The War in the Pacific and its Legacy
On this day in 1945, it was announced that Japan had surrendered. The formal instrument of surrender would not be signed until September, but World War II was finally over. The Japanese threat in the Pacific that had dragged the United States into the war four years earlier had been eliminated, but 74 years later, the conditions in the Pacific are today closer to that of December 1941 than they are August 1945.
When we talk about World War II and its legacy, most of the talk is on Europe. There are good reasons for this. Adolf Hitler can rightfully be considered history’s greatest villain and the war was brought home to more people through Nazi invasions and occupations, the Blitz of Britain, and the resulting Cold War where the Western Allied and Soviet armies met in the middle to contest the continent’s post-war feature. The war in Europe also saw more action on land with massive armies, especially on the Eastern Front, and therefore more death than the war in the Pacific. For the Europeans, their part in the Pacific concerned fights over far-flung colonial possessions that have since been lost.
While the Chinese fought Japan on land and the British fought for control of India and Burma, most of the memorable fighting took place at sea or tiny islands with little or no civilian population. It was not until June 1944 on Saipan that U.S. engaged with large numbers of Japanese civilians. While bombing of Germany went on well before D-Day in Normandy, the strategic bombing of Japan did not start until Saipan was secure. It was not until the Battle of Manila even later in February 1945 that the U.S. fought an urban battle with Japanese forces. As far as Japanese atrocities, it is a failure of history classes that more people are not aware of the Rape of Nanking, the use of comfort women, the Bataan Death March, Unit 731, and other crimes.
For all of these reasons, when many people think of World War II, they think of Europe.
Unfortunately, it has therefore been the case that the only lesson learned from World War II in the Pacific seems to be that Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be the last two cities to ever be targeted by nuclear weapons. This is not a perfectly legitimate aspiration, but there is so much more that needs to be considered.
In the Pacific the United States emerged as the clear power with no clear rival. The Soviet Army could challenge the security of Western Europe and dominated Eastern Europe and was the quintessential Eurasian land power, but the Soviet Navy could not even dream of competing with the U.S. Navy in 1945. There were problems to be sure in the Asia-Pacific region, questions of decolonization, especially in Korea would push the United States to war again in 1951, but that was still in future.
Throughout the Cold War there were problems in Asia. The aforementioned Korean War and the communist takeover of China, the Vietnam War, and an increasingly powerful Soviet Navy in the the latter years, but again, by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States was again by far the clear power in the Pacific. Chinese power was still very much a hypothetical.
Now in 2019 the situation is very different. Chinese naval strength is growing at a rate that has the entire Indo-Pacific region terrified and where budgetary issues have left the U.S. in a bind. The naval dominance that the U.S. had in the Pacific for the post-war period is rapidly eroding. This should concern us all for the last time the U.S. did not have naval superiority in the Pacific, we got bombed on a Sunday morning.
For sure, a literal Pearl Harbor 2.0 is almost certainly out of the cards, but instead of Hawaii the potential target for enemy action has moved west. The so-called first island chain moved west with the U.S. victory in 1945, meaning that if an adversary wants to threaten U.S. territory they first have to go through a series of islands that runs starts at the southern end of Japan, incorporates Douglas MacArthur’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in Taiwan, runs west of the Philippine archipelago, running further south still on the west side of Malaysia down to the South China Sea.
The most probable situation where China attempts to break the chain is by invading and annexing Taiwan, from there China. If the U.S. acquiesces to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, China can then better threaten U.S. allies in the Philippines and Japan as well as U.S. territories, not to mention Taiwan gives China additional strategic depth. If China breaks the second chain, they can then easily threaten Hawaii and Hawaii protects the west coast of the mainland. It was these second and third chains that Japan attacked in December 1941.
In short, if Taiwan falls, we’re back to a pre-December 7, 1941 world. Up to now the U.S. has deterred China from invading and annexing Taiwan through it’s naval strength. As late as 1995, the U.S. could send two carrier strike groups through the Taiwan Strait and China had no choice but to back down, stop saber-rattling and acknowledge U.S. naval dominance, but such dominance is waning.
Years of neglect, ill-conceived witticisms and silly defenses by fact checkers have stretched the Navy thin. Talk about the size of the U.S. fleet and defense budget relative to other countries is meaningless. A combat vessel can be in Europe, or the Middle East, or the Indian Ocean, or the Pacific, or it could be at home undergoing maintenance, it can have the best over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles and keel-breaking torpedoes, but it cannot in all places at one time. This is what Barack Obama failed to recognize when he tried to dismiss Mitt Romney’s criticisms with his “horses and bayonets” comments. The real question is how many ships the U.S. can have in theater, in addition to what kind of weapons do they posses.
As China becomes a global power with global trade routes, it is almost inevitable that they would build a navy to defend them. In that process, however, Chines naval strength is also a tool that Beijing uses to intimate its neighbors and challenge U.S. supremacy that has kept the peace in the wider Pacific since 1945. Defense spending may not sell well in an age with high deficits, large debts, and politicians running on free everything, but defense is still in federal government’s number one priority. As U.S. dominance wanes, we would be wise to remember that and that as a maritime power, U.S. national security relies on having a strong navy vis-a-vis our rivals.