"The terrible things that happened in so many parts of China may be unknown to the wider world, but not to the people who lived through them or to their descendants." Diana Lary and Stephen MacKinnon1
The story of World War II in Asia and the Pacific is due a fresh examination, particularly with respect to the war's vast human toll in China and Southeast Asia. To begin, a little understood fact is that Imperial Japan directly attacked and occupied a far larger region and population than did Germany and her European partners together. The deaths, atrocities, and other casualties in Asia rivaled those in Europe. The destruction was no less.
Most Americans know something about the Second World War in Europe, a little about the war in the Pacific, and virtually nothing about the war in East and Southeast Asia. They are well aware of Nazi Germany's aggression, the Holocaust, and the major costly battles in the West. The popular view is that World War II was started by Germany with the invasion of Poland in 1939. Few are aware of, or fully appreciate, Imperial Japan's even more vast and equally merciless aggression in Asia, which began with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria. This act was very likely the true beginning of World War II and the global upheaval that followed.
There was a holocaust-a great devastation, a reckless destruction of life2 -in Asia as well as in Europe. The war Imperial Japan started in one part of the world had much in common with that started by her Axis partners in the other. The Holocaust in Europe included the planned genocide of Jews and others in death camps. It also included open-air shootings and internment in forced labor camps. Death came in ghettos from fighting and starvation. Brutal death came to the Slavic peoples in Poland and the USSR. Other fighting took its toll. Likewise, the holocaust in Asia resulted in massive death and suffering from terror killing, retribution, biological weapons, and other violence against civilians throughout invaded East Asia. This included maltreatment and neglect of forced labor, refugee flight ordeals, and war and Japanese policy- caused malnutrition, sickness, and disease.
The true story of this WWII (1931-1945) theater of war is that Japan invaded Asian countries representing one-third of the human race. This Great Asian-Pacific Crescent of Pain consisted of many hundreds of millions of people from Japan to Korea, China/Manchuria throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and Indian Ocean islands.3 The Japanese military physically subjugated over half this population. The destruction of cities, towns and villages was widespread. Many millions perished. The surviving casualties-whose lives were probably shortened due to their injuries and hardships-were in the many tens of millions. Those severely affected included wounded and maimed, raped and tortured, maltreated forced labor, massive numbers of destitute and despairing refugees and homeless, war orphans, and widows. Others affected by Japan's aggression included brutalized POWs and civilian internees, victims of severe war-caused malnutrition and painful diseases, addicts (from Japanese opium sales), and ill equipped and ill supported Chinese soldiers. Most of the casualties were comprised of noncombatant women, children, and men. The count of the dead and severely affected equaled the total population of the United States at the time. When relatives and communities traumatized by these casualties are added, the scale of the tragedy easily doubles. Few of the populations whose lands were invaded were unaffected.
The attempt at Asian domination was costly to Imperial Japan as well, but the toll was primarily military. However, during the last stage of the war, the battle for Okinawa and U.S. bombing of cities to force the end of the war caused considerable Japanese civilian deaths. The surviving Japanese casualties included the wounded and maimed, the homeless, orphans, widows, and military conscripts. Throughout the 1941-1945 period the entire nation withstood arduous working hours, economic losses, and diet deprivation.
A disturbing share of Imperial Army killing was done in cold blood. All told, the number of lives taken in the Far East, Including the oceans and islands, from all war reasons, grew to approximately 45 percent of the total global WWII Allied death toll.
Today the memory of Japanese invaded Asia and the cost in lives has been relegated to the "attic of history," the suffering unrecognized in the West or treated as if it counted for little. There is minimal attention paid to what the war did to the Chinese people. The painful war experiences of Southeast Asia and the Indian and Pacific Ocean islands are completely neglected. As well, little attention is paid to U.S. and Allied POWs and civilian internees who also endured terrible conditions and losses under the Japanese.
This lack of historic remembrance has left Americans with little understanding of why Japan's limited remorse affects her relations with China and other Asian neighbors today and how that can affect U.S. interests in the region due to our close post WWII association with Japan. The dearth of information about the full extent of the war has also shortchanged the debate about the American actions in response to Japan's war of aggression from 1931 to 1945.
Japanese historian Ikuhiko Hata writes: "The Manchurian incident, the war in China, and the war in the Pacific should not be viewed separately but as one continuous war."4 In this regard, an often-overlooked fact is that the United States after Pearl Harbor became allied with China and fourteen Western and Far Eastern nations and territories attacked by Japan. The Allies soon grew to 26 countries and by 1945 to at least 45. They were all part of the initial United Nations, which was formed in early 1942 to defeat and demilitarize the Axis. President Roosevelt explained this common cause in a speech soon after:
Of all the 1931 to 1945 Asian-Pacific War deaths, approximately 87 percent were Asian victims of Japanese aggression, one percent were Western Allies, and 12 percent were Japanese. The list of victim nations and their peoples is a long one. They include Korea (annexed by Japan in 1910), China (including Manchuria), Hong Kong, Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), and the Philippines. The list continues with Thailand, Burma, eastern India, Malaya (Malaysia), Singapore, the vast East Indies (Indonesia), Timor, New Guinea, and Pacific and Indian Ocean islands.
The fact that Asia has gone through many tragedies throughout its history does not diminish the WW II experience. The fact of China's internal disarray does not mean that the country had any lesser right to independence from the Japanese, or Western control and occupation than, for example, Poland or Russia from Nazi Germany. The clichés such as "Life was cheap in China" or "There is little regard for life among Asians" are demeaning. There is no question that most Asians lived tough, bitter lives and had to be stoic to survive, but that does not mean lives were any less important to them than to a Westerner. Surviving family and community torment was no less so in the East than in the West. Asian Americans from the ancestral countries that were invaded have a right to expect these ordeals to be prominently recognized in American World War II histories and remembrances.
It is true China had more than her share of internal problems, but external colonial forces going back 100 years, including the wars with Japan in 1894-5 and again starting in 1931, exacerbated them. Despite all this, the often-fragmented Chinese military and citizenry defended China and contributed considerably to the ultimate Allied victory.
My concern about the incompleteness of the historiography of this period was aroused by the 1995 debate over the originally proposed Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay display to commemorate the end of WWII. The Japanese losses from the atomic bomb were described in vivid detail while American casualties were treated in a matter-of-fact summary. Those in Japanese-invaded Asia were scarcely mentioned. Thus, amazingly little attention was given to the nature of the 14-year war the bomb ended. This was an astonishing omission.
This remarkable exclusion of history is continued every year during the August remembrance of the end of WWII in the Asian-Pacific Theater when the original Enola Gay proposal comes back to life. Americans are shown over and over again, through most of the media, the destruction of Japanese cities from American bombing. Not a word is devoted to the destruction of cities and regions where many times more lives were lost to Japan's invasion of Asia. Nor is there an iota of recognition about how many Asian lives were at stake and saved by the abrupt atomic end of the war. These revelations are my motivation to make the case that the war in Asia and the Pacific is as much about Shanghai, Nanking and Manila as about Pearl Harbor, Midway and Hiroshima.
The following chapters of this book explain why Japan's complete defeat, as soon as it could be achieved, was so critical, particularly to the peoples of East Asia. In this regard, the 1945 American strategic bombing of Japan, including the use of fire and atomic bombs, made an early decisive end possible at a cost to Japan of a small fraction of all Asian-Pacific civilian war dead. The conflict's real destructive machine was not strategic bombing. It was, in fact, the massive Japanese and Allied land armies with their artillery, tanks, and tactical air and naval support locked in battle, and the indirect effects, that caused the great majority of all war deaths. Cities and regions like Shanghai, Nanking, Soochow, Paoting, Huschow, Hankow, Chunking, Changsha, and Kweilin, for example, in China, and Manila in the Philippines, and hundreds of villages are clear examples of this massive death and destruction. These land armies would be further engaged in a huge battle in the planned U.S. invasion of Japan.6 Further, the navies and air forces cut routes of supply for war and subsistence. Civilians, as always, were caught in the middle and killed in great numbers from violence and economic disruption.
Iris Chang's best selling book, The Rape of Nanking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1998), is the first book to successfully bring passion to the reality of a large part of the war in China. It began the overdue process of educating the American public that there was more to the Asian-Pacific War than Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. As with any work dealing with historic issues that have been long neglected, the book has had both its detractors and defenders.7 However, prior to the publication of Ms. Chang's book, most Americans gave little attention to China's side of the WWII story.
A typical example of the state of public knowledge is illustrated in an article in the Baltimore Sun on September 1, 2000,and was entitled "War to preserve civilized world won 55 years ago." It lists the World War II dead of the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Japan, and the United States. It remarks on the death camps in Europe and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Not a word or count is offered for other Asian war victims who perished in numbers approximating the extraordinary loss of life in Poland and the Soviet Union combined, and eight times the loss of Japanese lives.
There are many reasons why the education of Americans about the war has been woefully inadequate. Virtually all forms of communication about World War II, such as history books, classroom work, museum exhibits, movies, and the news media, concentrate mainly on Europe and Nazi Germany's past. The Asian-Pacific Theater, particularly Imperial Japan's invasion of Asia, receives far less attention. Since historically Americans have come primarily from Europe, there is a natural tendency for a Euro-centrist view of the world.
A further illustration as to why attention is drawn away from the Far East is that after WWII Japan became a major U.S. Cold War ally and trading partner while China became a Communist adversary. This alliance discouraged attention to Japan's past. There are also Americans who, one could argue, have been unduly sympathetic to the Japanese history, who have been influential in turning attention away from Japan's responsibility for the war, its merciless conduct and the victims. Today, in American classrooms the internment of Japanese-Americans as well as the casualties and issue of the atomic bomb are required subjects. But Japan's aggression in China and the rest of Asia and the consequent casualties are not. This limited perspective of the war has created a view among many, particularly of the post war generations, that the Japanese were the primary victims of the conflict and most deserving of our empathy.
The atomic end has clearly influenced the general view of the Asian-Pacific War. Hiroshima has rightly been held up as a reminder of the unthinkable consequences of nuclear war. But this tragedy has also been used as a distraction from the far greater tragedy the atom ended. The emphasis is exemplified by the focus only on American and sometimes Japanese lives saved-excluding any estimate of Asian and other Allied lives spared-when evaluating how the war was brought to an end. Historian D.M. Giangreco called this failure the "...largely-or rather, steadfastly-overlooked Asian aspect of the controversy."8
Historian Robert P. Newman makes this point well: "Had John Hersey visited Nanking or Manila and written about these catastrophes; had there been no competing overshadowing spectacle in Japan fueled by supernatural science; had Hiroshima not become a shrine to the peace minded, the anguish of Japan's victims might be more on our conscience."9
Today, Japan's defense for starting the war is often noted without analysis. One cannot help but notice how this tends to validate the harm Japan inflicted on the invaded populations. Japan's culpability is avoided while suggesting that the United States behaved just as badly at one time or another or during the course of the war. This often involves greatly stretching the facts, making unproven assertions, and leaving out important differences. Careful comparisons are not attempted. Most critically the full magnitude of Japan's aggression and war crimes are unrecognized.
Certainly, at that time not all Japanese were extreme militarists, nor were all militarists cruel. There were evenhanded Japanese officers and those who defied orders and took other risks to save threatened civilians' lives. However, a large share of the population, knowing little better, were willing to follow their militarists in the name of the emperor. Others had no choice, as they were forced to conform.
It is useful to remember that we Americans have been fortunate to inhabit the vast, uncrowded, self-sufficient continent of North America. Japan, on the other hand, found herself with limited natural resources, dependent far more on international trade, with a large population living on a few crowded islands. While recognizing Japan's situation, as analyzed in Chapter 12 of this book, the country was not forced to go to war. There were, in fact, viable domestic and international alternatives at the time for meeting their challenges peacefully, which they pursued successfully after WWII.
The successive chapters of this book show the year-by-year, week-by-week, day-by-day nature of the war experienced by Chinese and Southeast Asian peoples as well as by Westerners caught in it. The majority of the Westerners consisted of the military fighting forces and civilians interned by the Japanese.
If we are to memorialize the horror of the Holocaust and remember the casualties of Hiroshima and the internment of Japanese-Americans as historic lessons, we owe no less to the victimized populations of Asia and the ocean islands as exemplified by cities like Shanghai, Nanking and Manila.
Analysts of the war in China, Diana Lary and Stephen MacKinnon, express the challenge of describing the war: "It seems so difficult to say anything meaningful about suffering that it is easier to ignore it or to push it aside.... The fact of suffering, rather than the cause of it, continues to affect the present."10 It should be added that some understanding of the causes is relevant to deal with the debated issues of history and any lessons they may teach.
In a more global view, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the Asian-Pacific War was not just between the United States and Japan. It would also be useful to reflect on the fact that aggression is the antithesis of peace and that Japan's responsibility for breaking the peace is as much part of the WWII story as is the means used to end it.
Recognition of the magnitude of the Asian-Pacific War and World War II-following the experience of World War I-will show that the United States and its Western and Asian Allies had defensible reasons for their policies toward militarist Japan, from Manchuria to Hiroshima.
President Truman's aide at the time, George Elsey, sums up this historic reality succinctly: "It is all well and good to come along later and say the [atomic] bomb was a horrible thing, the whole goddamn war was a horrible thing."11 It seems to me that the American remembrance and historiography of WWII has an intellectual obligation to take a more worldwide view and clearly reflect this balance.