title
macrohistory.com: commentary

(MISTAKES: WAR in the PACIFIC – continued)

home | index

MISTAKES: VICTORY in the PACIFIC (3 of 3)

previous | next

Ending the War

It was on 19 February 1945 that the battle of Iwo Jima began. Planners thought it would take a week to wipe out Japanese resistance on the little island, but Iwo Jima was considered by the Japanese a home island. It is 640 miles to Tokyo ( closer than Okinawa, which is 970 miles from Tokyo). The Japanese had built up a strong defense and were determined to save the island from a US occupation. Taking control of the island took the Americans five weeks of hard fighting and a loss of 6,812 Americans killed or missing. Japan lost 21,844 killed.

The US wanted Iwo Jima in order to establish an airstrip half way between its bomber base in the Marianas to Japan's major cities. Iwo Jima was to be a place for B-29s to land and for P-51 fighter aircraft to escort the B-29s. But, as historian Max Boot writes,"the heroism was mostly for naught." He writes:

It turned out that the island was too far away to serve as an effective fighter base. And, unlike Europe, fighters were not needed to protect the bombers over Japan because the defenses were so weak. (War Made New, p 292)

Bombing was an ugly business that was turning even more ugly, unnecessarily. Bombing civilians, it had been decided, was the best way to cripple Japan's industries. The head of the bombing task force against Japan, Curtis LeMay, believed that two-thirds of Japan's industry was dispersed in homes and small shops, with no more than thirty employees.

Le May dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo – fire bombing it would be called – beginning March 9th. The bombing created a firestorm. Japan's official estimate would be 83,793 killed. Within the following week other major cities – Osaka, Nagoya, and Kobe – were bombed in a similar fashion. It was never described to the American people as the intentional targeting of civilians, men, women and children, that it was.

Britain, Australia and the United States had time on their side. Japan was falling apart in spirit and materially. By the end of March, 1945, many of Japan's major cities were in ruin. Tokyo had become a ghost town, except for the emperor's palace, which had been spared. The Japanese were bound to come to their senses, to see that they had to turn to cooperation with the Allies forces – the US, Britain, Australia and others to function as a nation.

It is understandable that the US wanted to keep up the pressure on Japan. In warfare one cannot always easily discern exactly where the line is beyond which is too far. But always war is a time for cool heads, and this was so as Japan's war machine was being crushed and was facing withdrawal from foreign occupations. General Curtis Le May was to argue that he wanted to end the war sooner rather than later in order to save American lives. "If we could shorten the war," he was to argue, we wanted to shorten it."

The possibility that impatience would cost American lives appears not to have been considered. And respect for Japanese lives, of course, was not to be included as a consideration. The US invasion of Japan proper began on March 26 – an invasion of the island of Okinawa. It was the bloodiest and longest of the campaigns against the Japanese. "Operation Iceberg" it was called. It lasted almost three months, ending on 22 June. The United States lost 12,300 killed and 36,000 wounded. Japanese behavior contributed to the tragedy. Between 42,000 and 150,000 civilians died, many of them suicides. U.S Army figures show 142,058 civilian casualties.

Okinawa provided the US a fleet anchorage, troop staging areas and airfields in close proximity to Japan, but the US was doing okay against Japan without them. The battle of Okinawa was unnecessary, and the occupation of Okinawa was unnecessary and unfortunately ugly – as military occupations often are. However moral the average man in uniform, every large military unit has its people who don't behave properly – little minds and egos swelled by military triumph. Historian George Feifer has written about it in his book The Battle of Okinawa (2001). Japan's preeminent historian, Takemae Eiji, has written about it regarding the Allied occupation of Japan in general.

The British were mopping up in Burma. The US was mopping up in the Philippines and helping the fight against the Japanese in China. It was a short jump from Manila to Hong Kong – 700 miles to be exact, much closer than the major US base in Saipan was to Okinawa. The US could have set itself up at Hong Kong or they could have liberated the people of Taiwan – the latter perhaps a better alternative than the blood and treasure spilled for Okinawa.

Japan no longer had a navy that could put up a fight. Its airforce was gone. It was beaten in Burma and withdrawing from China. Besieged, Japan could not have endured long.

The Japanese wanted to negotiate with the Allies, and that could have been facilitated by the US not demanding unconditional surrender. The purpose of the US negotiating with the Japanese would have been to establishment conditions favorable to it. Unconditional surrender was bravado and nonsense.

Now comes the issue of the US wanting to avoid more war on Japan's homeland and use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Secretary of War Henry Stimson saw dropping the atomic bomb on the Japanese as the "jolt to bring the Japanese around." President Truman believed in using the atomic bomb in order to avoid another invasion of Japan's homeland, and he was to declare that it was used on "military" targets. General "Hap" Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, was closer to the truth in his belief that the atomic bomb was not needed in bringing an early end to the war. And there was General Dwight D. Eisenhower who was adamantly opposed to use of the bomb, stating that Japan was in effect already defeated.

The bombs were dropped on August 6 and August 9. This was pleasing to some who were interested in punishing the Japanese. Some wanted to see Emperor Hirohito hanged – while the Japanese were suffering the punishment of military defeat, hunger and economic ruin.

General MacArthur was in charge of the Allied forces against Japan. He was interested in punishing war criminals but spoke with admiration of the Japanese "race." He was sophisticated enough to realize that US would want to establish friendly relations with the people we had been killing and who had been killing us.

For the Japanese, the idea of not cooperating with the West was no longer tenable. The superpatriots, militaristic and imperialist chauvinists had lost the war and with it their influence. The US didn't have to fight its way to Tokyo. On 28 August 28 a small force under General MacArthur flew into a Tokyo airbase. They had the cooperation of the Japanese government and its military high command, not because these men were terrorized into pacific behavior by nuclear weapons. I would not assume as some people do that the Japanese were compliant because we nuked them at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We didn't need to nuke the Germans to make them compliant. Men in power in Japan were responding rationally rather than as terrorized children. They were doing what they had to do, atomic bombs or no atomic bombs.

MacArthur was also using his head. On 3 September he dropped his plan to institute direct military rule. He stopped orders to disarm Japanese troops. The Japanese disarmed their own forces and Japan's military leaders appreciated it. On 16 October MacArthur said,

Approximately seven million armed men...have laid down their weapons. In the accomplishment of the extremely difficult and dangerous surrender in Japan, unique in the annals of history, not a shot was necessary, not a drop of Allied blood was shed.

The occupation of Japan by the Allies (minus the Soviet Union) was a success with rough spots. Both the Americans and the Japanese deserve credit for this. But it need not have been as prolonged as it was.

This opinion is not a product of being soft on Japan's 20th century imperialism, Japan's oppressions or the sadism and callousness that it exercised in the course of its military triumphs. It is opinion that rises from an opposition to primitivity and waste. Any use of power for collective punishment on the Japanese people as a nation might have satisfied the urge of some for vengeance, but it would have accomplished nothing else.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.