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Dilemmas and Decisions
1. War in the East
Our understanding of the events of 1939–45 might be improved by adding a plural and calling them the Second World Wars. The only common strand in the struggles which Germany and Japan unleashed was that they chose most of the same adversaries. The only important people who sought to conduct the eastern and western conflicts as a unified enterprise were Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and their respective chiefs of staff. After the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused the United States to become a belligerent, Allied warlords addressed the vexed issue of allocating resources to rival theatres. Germany was by far the Allies’ more dangerous enemy, while Japan was the focus of greater American animus. In 1942, at the battles of the Coral Sea in May and Midway a month later, the U.S. Navy won victories which halted the Japanese advance across the Pacific, and removed the danger that Australia might be invaded.
Through the two years which followed, America’s navy grew in strength, while her Marines and soldiers slowly and painfully expelled the Japanese from the island strongholds which they had seized. But President Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, resisted the demands of Admiral Ernest King, the U.S. Navy’s C-in-C, and of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander in the south-west Pacific, for the eastern theatre to become the principal focus of America’s war effort. In 1943 and 1944, America’s vast industrial mobilisation made it possible to send large forces of warships and planes east as well as west. Most U.S. ground troops, however, were dispatched across the Atlantic, to fight the Germans. Once Japan’s onslaught was checked, the Allies’ eastern commanders were given enough forces progressively to push back the enemy, but insufficient to pursue a swift victory. The second-class status of the Japanese war was a source of resentment to those who had to fight it, but represented strategic wisdom.
The U.S. and Britain dispatched separate companies to Europe and Asia, to perform in different plays. Stalin, meanwhile, was interested in the conflict with Japan only insofar as it might offer opportunities to amass booty. “The Russians may be expected to move against the Japanese when it suits their pleasure,” suggested an American diplomat in an October 1943 memorandum to the State Department, “which may not be until the final phases of the war—and then only in order to be able to participate in dictating terms to the Japanese and to establish new strategic frontiers.” Until 8 August 1945, Soviet neutrality in the east was so scrupulously preserved that American B-29s which forced-landed on Russian territory had to stay there, not least to enable their hosts to copy the design.
To soldiers, sailors and airmen, any battlefield beyond their own compass seemed remote. “What was happening in Europe really didn’t matter to us,” said Lt. John Cameron-Hayes of 23rd Indian Mountain Artillery, fighting in Burma. More surprising was the failure of Germany and Japan to coordinate their war efforts, even to the limited extent that geographical separation might have permitted. These two nominal allies, whose fortunes became conjoined in December 1941, conducted operations in almost absolute isolation from each other. Hitler had no wish for Asians to meddle in his Aryan war. Indeed, despite Himmler’s best efforts to prove that Japanese possessed some Aryan blood, he remained embarrassed by the association of the Nazi cause with Untermenschen. He received the Japanese ambassador in Berlin twice after Pearl Harbor, then not for a year. When Tokyo in 1942 proposed an assault on Madagascar, the German navy opposed any infringement of the two allies’ agreed spheres of operations, divided at 70 degrees of longitude.
A Japanese assault on the Soviet Union in 1941–42, taking the Russians in the rear as they struggled to stem Hitler’s invasion, might have yielded important rewards for the Axis. Stalin was terrified of such an eventuality. The July 1941 oil embargo and asset freeze imposed by the U.S. on Japan—Roosevelt’s clumsiest diplomatic act in the months before Pearl Harbor—was partly designed to deter Tokyo from joining Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. Japan’s bellicose foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, resigned in the same month because his government rejected his urgings to do so.
Only in January 1943, towards the end of the disaster of Stalingrad, did Hitler made a belated and unsuccessful attempt to persuade Japan to join his Russian war. By then, the moment had passed at which such an intervention might have altered history. Germany’s Asian ally was far too heavily committed in the Pacific, South-East Asia and China, gratuitously to engage a new adversary. So perfunctory was Berlin’s relationship with Tokyo that when Hitler gifted to his ally two state- of-the-art U-boats for reproduction, German manufacturers complained about breaches of their patent rights. One of Japan’s most serious deficiencies in 1944–45 was lack of a portable anti-tank weapon, but no attempt was made to copy the cheap and excellent German Panzerfaust.
Japan and Germany were alike fascistic states. Michael Howard has written: “Both [nations’] programmes were fuelled by a militarist ideology that rejected the bourgeois liberalism of the capitalist West and glorified war as the inevitable and necessary destiny of mankind.” The common German and Japanese commitment to making war for its own sake provides the best reason for rejecting pleas in mitigation of either nation’s conduct. The two Axis partners, however, pursued unrelated ambitions. The only obvious manifestation of shared interest was that Japanese planning was rooted in an assumption of German victory. Like Italy in June 1940, Japan in December 1941 decided that the old colonial powers’ difficulties in Europe exposed their remoter properties to rapine. Japan sought to seize access to vital oil and raw materials, together with space for mass migration from the home islands.
A U.S. historian has written of Japan’s Daitoa Senso, Greater East Asian War: “Japan did not invade independent countries in southern Asia. It invaded colonial outposts which Westerners had dominated for generations, taking absolutely for granted their racial and cultural superiority over their Asian subjects.” This is true as far as it goes. Yet Japan’s seizures of British, Dutch, French and American possessions must surely be seen in the context of its earlier aggression in China, where for a decade its armies had flaunted their ruthlessness towards fellow Asians. After seizing Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese in 1937 began their piecemeal pillage of China, which continued until 1945.
Inaugurating its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Japan perceived itself merely as a latecomer to the contests for empire in which other great nations had engaged for centuries. It saw only hypocrisy and racism in the objections of Western imperial powers to its bid to match their own generous interpretations of what constituted legitimate overseas interests. Such a view was not completely baseless. Japan’s pre-war economic difficulties and pretensions to a policy of “Asia for Asians” inspired some sympathy among subject peoples of the European empires. This vanished, however, in the face of the occupiers’ behaviour in China and elsewhere. Japanese pogroms of Chinese in South-East Asia were designed partly to win favour with indigenous peoples, but these in turn soon found themselves suffering appallingly. The new rulers were inhibited from treating their conquests humanely, even had they wished to do so, by the fact that the purpose of seizure was to strip them of food and raw materials for the benefit of Japan’s people. Western audiences have been told much since 1945 about Japanese wartime inhumanity to British, Americans and Australians who fell into their hands. This pales into absolute insignificance beside the scale of their mistreatment of Asians.
It is a fascinating speculation, how events might have evolved if the U.S. and its Philippines dependency had been excluded from Japanese war plans in December 1941; had Tokyo confined itself to occupying British Malaya and Burma, along with the Dutch East Indies. Roosevelt would certainly have wished to confront Japanese aggression and enter the war—the oil embargo imposed by the U.S. following Japan’s advance into Indochina was the tipping factor in deciding Tokyo to fight the Western powers. It remains a moot point, however, whether Congress and public sentiment would have allowed the president to declare war in the absence of a direct assault on American national interests or the subsequent German declaration of war on the U.S.
There was once a popular delusion that Japan’s attack smashed the American Pacific Fleet. In truth, however, the six old battleships disabled at Pearl Harbor—all but one was subsequently restored for war service by brilliantly ingenious repair techniques—mattered much less to the balance of forces than the four American aircraft carriers, oil stocks and dockyard facilities which escaped. Japan paid a wholly disproportionate moral price for a modest, if spectacular, tactical success. The “Day of Infamy” roused the American people as no lesser provocation could have done. The operation must thus be judged a failure, rendering hollow the exultation of the Imperial Navy’s fliers as they landed back on their carriers on 7 December 1941. Thereafter, Americans were united in determination to avenge themselves on the treacherous Asians who had assaulted a peace-loving people.
The only important strategic judgement which the Japanese got right was that their fate hinged upon that of Hitler. German victory was the sole eventuality which might have saved Japan from the consequences of assaulting powers vastly superior to itself in military and industrial potential. Col. Masanobu Tsuji, architect of the Japanese army’s capture of Singapore and a fanatical advocate of national expansion, said: “We honestly believed that America, a nation of storekeepers, would not persist with a loss-making war, whereas Japan could sustain a protracted campaign against the Anglo-Saxons.” Tokyo’s greatest misjudgement of all was to perceive its assault as an act of policy which might be reviewed in the light of events. In December 1941 Japan gambled on a short war, swift victory, and acceptance of terms by the vanquished. Even in August 1945, many Japanese leaders refused to acknowledge that the terms of reference for the struggle ceased to be theirs to determine on the day of Pearl Harbor. It was wildly fanciful to suppose that the consequences of military failure might be mitigated through diplomatic parley. By choosing to participate in a total war, the nation exposed itself to total defeat.
Although the loss of Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma in 1941–42 inflicted on Britain humiliations to match those suffered at Japanese hands by the U.S., its people cared relatively little about the Far Eastern war, a source of dismay to British soldiers obliged to fight in it. Winston Churchill was tormented by a desire to redeem the defeat in February 1942 of some 70,000 combat troops under British command by a force of 35,000 Japanese. “The shame of our disaster at Singapore could . . . only be wiped out by our recapture of that fortress,” he told the British chiefs of staff as late as 6 July 1944, in one of his many—fortunately frustrated—attempts to allow this objective to determine eastern strategy.
To the British public, however, the Asian war seemed remote. The Japanese character in the BBC’s legendary ITMA radio comedy show was Hari Kari, a gabbling clown. In June 1943 the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, proposed forming a committee to rouse the British public against its Asian enemies. The Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, strongly dissented:
"It is all very well to say “We must educate the British public to regard the Japanese as if they were Germans, and war in the Pacific as if it were war in Europe.” But, while the Japanese remain many thousands of miles away, the Germans have for three years been only twenty miles distant from our shore and, too often, vertically overhead. Interest and feeling follow where friends and loved ones are fighting . . . Europe is very much a home concern, whereas knowledge of or interest in the Far East is sparsely distributed in this country . . . I do not think that any committee could do much to alter “the state of morale” . . . The people have been left under no misapprehension by the PM that it is their duty to turn and tackle Japan when the time comes . . ."
Those Britons who did think about the Japanese shared American revulsion towards them. When reports were broadcast in early 1944 of the maltreatment of prisoners, an editorial in the Daily Mail proclaimed: “The Japanese have proved a sub-human race . . . Let us resolve to outlaw them. When they are beaten back to their own savage land, let them live there in complete isolation from the rest of the world, as in a leper compound, unclean.” The American historian John Dower explains Western attitudes in racist terms. U.S. Admiral William Halsey set the tone after Pearl Harbor, asserting that when the war was over, “Japanese will be spoken only in hell.” A U.S. War Department film promoting bond sales employed the slogan: “Every War Bond Kills a Jap.” An American sub-machine gun manufacturer advertised its products as “blasting big red holes in little yellow men.” There was no counterpart on the European fronts to the commonplace Pacific practices of drying and preserving Japanese skulls as souvenirs, and sending home to loved ones polished bones of enemy dead. A British brigade commander in Burma once declined to accept a report from the 4/1st Gurkhas about the proximity of “Nips.” Their colonel, Derek Horsford, dispatched a patrol to gather evidence. Next day, Horsford left three Japanese heads, hung for convenience on a string, beside his commander’s desk. The brigadier said: “Never do that again. Next time, I’ll take your word for it.”
But those who argue that the alien appearance and culture of the Japanese generated unique hatred and savagery seem to give insufficient weight to the fact that the Japanese initiated and institutionalised barbarism towards both civilians and prisoners. True, the Allies later responded in kind. But in an imperfect world, it seems unrealistic to expect that any combatant in a war will grant adversaries conspicuously better treatment than his own people receive at their hands. Years ahead of Pearl Harbor Japanese massacres of Chinese civilians were receiving worldwide publicity. Tokyo’s forces committed systemic brutalities against Allied prisoners and civilians in the Philippines, East Indies, Hong Kong and Malaya—for instance, the slaughter of Chinese outside Singapore in February 1942—long before the first Allied atrocity against any Japanese is recorded.
The consequence of so-called Japanese fanaticism on the battlefield, of which much more later, was that Allied commanders favoured the use of extreme methods to defeat them. As an example, the Japanese rejected the convention customary in Western wars, whereby if a military position became untenable, its defenders gave up. In August 1944, when German prisoners were arriving in the United States at the rate of 50,000 a month, after three years of the war only 1,990 Japanese prisoners reposed in American hands. Why, demanded Allied commanders, should their men be obliged to risk their own lives in order to indulge the enemy’s inhuman doctrine of mutual immolation?