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Pacific War / Greater East Asia War

War # War Name Start End Duration
Deaths (Total)
121 Manchurian 12/19/1931 5/6/1933 505 60000
130 2nd Sino-Japanese 7/7/1937 12/7/1941 1615 1000000
133 Changkufeng 7/29/1938 8/11/1938 14 1726
136 Nomonhan 5/11/1939 9/16/1939 129 28000

In the second half of the 19th century, Japan embarked on a road of militarism and launched or participated in a number of wars of aggression, most of which were against China. In 1874, Japan invaded Taiwan. In 1894, it provoked the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and proceeded to occupy Taiwan. In 1904, Japan started a war against Russia, violating China^s territorial integrity and sovereignty over northeast China. In 1931, Japan engineered the September 18th Incident, resulting in its occupation of the three northeastern provinces of China. In 1935, Japan provoked the North China Incident.

Japan's ambition to annex China kept ballooning all these years. Finally Japan started an all-out war of aggression against China, marked by its shelling of the county seat of Wanping and attack on the Lugou Bridge on July 7, 1937. Japanese aggressors devastated large tracts of Chinese territory and occupied most of the major cities, attempting to colonize China and on that basis, annex the rest of Asia and dominate the world.

China went through major foreign invasions from 1849 to 1949, the historical trauma known as the Century of Humiliation. The Second China-Japan War, known as the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in mainland China, can be dated to as early as eight years before World War II. As a particularly bitter episode, the Japanese invasion from 1931 to 1945 led to 10-25 million Chinese civilian deaths.

Much of the metal, oil, and other materials that Japan used for its war effort in China came from the United States. Americans did not like selling Japan materials to use against China. But the trade was legal because of a 1911 agreement between Tokyo and Washington. However, the American government told Japan in 1939 that it would end the earlier agreement. It would no longer sell Japan materials that could be used for war.

Washington's decision to embargo raw materials made the Japanese government think again about its expansionist plans. And the announcement a month later of a non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union gave Tokyo even more cause for concern. The Soviet Union could be a major opponent of Japanese expansion in East Asia. And it appeared free from the threat of war in Europe. These two events helped moderates in the Japanese government to gain more influence over foreign policy. A moderate government took power in January 1940.

Japan's principal objectives were to secure the resources of Southeast Asia and much of China and to establish a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" under Japanese hegemony. In 1895 and in 1905 Japan had gained important objectives without completely defeating China or Russia and in 1941 Japan sought to achieve its hegemony over East Asia in similar fashion.

The operational strategy the Japanese adopted to start war, however, doomed their hopes of limiting the conflict. Japan believed it necessary to destroy or neutralize American striking power in the Pacific - the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. Far East Air Force in the Philippines - before moving southward and eastward to occupy Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, the Gilbert Islands, Thailand, and Burma.

Once in control of these areas, the Japanese intended to establish a defensive perimeter stretching from the Kurile Islands south through Wake, the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls and Gilberts to Rabaul on New Britain. From Rabaul the perimeter would extend westward to northwestern New Guinea and would encompass the Indies, Malaya, Thailand, and Burma. Japan thought that the Allies would wear themselves out in fruitless frontal assaults against the perimeter and would ultimately settle for a negotiated peace that would leave it in possession of most of its conquests.

Some Japanse leaders hoped that the United States would accept their new order in Asia. This did not happen. The Japanese were remarkably successful in the execution of their offensive plan and by early 1942 had reached their intended perimeter. But they miscalculated the effect of their surprise attack at Pearl Harbor which unified a divided people and aroused the United States to wage a total, not a limited, war. As a result Japan lost, in the long run, any chance of conducting the war on its own terms. The Allies, responding to their defeats, sought no negotiated peace, but immediately began to seek means to strike back.

The Japanese viewed Okinawa as a victory in terms of losses inflicted and delay of American timelines. Japanese leaders following America media reports of the bloody fighting Okinawa and Iwo Jima concluded that a war-weary American public would not support a prolong war in the Pacific. Japanese leaders were prepared to suffer casualties at a rate Americans were not. Leaders expected pressure from a war-weary public would force the U.S government to end the war on terms more favorable to the Japanese government than unconditional surrender.

Strike North versus Strike South

China's resistance largely freed the Soviet Union from being bogged down in fighting on both the western and eastern fronts, thus enabling it to concentrate more resources on the war against Germany. The Japanese imperialists had a deep-rooted hostility toward the socialist Soviet Union. Japanese troops created the Zhanggufeng Incident on 14 July 1938, and were heavily counter-attacked by the Soviet army.

Japan's defeat should obviously be attributed in some measure to the struggle of the powerful Red Army; but it should also be related to the fact that the main force of the Japanese army was then preparing for the Wuhan campaign. In 1938, Japan had 24 divisions stationed to the south of the Great Wall, which accounted for 70 percent of its total 34 divisions. When the Zhanggufeng Incident took place, Japan had no more than 6 divisions stationed in the northeast of China. The Japanese military strength was apparently inferior to that of the Soviet Union, which then had more than 20 divisions stationed in its Far East region. In August 1938, the Japanese troops fighting at Zhanggufeng sent an emergency message to Tokyo, asking for supplies of anti-tank ammunition. Their call was turned down by the Ministry of the Army as the ammunition production quotas for November of that year had already been allotted in advance to the troops engaging in the Wuhan campaign.

On 11 May 1939, the Japanese Kwantung Army invaded Nuomenkan. During the battle which lasted for more than 3 months, the Japanese troops suffered heavy casualties. On 30 August 1939, the Japanese chief of the general staff, Prince Zai Ren, issued Continental Order No 343 to Kenkichi Ueda, commander of the Kwantung Army: "The general headquarters' intention is to deploy part of the empire's troops in Manchu to guard against the Soviet Union and to maintain peace in the north while concentrating their attention on handling the Chinese issue. For this reason, we should try our best to avoid expanding war in Nuomenkan or we simply put an end to the war there within a short time." This once again showed that the Chinese and Soviet armies had supported each other.

The Soviet Union had tried its best to avoid fighting on both the eastern and western fronts. On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany. In the autumn of 1940, the Soviet Union decided to send a military delegation to China headed by Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov. Before Chuikov's departure, Stalin instructed him: "Your mission, and that of all our personnel in China, is to tightly tie the Japanese aggressors' hands. Only when the Japanese aggressors' hands are tied can we avoid fighting simultaneously on both fronts once the German aggressors launch an offensive against us."

However, this period of moderation in Tokyo did not last long. In the spring of 1940, Germany launched its blitzkrieg, or lightning invasion, of Europe. The Nazis captured Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally France. Extremists in the Japanese government saw the German victory as their chance to launch their own attack on European colonies in Asia. They quickly began negotiations with Hitler to form a new alliance. And within months, militant leaders overthrew the moderate government in Tokyo.

The new Japanese government was headed by a moderate, Prince Konoye. But the minister of war was an expansionist, General Tojo. Tokyo wasted no time in taking action. It forced France to give Japan permission to occupy northern Indochina. And Tokyo also demanded that Britain close the Burma Road to the Chinese city then known as Chungking.

Soviet assistance to China decreased dramatically as Stalin became alarmed by the increasingly menacing German threat in 1941 and attempted to secure his Far Eastern flank before the anticipated outbreak of war. The Soviets in effect "dumped" China and signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941, quickly withdrawing most of their advisors and all of their aircraft.

Within several months, the Soviet Union became locked in a desperate battle for survival of truly stupendous proportions. Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. This prevented Moscow from doing any fighting on its eastern borders. So Japanese troops were free to invade southern Indochina. No Soviet aid and little concern could be spared for China.

The Soviets nevertheless fought hundreds of border skirmishes against the Japanese during the war. Soviet fears of the Japanese re-opening the second front against the Soviet Union during World War II compelled the USSR constantly to maintain up to 40 divisions on its Far Eastern frontiers, though they were desperately needed for the war in the West. Japan had hoped the Soviet Union would become so pressed by the Germans that it would shift part of this force from the Far East to the Soviet German front. The Japanese Deputy War Minister said: "We believed the USSR would transfer its troops from the Soviet Far East to the Western Front and Japan would be able to seize the Soviet Far East without heavy losses."

But the Soviets maintained nearly 40 divisions along the Manchurian border for the duration of the war to protect their critical lifeline through Siberia. Over 50% of U.S. Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union during the war was delivered by neutral-flag shipping to Vladivostock and shipped via the Trans-Siberian railroad to the western Soviet Union. This vital link was within easy striking distance of the nearly one million Japanese troops of the Kvangtung Army.

Equally unsure of Soviet intentions, the Japanese maintained the Kwangtung Army at high strength through most of the war, although many of the best units were eventually replaced by newly mobilized and less well trained units. While China is frequently given credit for tying down almost two million Japanese soldiers during the var, fully half these Japanese forces were actually tied down by the large Soviet presence in the Far East and not by the Chinese, thus substantially aiding the US effort in the Pacific.

The USSR war against Japan in 1945 was the continuation and natural outcome of their contradictions and struggle in new situation. The defeat of 1905 by Japan hands had never been forgotten by Russians, whether Tsarist or Soviet, and the Soviet leadershiop wanted to regain possession of Southern Karafuto and the Kwantung peninsula, and to procure "special rights" in Manchuria. In October 1943 Molotov told the head ofthe US Military Mission, General Dean, that the Soviet Union would enter the war in the Pacific as soon as Germany was defeated. At the Tehran Conference, Stalin promised a Soviet entry into the war against Japan in return for the Kurile Islands, Karafuto, and a warm-water port on the Pacific.

Later that year Stalin told Churchill that the USSR would open hostilities against Japan about three months after the end of the European war. On 05 April 1945, the Soviets notified Japan that "The Neutrality Treaty between the Soviet Union and Japan was concluded April 13, 1941, which was before Gerrnany's attack on the Soviet Union and before the outbreak of war between Japan on the one hand and Great Britain and the United States on the other. Since that time the situation has basically changed.... Under these circumstances the Neutrality Treaty between Japan and the Soviet Unionl has lost its meaning and the extension of this treaty has become impossible." Within three weeks of the abrogation Germany surrendered. Japan stood alone. If the USSR entered the war, Japan would have "to eat dirt", in the words of the Japanese ambassador to Moscow. In fact, the USSR opened hostilities against Japan about five months after the end of the European war.

Pacific War - The Path to War

While most Americans anxiously watched the course of the European war, tension mounted in Asia. Taking advantage of an opportunity to improve its strategic position, Japan boldly announced a “new order” in which it would exercise hegemony over all of the Pacific. Battling for survival against Nazi Germany, Britain was unable to resist, abandoning its concession in Shanghai and temporarily closing the Chinese supply route from Burma. In the summer of 1940, Japan won permission from the weak Vichy government in France to use airfields in northern Indochina (North Vietnam). That September the Japanese formally joined the Rome-Berlin Axis. The United States countered with an embargo on the export of scrap iron to Japan.

In July 1941 the Japanese occupied southern Indochina (South Vietnam), signaling a probable move southward toward the oil, tin, and rubber of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The United States, in response, froze Japanese assets and initiated an embargo on the one commodity Japan needed above all others — oil.

Japan's road to war has long been characterized as the result of mindless nationalistic posturing by military decision-makers who knew there was no hope for success. But Japan's leaders actually adopted a strategy which they thought could shift the global situation in Japan's favor.

A Japanese Army report produced before the start of the war, compiled by leading Japanese economists, the report attempted to analyze the relative military strength of major countries at the time, including the US and Britain.The group that drew up the original report was known as the Akimaru Organization, named after Lieutenant Colonel Jiro Akimaru, who led the team.

The report went against the current of nationalistic confidence that was sweeping the military at the time, portraying the likelihood of Japan's success in starkly realistic terms. The report's evaluations of the US and Britain highlight how factors such as oil production and ship-building made the countries far stronger than Japan. But he says the analysis of the military supply routes between the two countries is particularly insightful about what drove the thinking at the top levels of the Imperial Army.

In a 1991 interview about decision-making leading up to the war, Akimaru said that even within the military, it was accepted that the US and Britain were much stronger than Japan. But no one was willing to say this out loud to the top officials. "Attacking the US and Britain meant confronting countries that were a combined 20 times more powerful," he said. "But this was a time when negative opinions could not be expressed."

The analysis suggested Japan could triumph in a war against Britain if Germany were able to quickly defeat the Soviet Union and gain control of Europe. German ascendancy on the continent would cut off the flow of supplies from the US, making Britain less likely to extend itself fighting Japan halfway across the world. The Imperial Army leadership saw this as a weakness that could be exploited, and used it as justification to go to war. Even if the actual intention was to avoid starting a war, the conclusion of the report was deliberately ambiguous. It was drafted by a department of the army ministry, so obviously it couldn't contradict established policy.

From an economic standpoint, Prospect Theory posits that a person in distress has two choices. The first is to take a gradual approach to try to ease the situation. The second, which is what most people tend to opt for, is to try to quickly eliminate all problems in one go, despite slim chances of success. Japan's position of dominance in Asia was threatened because of US oil embargoes. The situation was likely to force Japan to cede to the US within a matter of years, with or without a war. Faced with this predicament, a fanciful idea settled in among Japanese leadership: the belief that all of these problems could be erased by war.

The thinking went that if Germany cut off shipments between North America and Europe, while Japan occupied Southeast Asia and secured the region's resources, Britain would be forced to quickly surrender, and the US would lose its appetite for war. Despite the immense odds, the risk seemed worth it to the Japanese leadership. Rampant anti-US sentiment within the country added to the Imperial Army's inclination to opt for a more radical approach.

General Hideki Tojo became prime minister of Japan in October 1941. In mid-November, he sent a special envoy to the United States to meet with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Among other things, Japan demanded that the United States release Japanese assets and stop U.S. naval expansion in the Pacific. Hull countered with a proposal for Japanese withdrawal from all its conquests. The swift Japanese rejection on December 1 left the talks stalemated.

On the morning of December 7, Japanese carrier-based planes executed a devastating surprise attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Twenty-one ships were destroyed or temporarily disabled; 323 aircraft were destroyed or damaged; 2,388 soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed. However, the U.S. aircraft carriers that would play such a critical role in the ensuing naval war in the Pacific were at sea and not anchored at Pearl Harbor.

American opinion, still divided about the war in Europe, was unified overnight by what President Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.” On December 8, Congress declared a state of war with Japan; three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

Pacific War - Threee Paths to Vistory

The American counter-offensive would consist of several sequential phases. First, stabilize the front to preclude further Japanese advances. Second, advance towards Japan, eventually closing within range of the new B-29 Superfortress bombers, which could destroy Japanese warmaking potential from forward airfields. Finally, stage an amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands. The strategy was unlike that of the European theater, where operations entailed progressively rolling back Axis forces from their wartime conquests. Instead, large pockets of Japanese occupied territory in China, South-east Asia, and Pacific Islands, would be bypassed on the path to striking at the heart of the enemy.

The United States envisioned at least three approaches to the Japanese home islands. The first approach, under "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, envisioned moving overland, from Burma up through China, where airfields could be built to bombard Japan. The second approach, under General Douglas MacArthur, called for moving toward Japan along the larger island chains, from New Guinea to the Phillipines. The third approach, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, called for moving across the smaller Pacific islands.

  1. The "Forgotten War" in the China-Burma-India Theater was so dubbed because it lacked the priority the Southwest and Central Pacific campaigns received in Washington. This approach, under US General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell eventually petered out in the face of innumerable difficulties and the massive Japanese "Ichi-go" counter-attack in 1944. A few B-29s made it to China, but dropped only a trivial number of bombs before they were withdrawn. The original policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall succeeded - China stayed in the war and prevented sizable numbers of Japanese troops from deploying to the Pacific.

  2. Since 1942 Army troops and Marines in the south Pacific had thrown the enemy back from his furthermost advances in New Guinea and the Solomons, traveled 1500 miles up the New Guinea coastline, and conquered the Admiralty Islands, Biak and Morotai. The Japanese Army, given the losses of the Japanese Navy and logistical constraints, had been virtually powerless to stop the Allied advance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in 1943. Meanwhile, Marines and Army troops were cleaning up in the Solomons and the Palaus. In October of 1944 these achievements culminated in the landing of American troops in Leyte. Four months after MacArthur had returned, the Allies freed Manila.

  3. Westward across the Central Pacific other Marines and Army units, in hard fought battles, forced the Japanese back four thousand miles. Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima were the stepping stones. Army and Marine divisions slowly but steadily swept the Japanese from Okinawa. Tinian, a small island in the Bonins, was transformed into an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" from which B-29 bombers rained destruction down onto Japan. This "island hopping" strategy proved decisive.

During 1944 the war situation in the central Pacific grew worse for Japan. In the summer of that year Saipan and Guam fell into American hands and an invasion of the Philippines was imminent. Imperial General Headquarters planned to strengthen defenses on Okinawa and Formosa in order to meet any attempt by the enemy to sever lines of communication between the Japanese Homeland and the southern areas.

In April 1944, Operation ICHI-GO, the largest military operation in Japanese history, was an effort by the Japanese Army to at least push back Allied airfields out of bomber range of the Japanese Home Islands, if not to to force China out of the war and vanquish all of mainland China. It was coordinated with the Operation U-GO invasion of India. One year before the end of the War of Resistance Against Japan, the Japanese army, which was devastated, launched the "mainland war". On thousands of kilometers of front, Japanese tanks ran rampant.

Virtually the only American combat force in China when the Japanese launched Operation Ichigo, 14th Air Force aircraft hammered Japanese men and equipment. The attacks disrupted timing, but could not contain the land offensive. Japanese analysis did attribute over 75 percent of resistance to their Ichigo ground offense to the airmen and aircraft of the 14th Air Force.

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Page last modified: 24-02-2020 18:08:55 ZULU