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pacific crucible

16 december 2018

As an admirer of Rick Atkinson's three-volume history of the American contribution to the second world war in Europe, I naturally longed to read a similar trilogy about the war between the United States and Japan. Even before Atkinson finished his trilogy, Ian Toll was at work on a parallel set of volumes that met my wish, and I am just getting to them – and won't finish for a while, as Toll's trilogy is, as of this writing, incomplete.

Pacific Crucible, the first of Toll's histories, has a slightly different angle from Atkinson's Army at Dawn. Atkinson focuses narrowly on the American intervention in the war against Germany and Italy. Toll, by contrast, traces the run-up to the U.S.-Japan war from both sides. He attempts to write a more balanced history than has been typical from the American side of things, particularly with regard to the Pacific campaign. But if Clint Eastwood could make Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima from American and Japanese perspectives, surely a serious historian could do something similar in print. Toll obliged, and his balanced, progressive perspective is the new norm.

Not that the Japanese come across as sympathetic in the story. Certainly the warlords and nationalists do not; Toll's capsule history of the rise of a right-wing police state in interwar Japan is chilling. But when he writes about the experience of men in combat, Toll makes little distinction between the Japanese and American ranks. In Allied rhetoric c1940, Japanese fighting men changed their image overnight from underfed minions to military paragons: tireless, fanatical, infinitely resourceful. Naturally, these were the exact same people before and after Pearl Harbor and Singapore. But seen through the lens of Anglo-American prejudices, Japanese troops could never be simply guys like us. They had to be either sheep or supermen; they had to be the Other. Toll rights the balance and shows both sides as the ordinary humans they were.

Pacific Crucible references the ordinary seaman's experience liberally, quoting often from the memoirs of the late Alvin Kernan (who loaded torpedoes on board the carrier Enterprise and later became, in the small-world nature of things, one of my graduate instructors in English literature). But the book contains its share of cute anecdotes about Churchill. (Regrettably, to my mind; I think there should be a long embargo on cunning Churchill quotes in WW2 histories.) Toll also pays quite a bit of attention to famous admirals – Nimitz, Halsey, Yamamoto – as well as to slightly less celebrated figures like Ernest King (global commander of the American navy) and Raymond Spruance (a key leader at the battle of Midway). A central figure in Toll's narrative is Joseph Rochefort, an intelligence officer whose work cracking codes provided crucial information about Japanese fleet movements in the Coral Sea and towards Midway in 1942. Though Rochefort would be discredited by envious timeservers, and removed from his right-hand advisory role to Admiral Nimitz after Midway, he is now seen by historians as perhaps the single most important contributor to the turning of the tide in the Pacific war.

And the tide did turn almost immediately. Despite deep American pessimism after Pearl Harbor, Midway, only six months later, ended the Japanese capability to expand their Pacific empire further. Toll does not tell that story quite as well as Craig Symonds does in The Battle of Midway, but provides context that isn't part of Symonds' scope, and treats the Japanese far more sympathetically (again, from the human, if not the geopolitical, angle).

The war against Japan was part of the war now universally remembered as "good," a military effort that Americans can be proud of. And certainly imperialist Japan shared evil qualities with Hitler's Germany: totalitarianism, ruthless expansion, atrocities committed against civilians (especially in China). Pearl Harbor was, legitimately, the focus of American outrage: "infamy" was not a melodramatic term for the attack. But the war in the Pacific was much more a standard clash of empires than the war in Europe, especially from the American perspective. Japanese leaders, in the 1920s and '30s, were aggrieved that the Americans (and British) exploited colonial empires in Asia and the Pacific, while denying the Japanese scope to do the same. Nobody comes across well in that clash of ambitions. While Japanese aggression was unjustified, American neocolonialism – and the old-fashioned British version – were hardly benign practices.

Caught up in the ensuing war, on both sides, were a great many civilians and combatants who would assuredly rather have been doing something else. Toll quotes a keenly perceptive comment by Robert E. Sherwood:

[The second world war] has been called, from the American point of view, 'the most unpopular war in history'; but that could be taken as proof that the people for once were not misled as to the terrible nature and extent of the task that confronted them. (487-88)
I think I'd never seen that comment before because it squares so badly with the "Greatest Generation" rhetoric that has flourished in the past quarter-century. We now think of troops marching selflessly off to the front while Rosie the Riveter and masses of chipper homefronters had their backs. That picture is not entirely phony; Americans worked exceedingly hard to beat Japan and Hitler. But they did so with bitter determination, and a pre-emptive sadness for the sacrifices that Toll recounts in his trilogy.

Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: Norton, 2012. D 767 .T65