving major battlefiekd victories had failed to force the Chinese to make peace. After 4 years of costly struggle, the Japanese were no where near victory in China. They had achieved victory after victot against the the Nationalist forces, but the Natonalists moved into the interior where it was difficult to get at them. The War in China whicgh the Jpanese called the China incident was increasinly being seen as an endless quagmire. If that was not enough, the Japanese also fought an undeclared war with the Soviet Union (July 1939). This was a mercifully short war, but the Japanese Army was dealt a decisive blow in an offensive mastermined by General Zukov. One would think that these experiences would give pause to military leaders. With these two experiences it seems almost inconceivable that Japan would declare war on America, the greatest industrial power on earth. But that of course is precisely what they did. They achieved spectacular victories against unpprepared American, British, and Dutch forces. But subsequently the Japanese proved militarily inept. It was one thing to attack poorly led and equipped Chinese forces. It was quite a different matter when they fought well prepared and supplied American, Australian, British, and Indian forces. It was not a question of fighting spirit, the Japnese soldier fought savagely to the death, but failed because he was poorly led. Officers order massed charges into fixed machine gun positions. But even more importantly, Japanese soldiers were poorly supplied. They not only had poor weapons, but they received inadeequate food supplies. By the end of the War, Japanese soldiers throyhout the Pacific had died from starvation or were near death. The Japanese strategy became for iland garisons to dig end and kill as many American as possible before being overwealmed. This generally maeant that 5-10 Japanese would fie for every American killed.

Barbarossa (June 1941)

The central struggle of World War II was Barbarossa, NAZI Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). If the NAZIs had succeeded, and they came very close, the world power balance would have decisively shifted. The Japanese made their decesion to strike south and attack Pearl Harbor to destroy the Ameican Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor at a time when it looked like the Germans had achieved victory and defeated the Red Army. Advances deep ingo the Soviet Union and long lines of captured Red Armny soldiers and vast piles of destroted equipment convinced both OKW and the Japanese that the Germans were victorious. If the Germans had suceeded, America would have had, as the Japanese calculated, to focus virtually all its resources on Europe. The problem for the Jpabese was that the Whermacht had not succeeded. Only days after the Pearl Harbor attack (December 7), the Red Army launched a massive counter-offensuve before Moscow (December 10). The Germans were not only stopped, but lost large numbers of men and vast amounts of equipment which largely meant that they would not be able to win the War, especially as Hitler also decklared war on America. With the failure of NAZI Germany to defeat the Soviet Union, Japan ever after its stunning success at Pearl Harbor (1941) and series of victories in South East Asia and the Pacific (1942) did not have the industrial capacity to succeed in a protracted war.

Industry and Science

Japan's decesion for war with America seems especially incomprehensible because of the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean on which the War would be fought. The War on such a battlefiekd would be settled by naval and air forces which would be largely functions of industrial and scientific capacity. Any basic assessments of the American and Japanese industrial base would lead one to the conclusion that war with America was national suiside. Japanese military leaders somehow convinced themselves that industry and science were not critical. American reluctance to fight anoyher war and isolantionist sentiment were cobceived of signs of weakness by military figures and international experts. Rather it was the Japanese marshal spirit of bushido that would prevail. Japanese authors conceived caroonish conceopts of America, probably based in watching American movies. Serious authors wrote that America's industrial might was meaningless because American wives would never let their men go to war. There were Japanese leaders that understood that war was national suiside. They were, however, effectively silenced by the Thought Police and extreme elements in the military which asainated those who dared raise objecgtions to Japan's expansionist policies. Even Admiral Yamamoto had to travel with armed guards because he was known to question the idea of war with America.

The Axis

Japan joined the Axis which they saw as a counter weight to both the Soviet Union and America. But one has to wonder about long-range Japanese strategic thinking. News reports made uit very clear how Hitler viewed treaties and personal committments. You have to wonder to what extent the Japanese considered what there position would be in a world dominated by Hitler and the NAZIs. They were aware of NAZI racial doctrine. Did they think that Hitler would respect the treaty with them when he has broken so many treaties signed with other countries. I am not aware of any Japanese government planning that addressed this situation.

Gamble

The Japanese militarists, however, like Hitler gambled. They convinced themselves that America despite its industrial capacity had not willingness to fight. They believed that America would not have the moral fortitude to attempt to win back the expansive empire carved out by the Japanese aggressions. It was like Hitler's gamble, also a dreadful miscalculation. In the end the Japanese were reduced to suiside campaigns in an effort to stave off defeat. The major theaters of the Asian War were China, Burma and India, and the Pacific.

Chronology


Military Operations

The Asian War was fought in three operational areas which often overlapped. On the Asian continent, both in China and Southeast Asia, it was primaily a ground war. In the Pacific it was pimarily a naval war, although the outcome of the principal naval battles were determined largely by naval aciation. War plans in both America and Japan had conceived of a climatic fleet action, the outcome of which would be determined by big-gun battleships. Both navies were dominated by big-gun admirals. And the Japanese had the largest battleships which could outgun American battle ships limited by the Panama Canal. But this climatic action never came even though the Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest naval battle in history. Even the Pacific War required ground actions, as assult troops were needed to seize Japanese held islands . The Japanese believed that the Americans would not have the fortitude to persevere in attacks on their island fortresses. This proved to be one of many mistaken assessments. At considerabke cost, the Home Islands were brought within range of air attack and invasion. Uttimately it war the air war that decisively determined the outcome of the War with the dropping of the two atmic bombs. Yet some historians believe that it was the Soviet offense in Manchuria that convinced the Japanese to surender. The Atomic Bombs providing an honorable excuse for the unthinkable act if surrender,

Colonialism and Liberation

There was one striking difference between the Asian and European War. The Germans wanted to turn indepedent countries into colonies, especially in the East. And in in the East, they not only planned to seize the land and resources, but to murder a substabtial part of the population as formulated by Generalplam Ost, making way fir German settlers. With the exception of China, the countries which Japan invaded and conquered in Asia and the Pacific were not indepedent countries, but rather European colonies and the American semi-colony of the Philippines which was about to granted independence. The Japanese sae Southeast Asuan as the Southern Resource Zone, althoufg they did bnot have the same genocidal objectives as the the Germans in the East. The fact that the Japanese invaded colonies meant tghat thy were not viewed in the same way as the Germans in Europe nor were the victorious Allied armies viewed as liberators except in the Philippines and Guam. The Japanese sought to capitalize on this sentiment with propaganda formulations like the Greater East Asia Co-prospeity sphere. Here the situation varied from country to country. One major consequence of this situation was that unlike in Europe, there were no major resistance movements to opose the Japanese in the occupied countries, with the exception of the Phiilippines and Vietnam. The Japanese soon alienated most of the occupied people both thriugh brutal tratment amd mismanagemnent which set in ,otion terribkle famines. And in India, a colony which the Japanese did not succeed in conquering, the British were able to hold on with some difficulty because of the Congress Party's refusal to support the war effort, although India was a major support to the British war effort. The Japanese destroyed the aura of European invincibility. This set in motion a struugle for independence after the War.

Race

Discussions of racism in World War II primarily focus on the German NAZIs. A central tennant of Fascism swas hyper-nationalism and with it racism. The NAZIs were only the most extreme manifestation of this. And the Allies also had racist sentiments as well. All to commonly ignored are the racist attitudes prevalent in Asia. This is a complicated issue given the number of countries involved, but racist feelings were prevalent in the three major countries and many smaller countries as well. Chinese racism existd, but was not a major factor in the War. The Chinese from the strt of the War were on the defensive and not involved in occupying other countries. India was a British colony. Again Indian racism was not an important factor in the War, but very strong racist sentiment existed in India. People woth lighter complexions had greater status and skin color was an important factor in Indian marriages. India is a large country and racist attitudes varies regioinally and toward people from different regions. And of course untouchability was a major problem. This was a caste, but there were racial overlaps as many untouchables had darker skin that the higher-status castes. The Japnese had very strong racist attitudes. While professing pan-Asian values, in fact theuy looked down on other Asian peoples, a factor in their savage behavior in China and conquered Asian countries. Japanese attrocitie like the Rape of Nanking are hard to imagine withot a racil component. Another country with strong racist attitides was Iran. The country cjanged its name from Persia to Iran before the war, in part to emphasize the Aryan origins of the Persian people.







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Created: 4:43 AM 8/3/2007
Last updated: 12:20 AM 4/23/2016