BOOK REVIEW – War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972

Hal M. Friedman, ed. War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972. Lexington KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 264 pp. 

Review by John M. Jennings, PhD
United States Air Force Academy

War in the American Pacific and East Asia, 1941-1972 is a collection of seven articles edited by Hal M. Friedman, professor of history at Henry Ford College. The articles deal with multifarious aspects of the US military involvement in Asia and the Pacific from the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941 to the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. In addition to editing the volume, Friedman contributed an article of his own. 

The first article in the volume, by Rebecca Robbins Raines, describes the rapid expansion of U.S. Army Signal Corps during the war. Virtually ignored in the interwar period, the Signal Corps was confronted with the enormous task of essentially building from scratch in 1941. Raines addresses that process in considerable detail, effectively conveying a sense of the impressive achievement of developing a worldwide and rapid (for the time) communication network in such a short time. Steve Call’s article, the next in the volume, employs popular media sources such as films and magazines to illustrate how the media (with the support and encouragement of the military) shaped public opinion about the air war in Asia and the Pacific. As Call’s article makes clear, although media accounts tended to overstate the impact of land-based air operations on the war overall, the propaganda value of publicizing the heroic efforts of the Flying Tigers, Doolittle Raiders, and other aviators was considerable. The next article, by Stephen Houseknect, recounts the controversy over the creation of elite Raider units in the Marine Corps. Houseknect explains that this experiment aroused considerable opposition from Marine leadership, due, among other reasons, to the negative morale impact of creating elite units in a branch of the armed forces that already considered itself elite. Ultimately, the light-armed and nimble Raider units were absorbed back into the regular Corps in 1944 as it became clear that their services were no longer required in a war that had devolved into an attritional slugging match. 

Josh Levy’s article, the fourth in the volume, is a case study of the U.S. Navy’s administration of the Pacific island Pohnpei in the immediate postwar period through the lens of food policy. When the Navy took control of Pohnpei, which had been a Japanese colony since World War I, a clash of cultures immediately occurred over the issue of food. Food had played a major role in Pohnpeian politics and culture since pre-colonial times and had continued to do so during the Japanese colonial period, when the traditional food culture gained an overlay of Japanese tastes. Postwar US administrators, however, disregarded the local food culture altogether as part of an overall dismissal of the Pohnpeians as backward and instead forced the US version of modernity on the island in the form of canned and processed foods. As Levy notes, the people of Ponhpei are still struggling with that legacy in the form of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The fifth article, by Friedman, described interservice rivalry between the Army and Navy over the organization and conduct of the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Friedman shows that the struggle for control over the tests was part of a larger contest between the two services for funding and resources in a postwar world of budget cuts and uncertainty about the impact of atomic weaponry on the conduct of future conflicts. 

The last two articles are focused on East Asia. Katherine K. Reist explores the history of the U.S. Military Advisory Missions in China from the end of World War II to the end of the Marshall Mission in 1947. While the Guomindang (Nationalist) government of Chiang Kai-shek had received the lion’s share of US aid during the war, the immediate postwar period witnessed a shift in US policy to attempt to affect a reconciliation between the warring Guomindang and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong. Mirroring the political efforts of US Secretary of State George Marshall to persuade the Guomindang and CCP to form a coalition government, the Military Advisory Mission attempted to forge a new Chinese military out of elements from both factions. These efforts collapsed in 1947 as the Chinese Civil War began in earnest, culminating in the CCP victory in 1949. The final article, by Nicholas Sarantakes, describes how the media impacted the US occupation and administration of Okinawa from the end of World War II to the return of the island to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. As Sarantakes shows, the media played no small role in the events of 1972. While the US military was able to keep press coverage of Okinawa muted and friendly through the end of the 1950s, by the 1960s and early 1970s, greater press scrutiny of abuses committed by US military personnel and US military interference in local political affairs increasingly soured public opinion. Reporting of anti-US riots that broke out in 1970, in a broader context of disillusionment with the Vietnam War, finally pushed public opinion to support the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. 

While the seven articles are each illuminating in their own way, this volume illustrates the challenges of assembling a collection of articles into a book with a unified theme. While the volume purports to shed light on the impact of the US military on East Asia and the Pacific during the war and immediate postwar period, only the articles by Levy, Reist, and Sarantakes address this explicitly. Raines, Houseknect, and Friedman, instead, focus on inter- and intra-service and bureaucratic issues that just happened to touch upon East Asia and the Pacific. Similarly, Call’s article focuses on US public opinion, with little consideration of the East Asia-Pacific dimension. Nor does this volume offer an explanation of the 1941-1972 periodization. Is there something more significant to this period beyond the fact that the last article just happens to end in 1972? And finally, the lack of attention to US involvement in the Korean War, the most significant post-World War II conflict in East Asia, is baffling. Perhaps if Friedman, the editor of this volume, had written the introduction, he would have been able to address these issues and provide a more persuasive raison d’etre for this volume as a whole.  

(Return to August 2020 Table of Contents)

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