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Asian theatre of World War II

This article discusses the Asian Theatre of World War II

Preceding Events

In the Pacific, active fighting began in the early 1930s with Japan expanding its Korean possessions and establishing a foothold in China. In the 1920s, China had fragmented into warlordism with only a weak central government. Japan was able to gain influence in China by imposing unequal treaties. The situation was unstable, however, because if China dissolved into total anarchy the agreements would be unenforceable, and if China was able to stay strong, it would be able to abrogate the agreements.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-Shek and the National Revolutionary Army of the Kuomintang led the Northern Expedition. Chiang was able to defeat the warlords in southern and central China, and was in the process of securing the nominal allegiance of the warlords in northern China. Fearing that Zhang Xueliang (the warlord controlling Manchuria) was about to declare his allegiance for Chiang, the Japanese intervened and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The nominal Emperor of this puppet state is better known as Henry Pu Yi of the Qing Dynasty.

There is no evidence that Japan ever intended to directly administer China or that Japan's actions in China were part of a program of world domination. Rather, Japan's goals in China were strongly influenced by 19th century European colonialism and were to maintain a secure supply of natural resources and to have friendly and pliable governments in China that would not act against Japanese interests. Although Japanese actions would not have seemed out of place among European colonial powers in the 19th century, by 1930, notions of Wilsonian self-determination meant that raw military force in support of colonialism was no longer seen as appropriate behavior by the international community. However, unlike Europeans, Japan slaughtered and raped millions of people in Asia during and prior to World War II.

Japanese actions were therefore roundly criticized and led to Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations. During the 1930s, China and Japan reached a stalemate with Chiang focusing his efforts at eliminating the Communists whom Chiang considered to be a more fundamental danger than the Japanese. The influence of Chinese nationalism on opinion both in the political elite and the general population rendered this strategy increasingly untenable.

Meanwhile in Japan, a policy of assassination by secret societies and the effects of the Great Depression had caused the civilian government to lose control of the military. In addition, the military high command had limited control over the field armies who acted on their own interest, often in contradiction to the overall national interest. There was also an upsurge in nationalism and anti-European feeling and the belief that Japanese policies in China could be justified by racial theories. One popular belief with similarities to the Identity movement was that Japan and not China was the true heir of classical Chinese civilization.

In 1937, Chiang was kidnapped by Zhang Xueliang in the Xian Incident. As condition of his release, Chiang promised to unite with the Communists and fight the Japanese. In response to this, officers of the Kwantung Army without knowledge of the high command in Tokyo decided to manufacture the Battle of Lugou Bridge, also known as the incident at the Marco Polo Bridge, by which they succeeded in their intention of provoking a conflict between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan, the Sino-Japanese War).

In 1939 Japanese forces tried to push into the Soviet Far East from Manchuria. They were soundly defeated by a mixed Soviet and Mongolian force led by Georgi Zhukov. This stopped Japanese expansion to the North and Japan and the Soviet Union kept uneasy peace until 1945.

Japan's policies in the 1930s are remarkable for their disastrously self-defeating nature. Japan's grand strategy was based on the premise that it could not survive a war against the European powers without secure sources of natural resources, yet to secure those resources it decided to undertake the war that it knew it could not win in the first place. Moreover actions such as its brutality in China, and its practice of first setting up, and then undermining, puppet governments in China were clearly antithetical to Japan's overall goals, and yet it continued to persist in them anyway. Finally, this march to self-destruction is remarkable in that many individuals within the Japanese political and military elite realized these self-destructive consequences, but were unable to do anything about the situation. Also, there appears to have been no debate over policy alternatives which might have enabled Japan to further its goals in China.

Outbreak of war in the east

By 1941, Japan had occupied much of north and central China. However, Japan was faced with continued opposition from both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Although it created several puppet governments, its policies of brutality toward the Chinese population, of not yielding any real power to the governments, and of support to several competing governments failed to make any of them a popular alternative to Chiang government. Japan was also unwilling to negotiate directly with Chiang, nor was it willing to attempt to create splits in united front against it, by offering concessions that would make it a more attractive alternative than Chiang's government. Although Japan was deeply mired in a quagmire, Japan's reaction to its situation was to turn to increasingly more brutal and depraved actions in the hope that sheer terror would break the will of the Chinese population.

A mushroom cloud from the nuclear explosion
over Nagasaki rising 60,000 feet into the air
on the morning of August 9th, 1945

This, however, only had the effect of turning world public opinion against it. In an effort to discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States, United Kingdom, and the government in exile of the Netherlands (still in control of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies) stopped trading oil and steel (both war staples) with Japan. Japan saw this as an act of aggression, as without these resources Japan's military machine would grind to a halt, and on December 8, 1941, Japanese forces invaded Siam, Malaya, and the Philippines. At the same time (on December 7, due to the difference in time zones) they attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Although Japan knew that it could not win a sustained and prolonged war against the United States, it was the Japanese hope that, faced with this sudden and massive defeat, the United States would agree to a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to have free reign in China. This calculated gamble did not pay off; the United States refused to negotiate.

Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, America had remained out of the Asian and European conflict. The America First Committee, 800,000 members strong, had until that day vehemently opposed any American intervention in the foreign conflict, even as America provided military aid to Britain and Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program. Opposition to war in the United States vanished after the attack. Four days after Pearl Harbor, on December 11, Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two-theater war.

Allied forces in Asia, drained of men and materiel by the European conflict, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. Major units of the British fleet were sunk off Malaya on December 10, 1941 and Hong Kong fell on the December 25, 1941. United States bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time. January saw the invasions of Burma, the Solomons, the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and the capture of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor fell in February, 1942, Rangoon and Java in March, and Mandalay at the beginning of May. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated British and American air power in South-East Asia, made major raids on northern Australia, and driven the British fleet out of Ceylon.

Allied resistance, at first shambolic, gradually began to stiffen. The Doolittle Raid in April was a token but morale-boosting air attack on Japan, and although the US Navy was narrowly defeated in tactical terms at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it still managed to derail the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby. The crucial Battle of Midway followed in June: the fortunes of war could easily have given either side the victory, but Japanese naval aviation suffered a devastating defeat from which it never recovered. Midway was the turning-point of the naval war in the Pacific theatre.

On land, the British/Indian retreat in Burma had slowed, Australian forces in New Guinea successfully defended Port Moresby along the Kokada Track and in August Japanese land forces suffered their first outright defeat of the war at the Battle of Milne Bay. At the same time, US and Japanese soldiers both attempted to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Forces converged on Guadalcanal over the following six months in an escalating battle of attrition, with eventual victory going to the United States. From this time on the Japanese fought a defensive war. The constant need to reinforce Guadalcanal weakened the Japanese effort in other theatres, leading to the recapture of Buna/Gona by Australian and US forces in early 1943, and preparing the way for both MacArthur's land-based thrust through New Guinea and Nimitz's island hopping campaign across the Pacific.

American Flag in Iwo Jima
The Pulitzer prize picture symbolizing the end of the war in the Pacific.

On November 22, 1943 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and ROC leader Chiang Kai-Shek met in Cairo, Egypt, to discuss ways to defeat Japan.

Hard-fought battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides, but finally produced a Japanese retreat. Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted to kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other Japanese cities suffered greatly from attacks by American bombers. On February 3, 1945, Japan's longtime enemy Russia agreed to enter the Pacific Theatre conflict. With opportunistic timing, Stalin formally declared war and invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria with over a million troops on August 8. This coincided with the destruction of Hiroshima (on the 6th) and Nagasaki (on the 9th), both industrial and civilian targets, by American nuclear weapons.

However, the invasion of Manchuria most worried Emperor Hirohito, who pleaded with the war council to reconsider surrender. Imperial Japan then surrendered on August 15 and the United States called this day V-J Day (Victory in Japan). The Instrument of Surrender was signed September 2, 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender was accepted by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz from a delegation led by Mamoru Shigemitsu. But in Japan August 14 is well recognized as the day that the Pacific War ended. Following this period, General Douglas MacArthur established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country. This period in Japanese history is known as the occupation. President Harry Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities in on December 31, 1946.

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