World War Two fundamentally changed the destinies of China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia. Each country faced new challenges after the war, often as a direct consequence of the war, challenges that would shape their destinies for decades to come.
The Pacific War did not end with one final and crushing battlefield defeat. The Allied victory was the outcome of relentless pressure that squeezed the life out of Japan's capacity to continue, even though millions of soldiers and civilians still remained willing to die for the Emperor. The atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet declaration of war merely gave the Japanese government the opportunity to surrender.
When the war in the Pacific ended with the Japanese surrender peace was accompanied by turmoil. In East Asia, the stages of Japanese forces surrendering in widely scattered areas from Burma to New Guinea, from Luzon to Java, was a lengthy and complicated process, and one followed soon after by new troubles between local nationalist groups and returning colonial powers. Only in Japan itself, ironically, was there a real peace at a time when China was about to dissolve in renewed—or continued—civil war. But everywhere there was at least a sense of hope that, with the end of the fighting, things would somehow be better.
Japan’s total war dead are estimated at 2.69 million. Chinese historians today seek to increase figures for their nation’s wartime death toll from 15 to 25 or even 50 million. Some 5 million inhabitants of South-East Asia are thought to have perished under Japanese occupation, most of these in Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. None of these numbers are reliable, but they offer an indication of scale. The U.S. Army, meanwhile, lost some 55,145 killed in the Pacific conflict. The U.S. Navy lost 29,263 dead in the east, the Marines 19,163. About 30,000 British servicemen perished in the war against the Japanese, many of them as prisoners.
The war saw the United States change in its attitude toward the world in two closely interrelated ways. On the one hand the dramatic way in which the country was drawn in, the attack on Pearl Harbor, showed the American people in a way nothing else could have that their preference for stopping the world and getting off was simply not a feasible policy line. More important was the general recognition by much of the population that an involvement in international affairs was an essential part of any sensible policy. Possible dangers had to be met by policies designed to engage them at a distance, preferably preventing them from becoming dangerous in the first place.
The outcome of the Pacific conflict persuaded some Americans that they could win wars at relatively small human cost, by the application of their country’s boundless technological ingenuity and industrial resources. The lesson appeared to be that, if the U.S. possessed bases from which its warships and aircraft could strike at the land of an enemy, victories could be gained by the expenditure of mere treasure, and relatively little blood. Only in the course of succeeding decades did it become plain that Japan was a foe uniquely vulnerable to American naval and air power projection. Modern experience suggests that never again will overwhelming military, naval and air power suffice to fulfil American purposes abroad as effectively as it did in the Pacific war.
In the light of the events of August 1945, it can be suggested that Japan would have surrendered not one day later had U.S. ground forces never advanced beyond their capture of the Marianas in the summer of 1944. It is superficially arguable, therefore, that Iwo Jima, Okinawa and MacArthur’s Philippines campaign contributed no more than did Slim’s victory in Burma to the final outcome. The Japanese were induced to quit by fuel starvation, the collapse of industry caused by blockade and in lesser degree aerial bombardment, together with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombs. From the beginning of the Pacific War it was clear that the decisive factor would be the industrial power of the USA.
General Slim’s 1945 reconquest was among the most successful British campaigns of the war, reflecting the highest credit on its commander and his soldiers. But it represented a last convulsion of empire, rather than a convincing contribution to the defeat of Japan. In 1947 the British left India. They quit Burma a year later, and Malaya in 1957. The Dutch were forced to abandon their East Indian possessions in 1949, after four years of bloody guerrilla war. The French suffered futile agonies in Indochina before bowing to the inevitable when they lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh nationalists in 1954.
The U.S. granted independence to the Philippines in 1946. That year, Manuel Roxas was elected national president. He had been prominent among Filipino politicians who collaborated with the Japanese occupation regime, and indeed declared war on the U.S. in September 1944. The electoral success of Roxas served to highlight the equivocal attitude of the Filipino people to the Second World War and to the United States.
The most dramatic decolonization took place in the colonial empire Japan had accumulated. The attempt to expand that empire by new seizures beginning in 1931 had failed. Not only were the remaining conquests, including Thailand, freed of the Japanese presence, but the portions of the empire acquired earlier were now stripped from Japan. Formosa was to be returned to China, and Korea was to regain its independence though after an intermediate period of American and Russian military occupation. When that occupation ended, two states emerged but certainly neither of them would again be ruled from Tokyo. Japan also lost the islands in the Pacific acquired from Germany after World War I.
Far from the Soviets fulfilling fears that they would prolong their presence in Manchuria for imperialistic reasons, Chiang Kai-shek was obliged to beg Stalin’s occupying forces to serve overtime, to give the Nationalists time to send their own troops to take possession. The Soviets withdrew between January and May 1946, having systematically pillaged the region of every scrap of industrial plant. They justified this by asserting that their booty was not Chinese property but Japanese-owned, and thus represented legitimate war reparations. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese captives found themselves labouring for the Russians in Siberia, enduring cold and starvation.
Chiang Kai-shek’s occupation of Manchuria proved a strategic error. His forces there found themselves cut off as the Chinese civil war developed. Vast quantities of American military aid provided to his armies counted for nothing beside the corruption and incompetence of his regime. In 1949 Mao Zedong became master of China, excluding only the island of Formosa, which became Chiang’s pocket nation-state, modern Taiwan. Thus was confounded the Americans’ great fantasy of the wartime era, their vision for China, as was the matching British one, of redeeming their Asian empire. The Japanese slogan “Asia for Asians” achieved fulfilment in a fashion undreamt of by those who coined it.
Few historians today suppose that MacArthur ranks among the great commanders of history. Yet so prodigious were his theatrical powers, so remarkable was the achievement of his wartime publicity machine, that he remains the most famous figure of the Pacific war. Nonetheless, it is essential also to recognise the charisma, intellect and self-conscious aspiration to nobility which enabled MacArthur at times to scale heights no ordinary commander could achieve, as he did at the Japanese surrender. As post-war ruler of Japan, he displayed a wisdom and magnanimity conspicuously absent from his tenure as supreme commander in the south-west Pacific.
In 1945–46, some Japanese were prosecuted for war crimes. To impose retribution on all those guilty of barbarous acts would have required tens of thousands of executions, for which the Allies lacked stomach. Very few Japanese were called to account for their deeds in China and South-East Asia. The U.S., dominant partner in the alliance, focused its vengeance upon those who had committed atrocities against white people and U.S. colonial subjects. The most prominent figure to be charged was former prime minister Hideki Tojo, who was hanged. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita was indicted for his role as Japan’s commander in the Philippines when so many atrocities were committed against its people. Yamashita too was hanged. Gen. Masaharu Homma was shot by firing squad, convicted of responsibility for the Bataan death march.
More controversial were all those Japanese who escaped retribution, especially those who had abused fellow Asians. The most famous failure to prosecute focused on Lieutenant General Ishii Shiro, a medical doctor and the evil genius behind Unit 731 and other organizations dedicated to bacteriological warfare research and other medical “challenges.” This research had involved human subjects and almost always produced death for the laboratory subjects. Doctor Ishii and his associates, however, bargained all their scientific findings in return for amnesia on the part of U.S. war crimes investigators.
Japan itself, stripped of its colonial empire and with its major cities largely destroyed, was in a desperate condition. The whole country was occupied by Allied troops, most of it by American soldiers, the western portion of Honshu and the island of Shikoku by the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. There were, however, mitigating factors which contributed to the country's recovery. Unlike Germany and Italy, the home islands of Japan had not been fought over mile by mile; the surrender induced by the atomic bombs and Soviet entrance into the war meant that the process of destruction had not included ground fighting with its attendant destruction of small towns and facilities, to say nothing of the accompanying casualties.
In the wake of Japan’s surrender, Hirohito’s soldiers, sailors and airmen were shocked to find themselves objects of obloquy among their own people. Public animosity embraced the humblest as well as the loftiest warriors. Japan’s early post-war years were characterised by a collapse of hierarchies. Decadence, even depravity, flourished, as the defeated people astonished their conquerors by the fashion in which they abased themselves before all things American. Perhaps this was a necessary part of a cleansing process after the years of military dominance and national self-delusion. From 1950 onwards there followed an economic resurrection which awed the world. The new Japan proved distressingly reluctant to confront the historic guilt of the old. Its spirit of denial contrasted starkly with the penitence of post-war Germany.
The Pacific War saw the deployment of huge forces across a vast geographic area, but it was still a relatively small war by comparison with the European theater - especially with respect to the numbers of soldiers mobilized for land operations. The atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki transformed warfare. Countries now tried to limit wars so that they would not escalate to the nuclear threshold. The Pacific War was thus followed by 30 years of lesser wars across the Asia-Pacific region. They were driven by two imperatives - communism and decolonization - that came to prominence because of the Pacific War. At the end of that time the region had been transformed from that which existed before the onset of the Pacific War: by 1975 all of the former European colonies had gained their independence.