ALLIES AGAINST THE RISING SUN: THE UNITED STATES, THE BRITISH NATIONS, AND THE DEFEAT OF IMPERIAL JAPAN
By Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
University Press of Kansas, $39.95, 458 pages
Most Americans realize that the war against Nazi Germany was a team effort. Indeed, the Soviets did the bulk of the fighting and dying.
Americans are less aware that the campaign against Japan also was a team effort. Americans did the bulk of the fighting and dying. Nevertheless, the Allies - in this case Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - also were involved. All provided men and materiel; Australia also was an important base for U.S. operations.
In “Allies Against the Rising Sun,” Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, a professor at the Naval War College, explores the extensive political battles over who would do what. The result is a fascinating account of a campaign in which Washington was by far the dominant partner, but in which the other four nations squabbled over their participation, including in the expected invasion of the Japanese mainland.
The book is exhaustively researched, but it is no dry academic treatise. It brings to life the main characters and the disputes that sometimes bitterly divided them. Mr. Sarantakes describes well the “delicate dance” that resulted from the American and British belief that London’s participation in the Pacific war was necessary “if there were to be any hope of postwar cooperation between their two countries.”
This theme inevitably limits the scope of the book. Mr. Sarantakes does not look at the beginning of the Pacific war or even British operations in Burma. The account essentially starts in 1943, though he reaches further back in setting the historical stage.
Nevertheless, “Allies Against the Rising Sun” is a valuable work, providing a comprehensive analysis of the allied role in the Pacific endgame. What would seem to be a simple decision, accepting British forces in the American-led operation, in fact generated controversy in all five capitals. The political outcome was not predetermined.
Explains Mr. Sarantakes:
“As the fourth year of the war ended, Winston Churchill, First Minister to His Majesty King George VI, and the Chiefs of Staff Committee began one of the most intense arguments on strategy that took place in the war. The dispute had for a time the potential to bring down Churchill’s government, and before it was all over would involve Roosevelt, Truman, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, while far-off battles like Okinawa would alter the course of debate.”
One of the strengths of the book is the vivid portraits it draws of the participants. Much has been written about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, of course. Most of the top American commanders have been studied, even though few are as famous (or infamous) as Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Far less well-known are the foreign commanders and politicians, other than Prime Minister Churchill. Mr. Sarantakes begins with the British Chiefs of Staff Committee. There was ABC, as Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham was known. Gen. Sir Alan Brooke represented the army. Finishing the trio was Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal. They were a talented and determined lot, by no means intimidated by Churchill.
Of Churchill much is known, of course. That he was a difficult man with whom to work also is known. However, Mr. Sarantakes devotes much of the book to the often bitter dispute between the prime minister and the chiefs.
Particularly interesting is the fact that so much acrimony attended what for the British looked to be a secondary military front. Britain had lost colonies to Japan, to be sure. But the country’s survival was determined in Europe. Even after the threat of a German invasion receded, London’s involvement was critical in shaping the postwar Europe that would be Britain’s home.
To the untutored, the disputes over strategy seemed modest. Mr. Sarantakes acknowledges, “With the power of hindsight, these arguments might seem trivial.” However, at the time, the participants “took strong, uncompromising positions because they thought the future of Great Britain was at stake and that the strategy the other was advocating put the future of the realm at risk.”
The arguments ebbed and flowed. They also spilled into the capitals of the “dominions,” Britain’s former colonies. Mr. Sarantakes applies the same storytelling skills to the politicians and military brass - and their squabbling - in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The three had different military resources, national incentives and political constraints, making London’s task even harder.
Australia probably was the most complex. Canberra felt closer to America’s MacArthur than Britain’s Churchill. Further complicating matters was the death of Australian Prime Minister John Curtin in July 1945. At least the transition occurred after the threat of Japanese invasion had disappeared.
The ultimate arbiter was Washington. The United States provided the vast majority of personnel, weapons and materiel. Indeed, the Allies were heavily dependent on American logistical support for their participation. For this reason, some U.S. officials preferred to do without their “aid.”
Most opposed to allied participation was Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, and later chief of naval operations. But he was overruled for political reasons - in the best sense. As Mr. Sarantakes explains: “The considerations involved in these decisions were substantial and involved long-term interests rather than being petty or selfish, as the term ‘political’ implies on occasion.”
Mr. Sarantakes has ably brought an important historical subject alive for the nonspecialist. It is well worth reading. It also is an enjoyable read.
Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Reagan, is author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon, 2006).