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Pacific War
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Pacific War

The Pacific War (1937-45) is not to be confused with the War of the Pacific (1879-84) in South America.

The Pacific War, which took place mostly in the Pacific Ocean, its islands, and in Asia, both preceded World War II and also included some of its major campaigns and events. It was fought between Japan and Thailand on one side, and Allied powers on the other, including China, the United States, the United Kingdom, India, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The Soviet Union defeated Japanese forces in 1939, then remained neutral until 1945, when it played an important role on the Allied side in the closing weeks of the war. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were allies of Japan and their naval forces operated in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean between 1940 and 1945.

The war is also known as the Pacific Theater of World War II. In Chinese, the war is also known as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression or (kang-ri-zhan) Resist Japan War for short.

Conflict between Japan and China

See Also: Causes of World War II

The roots of the war began in the late 19th century with China in political chaos and Japan rapidly modernizing. Over the course of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Japan intervened and finally annexed Korea and expanded its political and economic influence into China, particularly Manchuria. This expansion of power was aided by the fact that by the 1920s, China had fragmented into warlordism with only a weak central and ineffective government.

However, the situation of a weak China unable to resist Japanese demands appeared to be changing toward the end of the 1920's. 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.

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 Japanese Kwantung Army, without the knowledge of their high command in Tokyo, manufactured the Battle of Lugou Bridge (also known as the "Incident at Marco Polo Bridge") on July 8, 1937, which succeeded in 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 Georgy 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.

In addition, throughout the 1930's Japan succeeded in alienating public opinion in the West, particularly the United States. During the early 1930's, public opinion in the United States had been moderately pro-Japanese, however reports of Japanese brutality, such as the Nanjing Massacre, written by Protestant missionaries, novelists such as Pearl Buck and reports from Time Magazine caused American public opinion to swing against Japan as did events such as the Panay incident.

War spreads in the east

By 1941, Japan was in a stalemate in China. Although, Japan had occupied much of north and central China, the Kuomintang had retreated to the interior setting up a provisional capital at Chongqing while the Communist Party of China remained in control of base areas in Shanxi. In addition, Japanese control of north and central China was somewhat tenuous, in that Japan usually was able to control railroads and the major cities, but did not have a major troop or administrative presence in the vast Chinese countryside.

Japan sponsored several puppet governments, one of which was headed by Wang Jingwei. However, 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 to the former warlords in 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.

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. On December 8, 1941, Japanese forces attacked the British crown colony of Hong Kong, the International Settlement in Shanghai, the Philippines (a United States commonwealth); Japan also used Vichy French bases in French Indochina to invade Thailand and Malaya. At the same time (technically on December 7, due to the difference in time zones), Japanese carrier-based planes launched a massive air attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 people were killed and five US battleships were sunk, among many other losses. 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 rein in China. This calculated gamble did not pay off; the United States refused to negotiate.

The United States Enters the War

Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US 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, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two-theater war. The United States, recognising that Germany had a significant industrial output, quickly decided on a "Germany first" strategy. In 1941, Japan had only a fraction of the manufacturing capacity of the United States, and was therefore perceived as lesser threat than Germany.

British, Indian, Dutch and Australian forces, already drained of personnel and materiel by war with Germany, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. The Allies suffered many disastrous defeats in the first six months of the war. Two major British warships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by a Japanese air attack off Malaya on December 10, 1941. The government of Thailand formally allied itself with Japan on December 21. Hong Kong fell on December 25 and US bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time. January saw the invasions of Burma, the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the capture of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. After being driven out of Malaya, Allied forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on February 15, 1942; about 80,000 Indian, Australian and British troops became prisoners of war. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor also fell in February, Rangoon and Java in March. However, Filipino and US forces put up a fierce resistance in the Philippines until May 8, 1942 when more than 80,000 of them surrendered.

Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated Allied air power in South-East Asia and were making many air raids on northern Australia, beginning with a disproportionately large and psychologically devastating attack on February 19, which killed about 200 people in Darwin. Japanese air power had also driven the British fleet out of Ceylon. (Air attacks on the US mainland were insignificant, comprising balloon-based materials and a submarine-based seaplane fire-bombing a forest in Oregon, September 9 1942.)

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 a Japanese naval attack oon Port Moresby, New Guinea. 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.

Nevertheless, Japanese land forces continued to advance. A few Australian Militia (reserve) battalions, many of them of very young and untrained, fought a stubborn rearguard action in New Guinea, against a Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track, towards Port Moresby, over the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges. The Militia, worn out and severely depleted by casualties, were relieved in late August by regular troops from the Australian 7th Division, returning from action in the Middle East. In early September, at the eastern tip of New Guinea, Japan's land forces suffered their first outright defeat of the war, after Japanese marines attacked a Royal Australian Air Force base, defended by units from the 7th Division and some US forces, in the Battle of Milne Bay. Simultaneously, US and Japanese forces were both attempting to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Both sides poured resources into 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 MacArthur's successful land-based thrust through New Guinea, which culminated in the capture of Buna-Gona by Australian and US forces in early 1943. This prepared the way for Nimitz's island-hopping campaign towards Japan.

In late 1942 and during 1943, British, Indian and West African forces were counter-attacking in Burma, albeit with limited success.

On November 22, 1943 U.S. 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 US advance. Meanwhile, Japanese cities suffered greatly from air attacks by US bombers. On March 9-10, 1945 alone, about 100,000 people were killed in a fire storm caused by an attack on Tokyo.

On February 3, 1945, Japan's long-time enemy the Soviet Union agreed in principle to enter the Pacific conflict (although its declaration of war did not occur until August 8). In a devastating blow to Japanese morale, the US attacked two cities with nuclear weapons; these were a well-kept secret until August 6, when Hiroshima was destroyed with a single atomic bomb, as was Nagasaki on August 9. More than 200,000 people died as a direct result of these two bombings.

On August 9 the Soviet Union engaged into the war with Japan. A battle-hardened, one million-strong Soviet force, transferred from Europe quickly attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria and defeated their Kwantung Army (Guandong Army). The Soviet attack worried Emperor Hirohito, who pleaded with the war council to reconsider surrender.

In Japan, August 14 is considered to be the day that the Pacific War ended. However, Imperial Japan actually surrendered on August 15 and this day became known in the English-speaking countries as "V-J Day" (Victory in Japan). The order to surrender was not immediately sent to Japanese forces in Manchuria, who continued to fight the Soviets until August 19. Small-scale combat continued to occur throughout the Pacific, in some cases for many years.[1] The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed on September 2, 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender was accepted by General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander, with representatives of each Allied nation, from a Japanese delegation led by Mamoru Shigemitsu.

Following this period, MacArthur established bases in Japan to oversee the postwar development of the country. This period in Japanese history is known as the occupation. U.S. President Harry Truman officially proclaimed an end of hostilities on December 31, 1946.

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Balkans | Britain | France and the Low Countries | Italy | North-West Europe | Poland | Scandinavia | Soviet Union
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Contemporaneous Wars
Chinese Civil War | Spanish Civil War | Sino-Japanese War | Winter War | Continuation War