Modern history


The War in Asia

When the first atomic bomb went off, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, the temperature at Ground Zero was 100 million degrees Fahrenheit, three times hotter than the interior of the sun and ten thou- sand times the heat on its surface. All life, plant and animal, within a mile radius of Ground Zero simply vanished. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, turned to his deputy and said, “The war’s over. One or two of these things and Japan willbe finished.”


ONE OF THE CHIEF FACTS ABOUT THE WAR IN THE PACIFIC WAS THAT when the shooting stopped the Americans did not have troops occupying the major nations of mainland Asia—Indochina, Korea, Burma, India, or China.

America failed to get onto mainland Asia because she did not have enough manpower to carry on a large-scale land war in both Europe and Asia. There were other military limitations. It was approximately twice as far from the United States to Asia as it was to Europe, which meant that it took two ships going from the United States to Asia to do as much as one to Europe, and until the very last months of the war merchant shipping was in short supply. The United States devoted nearly 40 percent of its total effort in World War II to the Pacific Theater, but much of that effort was eaten up in shipping, and the amount of force the Americans could bring to bear was much smaller in Asia than in Europe. As a result, the strategy in the Pacific was to avoid Japanese strong points and to initiate operations that would conserve men and materiel.

America pursued a peripheral strategy in the Pacific, never coming to grips with the main forces of the Japanese Army. There was a political price. In Europe the process of closing in on the Germans carried with it the dividends of putting American troops in Antwerp, Paris, and Rome. In Asia the process of closing in on the Japanese only gave the United States control of relatively unimportant islands.

American military policy in the Pacific was geared only in a negative way to the nation’s foreign-policy aims. The military effort was dedicated to the destruction of Japan. That was a goal of the first magnitude, to be sure, but just stopping the Japanese was not enough. It became increasingly clear as the war went on that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to restore the old order in Asia. Nor did Roosevelt want to return to business as usual, for he was a sincere opponent of old-style colonialism and wanted the British out of India, the Dutch out of the N.E.I., the Americans out of the Philippines, and the French out of Indochina.5

For the Americans the question was what form independence would take, and here, as in Europe, power would reside with the man on the spot with a gun in his hand. Except in Japan, the Philippines, and the N.E.I., that man would not be an American. This fact opened the possibility that Communists would replace the old colonial rulers and that they might shut the Americans out of Asia just as thoroughly as had the Japanese. The challenge for American policymakers was how to simultaneously drive out the Japanese, prevent the resurgence of European colonialism, and foster the growth of democratic, capitalist local governments, all without actually making the effort necessary to put the man with a gun on the spot. In China, Indochina, and North Korea, it proved to be impossible.

In Asia, American priorities combined with military necessities to shape events. The first priority, as in Europe, was the defeat of the enemy. Next came the elevation of China under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang Party to great power status, which required establishing Chiang’s control in China, a control that was contested by the Communists under Mao Tse-tung and by the Japanese, who held most of the China coast. Chiang was corrupt, inefficient, and dictatorial, but he was also friendly to the West. No matter how badly the Americans wanted Chiang to rule China, however, there was little they could do to support him without troops on the scene, and the military realities precluded sending large numbers of American troops to China.

America’s Asian policy grew out of military necessity, personality conflict, and political motivation. After retreating from the Philippines in early 1942, the Americans established a base of operations in Australia. They already had one in the Central Pacific on Hawaii. Top Army and Navy officials did not get on well with one another. The result was a division of the area into two theaters of war, the Southwest Pacific and the Central Pacific; the Army under General Douglas MacArthur was responsible for the Southwest Pacific, and the Navy under Admiral Chester Nimitz was in charge in the Central Pacific. MacArthur’s base was Australia; his strategy was to move northward through the N.E.I., the Philippines, and Formosa to get at Japan. Nimitz, in Hawaii, wanted to advance west- ward through the Central Pacific. In the end, both approaches were used.



Asia in 1997

When MacArthur reached Australia after his flight from Bataan (in February 1942), he announced, “I shall return” to the Philippines.6 Senior officers in the Navy objected; they felt that making the effort to get back into the Philippines was not worth the men and materiel required. The Navy wanted to bypass the Philippines and go straight to Formosa or concentrate exclusively on the Central Pacific. MacArthur’s critics, and their number was large, believed that the only reason the United States returned to the Philippines (in late 1944) was to enhance MacArthur’s personal prestige.

Mac Arthur’s egotism was great, but his desire to go back to the Philippines involved something more than personal satisfaction. MacArthur thought it would be madness for the United States ever to be involved in a land war in Asia, a military judgment that only reinforced his parallel belief that it was imperative for the United States to control the off-shore islands, particularly the Philippines and Japan. The general knew that if the United States bypassed the Philippines, there was a danger that the Hukbalahap, a Communist-led guerilla organization, would take power. It might be impossible to root them out. MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines solved this problem, and in 1946 the United States turned the destiny of the Philippines over to men who were friendly to America and allowed her to keep American military bases and investments.

In China, unlike the Philippines, the Americans did not have-troops on the spot and could not control events. The United States hoped Chiang’s Kuomintang Party would bring China into the modern world community both as a market and as a producer of raw materials. Americans realized that to accomplish this the Kuomintang would have to be reformed and its policies liberalized. They encouraged Chiang to root out the rampant corruption, make an accommodation with Mao and the Communists, introduce some meaningful land reform, and modernize along Western lines.

The tactical mistakes made in attempting to implement this program were manifold, but more important was the strategic error. The program rested on the twin assumptions that Chiang wanted reform and that he could put it through, assumptions that turned out to be totally unwarranted. But most Americans regarded the Chinese Communists with horror, and there seemed to be no middle ground between Mao and Chiang. Events therefore ground on with what appeared to be a tragic inevitability. America sent huge loans to China, often in the form of direct cash, but with a foreboding of failure since they were really bribes to Chiang and his chief supporters, who threatened to quit the war against Japan otherwise. The possibility that the Chinese might surrender frightened Washington sufficiently to keep the money flowing.

Throughout the war the situation within the Kuomintang’s armies was desperate. Senior officers lived in luxury while the enlisted men suffered from body-wracking diseases, seldom ate, were usually shoeless, and had insufficient equipment (one in three had a rifle, usually without ammunition). American officials wanted improvement, for it was imperative that China’s vast manpower resources be used against Japan.

There was, in addition, the problem of the Chinese Communists. Chiang was using his only respectable troops against Mao, who in turn deployed a force of up to two million men. Full-scale civil war threatened, a war that would be dangerous to the Americans on two counts: It would reduce the potential forces that could be thrown against Japan, and it might lead to Chiang’s overthrow and Mao’s victory. The Americans therefore tried to force Chiang to bring the Communists into the government and to persuade Mao to cooperate with Chiang. Neither of the Chinese groups, however, would make any but the most impossible demands of the other, and nothing was accomplished.

During the last stages of the war, Chiang was able to obtain Russian promises, honored for the most part, not to support the Chinese Communists and to urge Mao to unite with the Kuomintang. In return, Chiang leased Port Arthur to the Russians and made Dairen a free port, while recognizing Soviet control of Outer Mongolia. Stalin regarded Mao as an adventurer whose wild schemes would anger the West and thus endanger Russian gains in the Far East. Mao regarded Stalin as a backstabber.

For two years, meanwhile, the hopeless American policy of trying to bring Mao and Chiang together continued. After the war, when Truman sent Marshall to China in another attempt to bring the two Chinese leaders together, Secretary of War Stimson warned Marshall: “Remember that the Generalissimo [Chiang] has never honestly backed a thorough union with the Chinese Communists. He could not, for his administration is a mere surface veneer (more or less rotten) over a mass of the Chinese people beneath him.” Despite this realism, and despite the proclaimed neutrality of the Marshall mission, America continued to give material support to Chiang. It was never enough, primarily because nothing short of a total American occupation of China would have been sufficient to prevent Mao’s eventual victory. Such an occupation would have required millions of American soldiers, far more than the nation was willing to send even to Europe, and there never was the slightest possibility that either the American people or government were willing to make the sacrifice required to save the Kuomintang.

Stalin’s willingness to cooperate in Asia with the Americans extended beyond China. Roosevelt first met with Stalin in late 1943 in Teheran, Iran. The American President’s dislike of de Gaulle reinforced his general opposition to European colonialism and led to his proposal for Indochina. Roosevelt suggested that Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam be placed under a four-power trusteeship after the war (the powers being China, the United States, Russia, and Britain). Stalin immediately endorsed the proposal, adding that Indochinese independence might follow in two or three decades. Only the British, fearful for their own empire, objected to thus snatching away a colony from France.

The situation within Vietnam did not lend itself to an easy solution. The Japanese had allowed the French to maintain civil control of Indochina until March 1945, when they gave limited encouragement to Vietnamese nationalism by replacing the French with a royal puppet government under the Bao Dai. The Viet Minh then went into active resistance. Their leader, Ho Chi Minh, told Washington that he wanted independence within five to ten years, land reform, a democracy based on universal suffrage, and national purchase of French holdings. He had worked closely with OSS agents during the war (primarily rescuing downed American pilots) and had copied the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence from the American document. After the war this availed Ho nothing, for the American position toward French colonialism changed. Whatever Roosevelt’s personal feelings toward de Gaulle, good relations with France would turn in large part on the American attitude toward Indochina.

There was, in addition, the general American fear of Communism in Asia, of which Ho was obviously a part and potentially a leader. The Americans therefore agreed, in August 1945, that in Indochina the British would accept the Japanese surrender south of the sixteenth parallel, while Chiang’s troops would do so to the north. The British held the southern position until de Gaulle could send troops to Saigon, while Chiang’s troops looted with abandon until the French returned to Hanoi. America had taken its hard line with Japan in 1941 in large part because of the Japanese occupation of Indochina, and it was at least consistent that at the end of the war she would move again to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into unfriendly hands, distasteful as French colonial rule might be.


Many American decisions in World War II—such as allowing the French to reoccupy Indochina—were made quickly and without the benefit of deep analysis because they concerned issues with a relatively low priority. In some cases these decisions had serious repercussions, as in Vietnam and the agreement to divide Korea. The Russians were to occupy Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel and the Americans the area south of that line. Both agreed that this was merely a matter of convenience—that the Japanese colony eventually would be reunited and given its independence—and both seem to have meant it at the time, although neither gave Korea a great deal of thought.

The most important American decision of the war, however—to build and then use an atomic bomb—was thoroughly examined and discussed in the highest levels of the government. The Manhattan Project, the best-kept secret of the war, began in 1939, with the sole purpose of harnessing the energy of the atom to produce a bomb that could be carried by aircraft, and to succeed before the Germans could. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the eminent scientists on the project, later recalled, “We always assumed if they were needed they would be used.” The tendency was to regard the bomb as simply another military weapon.

By mid-1945 the military situation dominated thinking about the bomb, because although Japan had clearly lost the war, she was far from crushed. She had lost most of her Pacific empire and fleet, to be sure, but she still retained control of much of China, most of Southeast Asia, and all of Korea and Manchuria. Her army was more or less intact, and her air force—based on the kamikazes—was a major threat. Japan had an army estimated at up to two million men in Manchuria, with Some 5,350 kamikaze planes ready for use with 7,000 more in storage. There were also thousands of kamikaze PT boats and more than enough young volunteers to steer the planes and boats. An American invasion of the home islands would be a bloody affair. Stimson wished to avoid it, not only because he feared the casualties but also because he did not wish to inaugurate a race war in the Pacific, where the white man was so badly outnumbered.

A key factor was the Red Army. If Stalin would declare war, Japan might quit without a last-ditch fight. Contemplating the possibility on June 18, 1945, General Marshall noted, “The impact of Russian entry on the already hopeless Japanese may well be the decisive action levering them into capitulation.” The U.S. Navy thought the Japanese could be starved into submission through a blockade, and the Army Air Force argued that even without the atomic bomb the enemy could be forced through bombing to surrender (the recently developed napalm was being used in raids on Tokyo with fearful effectiveness), but Truman and Marshall could not accept these optimistic forecasts. If the United States wanted an unconditional surrender, it must first destroy the Japanese Army. Since in the early summer of 1945 the atomic bomb had not yet been tested, it appeared that the only way to destroy the Japanese Army was to fight it, and in Marshall’s view it was preferable to have the Red Army do it than the American Army.

There was another alternative. However strong the Japanese Army, whatever cost the enemy could force the United States to pay to overrun the home islands, Japan was a defeated nation and her leaders knew it. They could delay, but not prevent, the final defeat. Japan was fighting on to avoid the humiliation of unconditional surrender. She wanted some explicit conditions before her capitulation. A few Japanese leaders dreamed of holding onto conquered territory on the mainland, but most were realistic enough to know that Japan would lose control of all but her home islands. What they did want was some guarantee of eventual self-rule, and more immediately a guarantee that the Emperor would remain sacrosanct, both physically and in his official position (the American press was carrying demands by some politicians that the Emperor be tried as a war criminal and punished, a view that had strong public support).

American leaders knew that Japanese moderates were trying to find a way out with honor. They had also agreed among themselves that the Emperor had to stay, since his elimination would bring on social chaos in Japan. For reasons of domestic morale and politics, however, the Americans decided not to inform the Japanese of their intentions about the Emperor.

At the February 1945 meetings with the Soviets at Yalta, the Americans pressed Stalin to promise to enter the Pacific war and offered to force Chiang to make concessions to the Russians on the Sino-Soviet border in return. Stalin agreed to come in three months after the conclusion of hostilities in Europe—he said he would need that much time to shift troops from Germany to Manchuria. When in July the Big Three met again at Potsdam, outside Berlin, the Americans remained as anxious as ever to have the Red Army in the Pacific.

Then came the successful test of the first atomic bomb. It inaugurated a new era in the world’s history and in the tools of American foreign policy. No longer—or so it seemed—would the United States have to rely on mass armies, either those of its allies or its own. The atomic bomb had the great advantage of being cheaper than mass armies—and much quicker. The Americans immediately began to use the bomb as an instrument of diplomacy. As Churchill summed up the American attitude on July 23, “It was now no longer necessary for the Russians to come into the Japanese war; the new explosive alone was sufficient to settle the matter.” Later the same day, reporting on a conversation with Secretary of State James Byrnes, Churchill declared, “It is quite clear that the United Stated do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan.” And that evening Stimson recorded that even Marshall, who had pushed hardest for Russian entry, “felt as I felt sure he would, that now with our new weapon we would not need the assistance of the Russians to conquer Japan.”

At Potsdam, Truman casually informed Stalin that the United States had a “new weapon” and was pleased when the Soviet leader did not press him for details.7 The Big Three then agreed to retain the Emperor after Japanese surrender but refused to let the Japanese know this. Instead, they issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling again for unconditional surrender on pain of great destruction. The Japanese rejected the demand, as it contained no guarantee on the Emperor, and Truman gave the order to drop the bomb.

What was the great hurry? This question has bothered nearly everyone who has examined the controversy raging around the decision to use the bomb. The importance of the question stems from three related factors: (1) the United States had no major operations planned before November 1, 1945, so there was time to wait and see what effect the anticipated Russian declaration of war would have on the Japanese, or to see if the Japanese peace feelers were serious; (2) the bomb was not planned for use against a military target, so it would not change the military situation; and (3) the Americans expected the Russians to enter the war on or about August 8, but they dropped the bomb on August 6. When the Japanese did not surrender immediately, they dropped a second bomb on August 9. The British physicist P. M. S. Blackett, and later others, charged that the sequence of events demonstrated that the use of the bomb was “the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.” Its primary purpose was to keep Russia out of the Far Eastern postwar settlement rather than to save American lives.

A parallel interpretation claims that the American intention was to impress the Russians with the power of the bomb and to make it clear to them that the United States would not hesitate to use it. America had already deployed the bulk of her troops out of Western Europe, as had the British, so that by August of 1945 the Red Army was the most powerful force in all Europe. To those concerned about a possible Russian advance across the Elbe River, the bomb seemed a perfect deterrent.

These interpretations are not necessarily wrong; they are just too limited. They tend to ignore or underestimate Japan’s remaining power of resistance, especially the terrifying kamikazes.

Nearly every individual who participated in the decision to use the bomb had his own motive. Some were concerned with the kamikazes, others wanted to punish the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, while there were those who said that the actual use of the bomb was the only way to justify to Congress and the people the expenditure of $2 billion to produce it. Life came cheap in the world of 1945. The Anglo-Americans at Dresden had killed tens of thousands of women and children in air raids that had no discernible military purpose. To kill a few more “Japs” seemed natural enough, and the racial factor in the decision cannot be ignored.

But the simplest explanation is perhaps the most convincing. The bomb was there. Japan was not surrendering. Few in the government thought seriously about not using it. To drop it as soon as it was ready seemed natural, the obvious thing to do. As Truman later put it, “The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.”

Unfortunately, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima did not bring an immediate Japanese response. The Russians, meanwhile, declared war on August 8 and the Red Army moved forward in Manchuria and southern Sakhalin. The Japanese Manchurian Army surrendered. In order to prod the Japanese, on August 9 the United States dropped a second bomb, on Nagasaki, which ensured that the Japanese government would surrender to the Americans. Even after the second bomb, however, the Japanese insisted on a guarantee about Emperor Hirohito’s safety. Truman decided he would have to give it, the United States made the required promise, and Japan finally surrendered.

Truman’s use of the bomb has been one of the most criticized decisions of the war and one of the most highly praised. Two factors, probably unanticipated and generally unnoted in the debate over the use of the bomb, are the effect it had on the Japanese military and on the American public. Japanese officers high and low had been ready to fight to the death because surrender was dishonorable. But the bomb gave them an excuse that allowed surrender: How could they fight against such a weapon? On the other side, the vehement demands of the American public for retribution—most often expressed in the call for the trial of Japanese leaders, especially Emperor Hirohito, as war criminals—subsided immediately after the news of the bombings had been broadcast. Americans felt, in effect, “That’s enough, they’ve suffered enough.” Japanese submissiveness in the face of overwhelming power combined with the American conviction that Pearl Harbor had finally been avenged made possible the excellent relations between Japanese and Americans that began immediately after the war.

American troops occupied Japan, excluding the Russians, not to mention the Australians and the British. Even though MacArthur, who headed the occupation, was supposed to be a supreme Allied commander responsible to all the governments that had been at war with Japan, in fact he took his orders only from the United States government. The conclusion of the war therefore found the United States either occupying, controlling, or exerting strong influence in four of the five major industrial areas of the world—Western Europe, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States itself. Only the Soviet Union operated outside the American orbit.

It was an ironic conclusion. Of the Big Three powers, the United States had made relatively the fewest sacrifices but had gained by far the most. Roosevelt’s policy of avoiding direct confrontation with the armies of the Axis had saved thousands of lives, while his insistence on maintaining the civilian economy at relatively high levels had strengthened the domestic economy. The United States was the only nation in the world with capital resources available to solve the problems of postwar reconstruction. She could use this capital to dictate the form of reconstruction and to extend the areas of her own influence. America had, in addition, the atomic bomb. In 1945 it seemed the ultimate weapon, and American politicians, ignoring the scientists’ warnings that others would soon make their own bombs, believed that they had a secret that would ensure American military dominance for decades.

There were problems. One existed on mainland Asia. Except in South Korea, the United States had no significant numbers of troops on the mainland. Whatever influence she wished to exert could be effected only through the French, British, Dutch, and Chinese Nationalists, all of whom were intensely unpopular with the great masses of Asians. The Japanese had shattered the image of the white man in the Orient. Asians had come to believe that they could control their own lives and resources. They wanted the white man out—out of Indochina, out of India, out of Malaya, out of the N.E.I., out of the Philippines. American foreign policy would either have to adjust to this historic development or her influence would wane.

America’s chief assets were her military and economic strength, but she had another asset to call upon, one that was less tangible but potentially more valuable. In September 1945 America’s prestige, like its relative power in the world, had never been higher. The United States had provided the tools and the men to save Europe and Russia from Hitler and his Nazis. The United States had driven the Italians out of their African colonies and thrown the Japanese out of China, Indochina, the N.E.I., the Philippines, Burma, and Korea. America had asked nothing for itself in return. After World War I, the Allies had tried to punish Germany with the various punitive clauses in the Versailles Treaty. As a result they got Hitler. After World War II, the U.S. followed a policy of magnanimity toward the losers. In occupied Germany and Japan, the U.S. taught the ways of democracy. Ho Chi Minh hailed the Americans as the true friends of the oppressed of the earth. So did such dissimilar men as de Gaulle, Churchill, and, on one occasion, even Stalin himself. In a world full of hatred, death, destruction, deception, and double-dealing, the United States at the end of World War II was almost universally regarded as the disinterested champion of justice, freedom, and democracy. American prestige would never be as high again.

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