Pacific War

World War II was said to have begun when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, however, America did not officially join the War until December of 1941. Japan, as we know, became part of the Axis Powers, by doing so, they had taken a stand for everything that America and the Allies opposed. Consequently, this added an immense amount of tension to the already shaky relationship between Japan and America. On top of this, Japan had been known to be an increasingly powerful imperialistic nation. With their newfound power as an Axis counterpart, they were able to continue their Imperial raids across most of Asia. Many historians have argued that the actions of Japan are really what started the conflict in the Pacific. Some say that it was due to the fact that “Japan had devised a plan to seize the raw materials wealth of Southeast Asia and the East Indies, knowing that the Western powers were too weak to stop her” [4]. Others insist that “the war was a result of a conspiracy on the part of Churchill and Roosevelt, to save Britain and America by luring Japan into an attack against the United States, permitting Roosevelt to unite war-leery Americans into the fight against Axis tyranny” [4]. Whether it was one or the other, or both together as one unit, the war in the pacific had been started.

The Japanese Showing their Teeth

An in depth look at two of the cities that were occupied in China shows the ruthless methods that Japan used to gain territory. Many atrocities to basic human rights were carried out by the Japanese soldiers under order of their superiors. Most cities were left in rubble as Japan continued their advance south. The beginning of war in China was said to have been defined by the events that took place on the Marco Polo Bridge. In the Journal of Urban History, authors offer this incident as the tipping point between the nations of China and Japan. They state that “the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937 marked the outbreak of war in northern China. The following month, on August 13, the Japanese attacked Shanghai” [5]. From this point, Japanese troops advanced farther into the continent at an increasingly alarming rate. Most cities that were located near roads, railroads, and other methods of travel between Chinese cities suffered the same fate as the city of Shanghai.

War damage in the southern section of Nanking where most of the fighting in connection with the fall of the city took place. Picture taken March 17, 1938

The next city that followed shortly behind the occupation of Shanghai was the Chinese city of Nanking. As shown below, the city of Nanking was left in ruins after the Japanese troops advanced through that region of the China. It is easy to see the horrific approaches Japan used to continue their advance, and again, this is just one example. Many Cities were warned to surrender or suffer the horrors of war. Nations that did not surrender to the encroaching Japanese troops were simply invaded by force. Chinese war crime transcripts recall the Japanese invasion of Nanking as follows: “the Japanese soldiers would take any men they found as prisoners, neglect to give them food or water for days (leaving them defenseless), bind their wrists with wire and take them to be executed and left in a mass grave” [2]. Other practices included many different kinds of torture used by the Japanese armies, such as live burials, mutilation, death by fire, death by freezing, and death by dogs” [2]. On top of this, Chang goes on to talk about the more horrible things that occurred during the occupation.

Japanese Expansion Through China

 The events that took place in both of these cities, as well as others, provided the pretext for American intervention in the War. Since World War II had started, the United States had been hesitant to join the allied fight. There was much speculation about what would have happened if Japan’s quest for imperial power had not been put to an end. In his book War Without Mercy, John Dower spoke to the idea of Japan becoming a major imperial power in Asia again, he stated that “Japan’s belated emergence as a dominant power in Asia, culminating in the devastating advance south of 1941-42, challenged not just the Western presence but the entire mystique of white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested” [3]. As we consider the possible causes of the conflict in the Pacific between Japan and America up to the Pearl Harbor Attack, the atrocities carried out by Japan in China could be considered a heavy selling point for the United States to finally have joined the Allied effort. Also, the developing challenge that Japan represented to the western (American) way of life could have been another catalyst of the Pacific conflict. As Japan gained more and more territory, they became more powerful and at the rate that they were advancing through Asia, America ultimately made the choice to join the allied war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  After Japanese troops had moved on from Shanghai, there was mass confusion about what had actually happened to the Chinese city of Nanking.

With the impending imperial Japanese nation spreading across China and the Southwestern parts of China, there were mixed feelings coming from the American government and people. When asked about the actions of the Japanese nation, Franklin Roosevelt, president 1933-45, said that “the United States had no choice but to protest Japanese actions, to uphold the moral foundations of international life” [5]. Along with President Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt’s presidential predecessor (1929-33), also wrote that “these acts do not imperil the freedom of the American people, or the economic and moral future of our people” [5]. As a whole, many public figureheads of the United States disapproved of the imperial horrors that were going on in Asia, many agreed that since they were not on America’s doorstep, it would be unwise to take action. Although action was not taken against the Japanese at this time, the basis for anti-Japanese sentiment in America. In the book Pearl Harbor as History, the author discusses the role of the United States Congress during WWII, she says “they (congressmen) gave less priority to relations with Japan and East Asia than too relations with European states and considered Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy more dangerous than Japan. Though shocked by Japanese actions, most of them regarded Japan as a less formidable potential adversary than Germany” [5]. Ultimately, the imperial power that Japan had become in Asia laid the basis for American anti-Japanese sentiment. Action from the American side of the War did not come until after the Japanese attack on American soil.

Roosevelt Day of Infamy Speech

There was a defined correlation between the amount of imperial power that Japan was gaining and the efforts of the United States and other Allied powers to stop them. Up to this point, America had not officially entered the World War II, however, when the Japanese axis power orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the threat of Japan trying to change the western world had finally become real for America, the fight had finally been brought to America’s front door. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalls the day as “a date that will live in infamy”, the attack on Pearl Harbor caused the United States to “suffer 3,695 casualties and the loss of most of its Pacific Battle fleet” [4]. Soon after, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a declaration of war to begin the American fight against the Axis powers. World War II would continue officially until September 2nd, 1945. The fight between America and Japan ended promptly after the American Atomic bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As illustrated above, the imperialistic conquests of the Japanese empire in southern Asia in cities such as Shanghai and Nanking laid the groundwork for American Japanese conflict in the pacific. However, Japan’s imperial expansion and challenging of Western culture are ultimately what led to the War in the Pacific, more specifically the conflict between America and Japan. An issue that would change the relationship between America and Japan for the coming decades.






[1] Borg, Dorothy. Pearl Harbor as History. Columbia University Press, 1973

[2] Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking, the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. BasicBooks, 1997.

[3] Dowers, John W., War without Mercy- Race & Power in the Pacific War, Panthenon Books, 1986

[4] Edgerton, Robert B. Warriors of the Rising Sun, a History of the Japanese Military. W.W.Norton & Company, 1997. 

 [5] Lincoln, Toby. The Rural and Urban at War: Invasion and Reconstruction in China during the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance. Journal of Urban History, 2012, Vol.38 (1), pp.114-132