World War II B: War in the Pacific


I. To finish up our discussion of WWII, we will take a look at the end of the War against Japan in the Pacific. 

A. I mentioned last time that in the early years of the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were successful in virtually everything they tried. 

B. It has been noted that at around the same time as Pearl Harbor, Japan also attacked and took several other US possessions in the Pacific—the Marshal Islands, Guam and the Philippines. 

C. The first major defeat for the Japanese took place in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the US was able to block the Japanese advance toward Papua New Guinea.  

1.The first encounter in the Coral Sea took place in May, 1942, when airplanes from two US aircraft carriers pushed back a Japanese assault on Port Moresby. 

2. Shocked by the setback, the Japanese sent a huge fleet to capture Midway Island, the capture of which, the Japanese thought, would sever US Pacific communications. The US and Japanese fought for three long days, and in the end, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, and four destroyers. 

D. The US suffered a similarly devastating defeat in the Battle for Savo Island in August, 1942, but despite the loss of support from the sea, the marines who landed on nearby Guadalcanal were able to hold out against a superior Japanese force. In November, in a decisive but costly US naval victory, the Japanese were prevented from re-supplying their troops at Guadalcanal. The US marines held and were eventually joined by Army reinforcements. They took the island at last in February, 1943.  

E. The American victory at Guadalcanal was a turning point in the war in the Pacific. It taught the Americans how victory might be achieved. It set in motion a debate among the US leadership about how to proceed—with an “island hopping” campaign supported by ground based aircraft that would liberate key Pacific islands one by one, ending with Japan, or by a direct assault, based mainly on aircraft carriers, on Japan itself. In the end, the US chose to do both simultaneously. 

F. The Island hopping campaign proceeded slowly, as the Japanese controlled islands were heavily fortified. However, the US made progress. The key to victory, thought Douglas Macarthur, was the re-capture of the Philippines. In the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the largest naval battle in the history of the world, the Japanese lost an additional 4 aircraft carriers, two battleships, and nine cruisers. The US landed troops in the Philippines on 20 October and controlled the country within a few months. 

G. With the Philippines in hand, the US moved systematically toward Japan, taking Guam and Saipan, and then Iwo Jima. Beginning in March, 1945, the US had airbases near enough to Japan to allow saturation bombing. In April, 1945, US forces took Okinawa. 

1. Though by most accounts Japan was on the verge of surrender, US leaders decided that the Japanese would fight on and that the only way unconditional surrender could be won was by invading and occupying Japan itself. Military leaders believed that the loss of life from such an invasion, on both the US and Japanese side, would be huge. 

2. It was for this reason that the US President, Harry S. Truman, authorized the destruction of Hiroshima  (200,000 dead) and Nagasaki (100,000 dead) using the newly developed Atomic Bomb. Japan surrendered on 15 August, 1945. 

H. The Bomb                       

1. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan was one of the most controversial decision of the 20th Century.                                   

a. It was no secret that the US was in a race with Germany to develop the bomb, but the Manhattan Project itself was one of the best kept secrets of the war. 

b. Truman first let Churchill and Stalin know that the US had the bomb at the Potsdam Conference (July 1944), held shortly after he had become president and after the final defeat of the Germans. 

c. Many believe that Truman revealed the information in an attempt to control Stalin’s post-war activity. 

2. As noted above, by August 1945, the defeat of Japan had become inevitable. Still, Truman decided to use the bomb—why? 

a. Many people advised Truman to invite the Japanese to observe a  test explosion on some uninhabited Pacific island, so they would see its awesome power and be enticed to surrender without actually having to suffer it. 

i. However, the US had only a few bombs and American scientists could not be certain that they would work—what if such a demonstration were arranged and the bomb proved to be a dud? 

b. The standard view is that Truman decided to use the bomb for reasons given above—to get a quick end to the war with minimal loss of US life and without having to launch a full invasion of Japan. 

c. A third view is that the use of the bomb was directed at Stalin and the Soviet Union—to demonstrate that the US had superior weapons and to pressure the Russians to be more cooperative in the post-war period. As such, some believe, it was the first action of the Cold War.