The Rising Sun
by John Toland
Toland presents the story of World War II in the Pacific, from both the American and Japanese perspectives, though primarily from the Japanese side. From the events leading to their difficult decision to attack Pearl Harbor, to their even more difficult decision to surrender nearly four years later, Toland reveals Japan to be a striving imperialist nation, yet still possessed of its samurai heritage. Over a period of five years the author conducted hundreds of interviews of WWII participants as well as digging deep into the war archives of both the U.S. and Japan. Without judgement or conclusion he uses this treasure-trove of history to convey the complex story of the war that spurred Truman to drop the first atomic bomb.
The result is a powerful portrayal of the glory and tragedy of war, and for the westerner, a glimpse into the puzzling ethic of samurai culture. Throughout the story the reader sees that Japan was internally torn, with many political and military leaders favoring peace with the U.S. Japanese leaders were well aware that the United States possessed more people, more land, and more raw materials, and that the U.S. would likely prevail in a war. Yet despite this they felt they had no choice but to attack.
Roosevelt knew this, though not necessarily when or where. The U.S. was blockading Japan as punishment for their occupation of China and Korea and designs on southeast Asia. As an island nation with no natural resources, the Japanese military was running low on oil and other precious commodities. At the same time, Japan felt that it was destined to rule all of Asia, not just for its own benefit, but as the most able oriental society to lead Asia from oppression by the white man. Ironically, from the perspective of most Chinese, the white man’s oppression was much preferred to the Japanese version.
As tensions between the U.S. and Japan grew and as Churchill longed for the U.S. to formally enter the war, Roosevelt held firm in keeping American troops at home. Rather than bear the onus of an aggressor nation, Roosevelt chose to wait until the Japanese either succumbed to American demands or attacked the U.S. Roosevelt correctly predicted that a seemingly unprovoked attack on U.S. soil would stir and unite Americans in a way that no politician could ever accomplish. Roosevelt knew he would need popular support to enter the war and reverse the tide of the rising fascists. That Japan was also a capitalist nation and deeply opposed to communism, while the U.S.S.R was a U.S. ally was one of the many ironies of WWII.
On a December 7, 1941, as sleepy sailors sat down for their Sunday breakfast under cloudy skies at Pearl Harbor, 500 Japanese pilots appeared seemingly out of nowhere and laid waste to the naval and air forces of Oahu. In a few hours thousands of men died and many ships were sunk, as well as planes destroyed. Warning signs had been there, from radar blips to intercepted messages decoded by American intelligence. But alas, Americans were not expecting this attack, so the signs were ignored.
As Japan and Roosevelt both predicted, Americans do not like being attacked on their own soil, especially when such attack is perceived as unprovoked. America at once determined to enter WWII, though it would take some time to build their military apparatus. For six months or so, Japan won many key battles in the Pacific, as the Americans were under-staffed, under-trained and under-equipped to deal with the military might of the Japanese.
However, by the end of 1942, the tide had clearly turned, and the U.S. began to win a series of battles for strategic islands in the Pacific. Toland provides detailed descriptions of many of these battles, often telling both the Japanese and American experiences, often making the battles personal by telling parts of each story through the eyes of enlisted men and officers. One aspect of many battles seemed to be the outsized role played by luck. In many instances, an erroneous translation of an intercepted message, a lucky or unlucky guess by a commanding officer, or any of a multitude of other variables would determine the outcome of a battle, and ultimately life or death to the participants. After reading so many of these examples, the reader gains a sense of the randomness of war.
Overall an excellent account of WWII in the Pacific. My only criticism is that the book is a bit too long.