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30 July 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 4:56pm

Unfinished business: the legacy of the Second World War in China and Japan

The Pacific war did not end neatly in 1945.

By Rana Mitter

Hirohito’s War
Francis Pike
Bloomsbury, 1,152pp, £30

In 2010, HBO released The Pacific, a blockbuster television drama about three US marines who fought their way through the horrors of the Second World War in Asia. The series won critical acclaim as well as healthy viewing figures. Yet over the past five years, it has not really gained the status of its predecessor Band of Brothers, which commemorated the war in western Europe. That relative failure to connect is a sign of the haziness still attached to the Asian theatre of war in western memory.

There are many reasons for this. By definition, the war in the Pacific was largely naval rather than land-based; the battles took place over huge and varied territories, many of them deeply unfamiliar to westerners; and the principal enemy of the Allies, the Japanese, did not have the frisson of familiarity that came from encounters with the Nazis or Fascists. Nor did General Tojo make a neat bogeyman who could compete with Hitler or Mussolini.

Yet in many ways, the war in the Pacific is of much more contemporary relevance than its European counterpart. Despite bailout-inspired broadsides in Greece accusing Angela Merkel of being a successor
to the Nazis, most of Europe has left the legacy of the Second World War behind. In contrast, in east Asia today, the legacy of 1945 is unfinished business. The Japanese right wing still argues that the country was engaged in a “war of liberation” against western imperialism. Meanwhile, China and Korea protest that Japan has never made the sort of complete apology for its war crimes that Germany did. China also seeks to increase its influence in the region by suggesting that if the continuing role of the US in east Asia is the reward for its contribution to Japan’s defeat, then China, which lost 14 million or more people and held down over half a million Japanese troops, should also benefit from its historic role.

Meanwhile, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Asia looms this summer, bringing back to mind a succession of names strung between Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the atomic bombings in 1945: Iwo Jima, Correg­idor, Kohima and Imphal. This war has been the subject of several excellent overview histories in the past few decades, including Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun (1985). But such books are few in number in comparison to the number that detail the European theatres of war. Much of the relevant source material is in Japanese, a language used by fewer western scholars than German, or even Russian. Then, the disparate nature of the campaigns in the region, over vast tracts of land and sea, makes integrating the story of the conflict in the region a difficult task.

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For these reasons, Francis Pike’s monumental new book, a thoughtful and detailed synthesis of the English-language secondary scholarship on the war, is a welcome addition to the work on the period. The title undersells the book’s contents. It is subtitled The Pacific War, 1941-1945, but in fact it covers the Asia-Pacific war as a whole. Most innovatively, the analysis of the war brings together the conflict properly known as the Pacific war – the conflict against Japan largely fought by US and western Allied troops – and the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre, where Chinese armies took the brunt of the resistance within China itself, while US and British empire troops were active in Burma. This gives an important new perspective on the war, because CBI was for many decades ignored as an irrelevant arena where no major conflict took place.

Pike’s narrative is arranged through battles and campaigns, and he analyses each with meticulous care. Many of the names are familiar even today, but Pike – an English historian who has lived and worked in Japan, China and India – brings immense detail and sensible judgement to each one: Pearl Harbor itself, the fall of Singapore, the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and, finally, the attack on the Japanese home islands that ended with the atomic bombings. One of the strengths of the book is that the weight of detail is complemented by sympathetic and plausible pen portraits of significant figures, including the generals who had to execute policy on the ground. Pike is swift to award medals for success and cashier the underperformers. He has little time for Douglas MacArthur, whose self-aggrandising antics lead the author to describe him as a “popinjay” and a plain “liar”: MacArthur’s abandonment of the Philippines in 1942 comes in for particular scorn, despite his celebrated vow to return. This view is bracing, though it sits at odds with verdicts such as that of Richard B Frank, who writes of MacArthur’s “keen analytical skills” and calls him “one of the stellar masters of logistics in military history”, whose concentration on Asia over Europe was also a brave departure from the common racial hierarchies of the time. Louis Mountbatten comes off little better: a “poseur” who ludicrously moved South-East Asia Command headquarters to Ceylon, far from the action.

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The hero of the book is William Slim. The Bristol-born general’s quiet authority led him to victory in Burma in 1944 and he “deserves to be considered the equal or better of any” senior officer in the Second World War.
Pike mourns that because the Burma theatre was regarded as secondary, Slim never received the credit he might have done. (He may be overly gloomy; Slim’s reputation has been one of the more long-lasting from the Asian war, whereas figures such as Mountbatten and the American chief of staff in China, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, have rather fallen from their pedestals.)

Nor are the great Japanese figures neglected. General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s brilliant planning that enabled him to take Malaya and Singapore in 1942 is rightly praised for its utter discrediting of a complacent British military and political establishment. Pike observes mordantly that, had Yamashita been on the winning side, then “rather than being condemned to death . . . he would have been lauded . . . for his Malay Campaign and as one of the great generals of the 20th century”. Yet despite its fine depictions of leading military figures, the book shows that the critical factor that led to the Allied victory in Asia was the capacity of the US not only to increase the size of its army at high speed, but also to turn its economy into a war production powerhouse. Numbers – whether of troops, battleships or fighter planes – mattered hugely.

One of the most innovative aspects of the book is Pike’s attention to revisionist scholarship on China’s role in the fighting. For years, China was regarded purely as a tiresome, corrupt and essentially useless parasite in the war effort, and its ruler, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, as a fool or knave (possibly even a popinjay). Pike will have none of this, drawing on recent revisionist scholarship to argue that Chiang’s contribution as the leader of a poor, weak country was remarkable, enabling China to hold down some half-million or more Japanese troops who might otherwise have been deployed to the Pacific. Battles in cities such as Changsha, Taierzhuang and Wuhan played an important role in holding back Japan in Asia, even if they have never achieved the fame of Midway or Guadalcanal.

However, Pike does downplay the role of the Chinese Communist armies. It is ­certainly the case that the Communists made less of a contribution overall to the set-piece battles, which were essentially fought by the Nationalists. But it is too harsh to claim that the military contribution of the Communist Party of China was without real value. Although the CPC did reserve its strength for a future conflict when it knew it would battle the Nationalists for mastery of China, Communist guerrilla campaigns were nevertheless important in harassing the Japanese in north China in areas where the Nationalists had no presence. In the end, the war in China was an uneasy set of alliances, in which both the Nationalists and the Communists fought Japan in different ways while also preparing for an eventual civil war.

The concentration on military history in this volume does lead to an underplaying of some of the issues of meaning surrounding the war. Among these is the question of whether the Pacific war was driven by a fundamentally different characterisation of war in comparison to the European conflict. The historian John Dower, in his 1986 book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, reinterpreted the conflict as a “race war” above all. Unlike in the case of western Europe, where the British and Americans could conceive of the “good German”, westerners and Japanese had views of one another that were fundamentally distorted by ideas of racial difference, and of enmity. From the American point of view, the Japanese were caricatured as having buck teeth and bottle-bottom glasses and treating PoWs with an exceptional level of cruelty; to the Japanese, the Americans were savages who would inevitably rape and kill any Japanese women or children they encountered.

Pike’s prodigious reading makes this an immensely valuable and thoughtful synthesis. Given the concentration on secondary work, there are, by definition, few new discoveries here. Some oddities of style stand out: many place names are given in italics (Hawaii or Guadalcanal) for no clear reason, which lends a slightly 18th-century air to the text. Although the book is a substantial achievement, its sheer bulk makes it better suited to dipping into than reading at one sitting. And, irritatingly, the footnotes and maps do not appear anywhere in the printed text, but on a website. Binding a book of 1,150 pages is not easy, but a serious work of history cannot be used to its fullest if readers have to keep their laptops to hand each time they want to check a footnote.

Pike’s book is part of growing reinterpretation of the Second World War in properly global terms, showing that the Asian fronts were as important as the European ones even if the Allied policy was to concentrate on “Europe First”. In 2012, Antony Beevor, whose work on the Battle of Stalingrad transformed approaches to military history, published a gripping account of the Second World War notable for its opening portrait: not of a German or a British soldier, but of a young Korean conscript to Japan’s Kwantung army. Richard Overy edited the innovative Oxford Illustrated History of World War II, published in April this year, in which the chapter on the Japanese empire comes before the one on Germany. The new writing about the Second World War shows that the globalisation of the history of the war continues to grow.

And yet, seventy years on, memories of the Asian war have mostly faded in Britain and there is little sense, for instance, that China was then one of this country’s allies. But in Asia, the memory of the war is, if anything, growing stronger. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates the spirits of those who died in the service of Japan, including many war criminals, causing unease in Washington and outrage in Beijing and Seoul. Meanwhile, in China, President Xi Jinping has inaugurated three new public holidays relating to critical dates in the war against Japan, and is planning a huge military parade through Tiananmen Square for the 3 September holiday (timed to fall the day after the 70th anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender). The Second World War will continue to be fought in Asia for many years to come. l

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford. His books include “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival” (Penguin)