Tower of Skulls; A History of the Asia-Pacific War, Vol. 1: May 1937-July 1945

Reviewed by Robert P. Largess.        


Once, a much-esteemed young man, then in his all-knowing 20’s, asked me “How can you keep on reading books on WWII? Don’t you already know everything there is to know?” Now, decades later, the perfect answer has appeared in the form of Richard Frank’s immensely learned and perceptive new history of the Pacific War, “Tower of Skulls”. (The title comes from Rabindranath Tagore, writing to a Japanese correspondent: ”You are building your conception of an Asia which would be raised on a tower of skulls.”) Plainly it’s been done before, repeatedly, from Morison on; so what makes such a full-scale rethinking of this history necessary? Three things: First is the appearance of previously unknown facts of great significance; the declassification of “The Ultra Secret” is the classic example. The incredible military advantage conferred by previously unknown code-breaking required a rethinking and rewriting of everything. Second is deficient or defective historiography. In 1999 “American and British Aircraft Carrier Development” (Friedman, Hones, Mandeles) concluded with an apology for not treating the third original example of development of carrier warfare by the Japanese Navy, due to the authors inability to access the Japanese sources. But in 2001, Japanese scholar Mark Peattie’s comprehensive study of Japanese naval air, “Sunburst”, filled this gap.  Since then, the availability of Japanese sources has informed later works such as Parschall’s “Shattered Sword” and Zinn’s “Pearl Harbor Attack”, exploding many traditional myths in the process, for example that an attack on the Pearl Harbor oil storage tanks could have had a major effect on the War.

            And so, the third reason is the evaluation of new information and new research, to create a new synthesis, a comprehensive rethinking and reinterpretation of the overall narrative of the war, with its profound implications for our understanding of the present. This may well fly in the face of deeply ingrained “mythologies”, misinterpretations that have become traditional and unchallengeable, but have influenced the thinking our predecessors and continue to influence our thinking today. A dramatic example of this is the role and significance of China in WWII, the first major problem Frank takes on. He begins his narrative with Japanese aggression in 1937, leading to the five years before Pearl Harbor in which China was the entire Asian-Pacific War, the scene of a massive offensive comparable to Germany’s into Russia in 1941, which aimed to bring about the collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government. From the beginning this war was conducted with genocidal mass murder, famine on a vast scale, and the terror bombing of cities – elements that only slowly developed in Europe over several years of war.  The Japanese offensive was resisted by the Chinese at huge cost in lives and endless tactical defeats, followed by constant withdrawals into the vast distances of their nation – much like Russia in 1941. Or like the Russians did in 1905 versus the Japanese, where they retreated and played for time as the Japanese desperately sought a decisive victory before they ran out of resources. Already, before 1941, the Japanese found themselves mired in a hopeless quagmire in China that consumed most of their Army’s large resources and contributed to Japan’s almost inadvertent choice of going to war with the US, and its final loss of this war and its empire.

           This offensive was repeated in 1944, once more at terrible cost to the Chinese Nationalist army and Chinese people. But what is truly fascinating is the near total absence of detailed description, much less analysis, of this Chinese-Japanese War, in the two works which have gone farthest  to form American understanding of events in China in WWII, that is T. H. White’s 1946 “Thunder Out Of China” and Barbara Tuchman’s 1971 “Stilwell and the American Experience in China”.  What can possibly explain such an astonishing – and deceptive – omission? The answer is Stilwell, whose papers provided the basis of White and Tuchman’s work, both of whom bought into his viewpoint to the point of hagiography. Stilwell became a hero during the war for the same reason as MacArthur – his absolute confidence in himself in the midst of failure and defeat. But his egocentrism led him to ignore anything he did not control, and his knee-jerk contempt for others (he called his benefactor FDR “rubberlegs”) rendered him incapable of working with others as equals. His hatred for Chiang and portrayal of him as corrupt, ineffectual, and doing nothing militarily is legendary, but not much different from his view of almost any one of his peers who needed his cooperation. For him, the Chinese-Japanese War consisted of his own war, where he was personally in command, that is the defeat in Burma in 1941 and the reconquest of Burma in 1944. Then Stilwell manipulated FDR into demanding he be given total command of all Chinese forces in 1944 – in effect, an American coup d’etat – which led to Chiang’s final insistence on his removal. As a result China’s resistance under Chiang’s command to the massive 1944 Japanese “Ichi-go” offensive to, again, knock China out of the war, held little interest for him, or to his hagiographers. Hence their blindness to one of the largest – and Frank suggests, most significant – military theaters of the war.

           In any case, one overwhelming reason for White and Tuchman’s blindness is their simple inability to use Chinese sources. As Frank says: ”In broad terms, for decades after Japan surrendered in August 1945, reliable archival information from both sides of the Taiwan Strait proved sparse to non-existent. Historians perforce often relied extensively on foreign records reflecting only secondhand interpretations of internal Chinese events and Chinese figures. Over the past approximately two decades this situation has materially changed.” Using this material, 2013 Rana Mitter’s “Forgotten Ally; China’s World War II 1937-1945” presents a comprehensive narrative and analysis of this great theater of war, second only to Russia in scale and human suffering, perhaps 14 million deaths to the latter’s 20 million.

            And holding down the Japanese Army’s attention was essential to the survival of Russia in 1941. Frank shows that FDR, Churchill, and Stalin plainly recognized this then, however much they belittled China and Chiang later. (When Russia survived 1941, their need for China largely disappeared – as did supplies for China, after the loss of the Burma Road.) The Japanese Army had always seen Russia as its destined opponent, as opposed to the Navy’s “southern strategy” – war with US to gain the oil of the Dutch East Indies. Indeed, the first Japanese incursion into Chinese territory was Manchuria in 1932, which it took from Russian control (Russia had fought China for it in 1929). Had Japan been able to disengage from China (as US diplomacy urged) and launch the offensive against the Soviet Union that its Tripartite Pact with Hitler seemed to promise, Russia likely would have collapsed, and FDR’s desire to support Britain would have been politically much more complicated.

          In fact, US diplomacy aimed at forcing the Japanese to back down in China backfired, as explained in Edward Miller’s 2012 “Bankrupting the Enemy”. Without oil, the Japanese Navy felt compelled to urge immediate war with the USA, a war that its leadership at the highest levels had no confidence of winning. Well, it was the same in 1904 – and then the gamble had worked. Totally irrational? But this is another issue that has required new and extensive use of Japanese language sources to understand. And that is the underlying issue of the structure and psychology of the Japanese government, different not only from ours, but from our fundamental conception of how a government should work. Americans once saw Japan as a dictatorship, but in fact Meiji Japan lacked any centralized executive equivalent to the US President, the British Prime Minister, or the German Fuhrer. Rather, the emperor provided legitimacy, like the King of England, and presided over a committee of heads of independent governmental institutions, Army, Navy, Foreign Office, the Diet, Bureau of Taxation and Finance, etc. The committee presented the Emperor its consensus for approval – normally a consensus based on indecision and compromise over competing priorities, as is typical of committees. No one controlled both the Army and the Navy; the pro-war Army had no choice but to assent when US presented the relatively anti-war Navy with an unacceptable ultimatum – withdraw from China or suffer a continued oil embargo – and the Navy suddenly opted for a war it doubted it could win.

           Frank supplies a term, “genkokujo”, for a concept meaning “the low overrules the high”, which goes a long way to explaining the Japanese government’s indecisiveness, and its failure to control its own Army, whose units and personnel at various levels initiated all the events that started the war in China – takeover in Manchuria, first invasion of Chinese territory, first decision to launch a major offensive against the Nationalists – with the disapproval of their superiors, sometimes in defiance of their explicit orders. To this reviewer, it appears that the Japanese tended to view the national will as arising from the people, the lower ranks of the military, and the young, while political leaders had the traditional role of restraining this will in the name of caution and pragmatism. (An example is the “Hibiya riots”, massive demonstrations against the peace terms victorious but exhausted Japan accepted out of weakness after the Russo-Japanese War. The people felt cheated of the rewards their sacrifices deserved; but their leaders saw that their weakness left them with no choice but to accept the terms offered. )

           Frank’s Volume 1 carries the story up to the Battle of the Coral Sea, including Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, all events awash in mythology, controversy, and new studies, as well as the often neglected invasion of the Dutch East Indies, including the land campaign. He raises the familiar question of MacArthur’s failure to order an immediate air attack on Japanese air bases in Taiwan on Dec. 8. Based on the actual ineffectiveness of the vaunted American B-17 bombers, he questions whether such an attack could have achieved anything. But he fails to note that MacArthur spent the hours of delay closeted with Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippines, who seriously and correctly doubted America’s commitment to defend his country. John Burton’s 2013 “Fortnight of Infamy” suggests that MacArthur was unwilling to launch an attack on Japan before gaining Quezon’s reluctant assent, something very likely necessary to gaining Filipino popular support for the war in the first place.

          The carrier war of 1942 is unique, and of surpassing interest. It was a duel of just six first-class ships on each side, whose commanders had the ability “to lose the war in a single afternoon”. (Nagumo did just that at Midway; or at least he lost an essential edge he never regained.)  Frank covers the beginning of both the American and the Japanese carrier wars very thoroughly. He describes the Japanese mastery of the massed carrier raid, and their numerous devastating attacks on land air forces and harbors. Yet they consistently failed to discover and strike a fleet at sea, and perhaps gain the decisive victory which was their best chance for concluding the war in their favor, following the pattern of the Russo-Japanese War and Tsushima. Perhaps their best opportunity was on April 5, 1942 in the Indian Ocean, when the “Kido Butai” striking force of five carriers caught and sank two British heavy cruisers. Air reconnaissance down the line of cruisers’ course would have revealed two of England’s best carriers and a battleship. Of course, they similarly failed to make finding the American carriers first their priority at Midway. Afterwards – and too late – Kido Butai commander Nagumo learned the vital lesson, launching extensive early searches to find the American carriers first in the late 1942 carrier battles, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands for instance. A look at Friedman’s recent “Winning a Future War” and evolving American carrier doctrine between the wars might have provided Frank with a valuable pointer to the subtle but crucial difference in the carrier doctrines of the two fleets. American studies revealed the tremendous vulnerability of aircraft carriers and the short lives of their air groups in combat. The Japanese understood this also, but their conclusion seems to have been “Carriers are extremely vulnerable, so attack first at all costs, without compromising surprise, before you lose the power to do so.” The American conclusion seems to have been, instead “Carriers are extremely vulnerable, so find and attack the enemy carriers first, to obtain air superiority over the developing sea battle, and all the many advantages that offers”.  

Frank’s great achievement in this book is shedding the light of the latest research on the controversies surrounding the Pacific War, and this includes demolishing some myths that have become received wisdom, often with disastrous later results. For examples, much the same stereotypes of corruption, incompetence, and failure to fight that Stilwell’s disciples applied to Chiang are visible throughout the discussions of the Kennedy leadership team that produced their decision to organize the coup that led to the overthrow and assassination of their ally, South Vietnam’s Diem.  Yet Frank’s masterful synthesis rests on the shoulders of many superb historians, his colleagues and predecessors, who have made ground-breaking contributions to this field, particularly in the last few decades, and notably Japanese and Chinese linguists and historians, themselves in short supply for many years. Indeed, this book is essential reading for all who wish to understand Asia and its place in our world. The past always informs the present, but “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, and faulty understanding has led us into terrible errors. On the other hand, understanding is never finished, and our knowledge is never complete. “Tower of Skulls” will keep you reading, and keep you thinking.

Richard Frank. Tower of Skulls; A History of the Asia-Pacific War, Vol. 1: May 1937-July 1945. W. W. Norton and Co., New York, 2020.

Robert P. Largess is the author of “USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future” and articles on the USS Triton, the SS United States, the origin of the towed Sonar Array, and the history of Lighter-Than-Air.

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