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Eagle Against the Sun

The American War with Japan

About The Book

“The best book by far on the Pacific War” (The New York Times Book Review), this classic one-volume history of World War II in the Pacific draws on declassified intelligence files; British, American, and Japanese archival material; and military memoirs to provide a stunning and complete history of the conflict.

This “superbly readable, insightful, gripping” (Washington Post Book World) contribution to WWII history combines impeccable research with electrifying detail and offers provocative interpretations of this brutal forty-four-month struggle. Author and historian Ronald H. Spector reassesses US and Japanese strategy and shows that the dual advance across the Pacific by MacArthur and Nimitz was more a pragmatic solution to bureaucratic, doctrinal, and public relations problems facing the Army and Navy than a strategic calculation. He also argues that Japan made its fatal error not in the Midway campaign but in abandoning its offensive strategy after that defeat and allowing itself to be drawn into a war of attrition.

Spector skillfully takes us from top-secret strategy meetings in Washington, London, and Tokyo to distant beaches and remote Asian jungles with battle-weary GIs. He reveals that the US had secret plans to wage unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan months before Pearl Harbor and shows that MacArthur and his commanders ignored important intercepts of Japanese messages that would have saved thousands of lives in Papua and Leyte. Throughout, Spector contends that American decisions in the Pacific War were shaped more often by the struggles between the British and the Americans, and between the Army and the Navy, than by strategic considerations.

Spector vividly recreates the major battles, little-known campaigns, and unfamiliar events leading up to the deadliest air raid ever, adding a new dimension to our understanding of the American war in the Pacific and the people and forces that determined its outcome.


Eagle Against the Sun Introduction
The war between the United States and Japan was in many ways a unique and unprecedented conflict—the first, and probably the last, to be waged on such a scale and upon such a stage. It began with a stunning display of air power by the Japanese and ended with the most deadly air raids in history by the Americans. As a naval war, it was unparalleled. More battles were waged at sea and more warships sunk than in all other twentieth century naval campaigns combined. The land campaigns were more limited in size than those in Europe. Nevertheless, in China, the Philippines, and Okinawa they approached the Italian and North African campaigns in scale, if not in duration. Never before had such great armies been projected across hundreds, even thousands of miles of ocean to land on hostile shores, supported only by air cover and warships. And never before had planes and ships achieved such a degree of coordination and power.

The Japanese-American war was the most momentous event in the history of East Asia in half a century. It radically altered the course which the two great Asian powers, Japan and China, had followed for the last three decades and brought an abrupt end to the pattern of Western political dominance in Asian affairs. Until the 1940s, the European nations and their American offspring appeared destined to control or manipulate the countries of Asia indefinitely, with Japan eagerly following in their footsteps in Manchuria and north China. The war decisively changed this state of affairs. The subject peoples of Asia witnessed the sweeping defeat of the western powers at the hands of the Japanese. Many received arms and military training and took the first steps toward independence under Japan’s hegemony. By the time the colonial powers returned, under the umbrella of the victorious British and Americans, to reclaim their former possessions, they found a rapidly maturing nationalism which would shortly sweep away the last vestiges of western rule more decisively than the most powerful Japanese army.

In his classic, The Island War, Major Frank Hough observed “probably no man who served . . . in the Pacific will read this book without feeling that his outfit has been slighted. And he will be right!” * In attempting to condense the complex and multidimensional story of that immense conflict into a single volume, I have been obliged to cover an even broader range of subjects and thus to slight not only units and individuals, but entire battles and campaigns as well as significant social and political events. For such omissions I can only beg the reader’s indulgence on a greater scale than that granted Maj. Hough.

This is primarily an interpretive work. It relies heavily upon the work of American, British, and Australian official historians as well as the many fine monographs, battle studies, biographies, and memoirs which have appeared in the four decades since the war. However, in the case of controversial or little-explored aspects of the war, I have based my account as far as possible on primary sources, particularly those which were not available to official historians—cryptographic records, oral history memoirs, and important private collections such as the Ernest J. King papers.

In keeping with the overall approach of the Wars of the United States series, I have emphasized the subjects of policy, strategy, and operations—especially the latter two. However, I have also attempted to give the reader some sense of what the war was like for the men and women who fought it, and to provide an idea of their reactions to the strange and sometimes inhospitable lands in which they found themselves. The story is told primarily from the American point of view. The scope and emphasis is thus different from that of other general works such as John Toland’s The Rising Sun, which approaches the war from the Japanese viewpoint, or Basil Collier’s The War in the Far East and John Costello’s The Pacific War, which present a British perspective.

Though my own perspective is from the American side, I have benefitted from recently declassified British material in the Public Record Office, from translations of Japanese documents and histories available in Washington-area archives, and from English-language works by Japanese scholars.

The conduct and politics of the war with Japan have sparked surprisingly few controversies, the two great exceptions being the attack on Pearl Harbor and the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Each of these subjects, especially the former, have inspired a mountain of writing so immense as to dwarf the total literature devoted to all other aspects of the conflict. In this book, I have endeavored to show that many other aspects of the war are worth close examination, even reexamination.

Most discussions of American strategy in the war treat the two-pronged advance across the Pacific by Nimitz and MacArthur as a sensible compromise solution to the problem of bringing about the speedy defeat of Japan. I suggest here that the adoption of this course of action was due less to strategic wisdom than to the army and navy’s reluctance to entrust their forces to the command of an officer of the rival service, together with the almost insolvable problem of what to do with a popular hero like MacArthur, who—despite his defeat in the Philippines—had emerged as a towering American public figure. The establishment of two theaters and two routes of advance in the Pacific neatly solved these bureaucratic and public relations problems. The two advances were also intended to be mutually supporting, yet they might well have led to disaster had the Japanese taken greater advantage of their opportunities—as they almost did during the Bougainville-Empress Augusta Bay operation in 1943 and the Biak campaign in 1944.

The major problem involved in defeating Japan proved to be less a matter of choosing the correct strategy than of breaking the logistical bottlenecks—devising means of getting critical items, whether amphibious craft, cargo ships, fighter planes, engineer battalions, or transport aircraft—to the right portions of the battlefronts on time and in sufficient numbers. Many of the debates about strategy within the councils of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and between the Americans and British were, in essence, debates about the allocation of resources.

Similarly, the contest for resources often determined the course of action of American military leaders. King and MacArthur’s separate proposals in the spring and summer of 1942 for an offensive in the South Pacific aimed at Rabaul can be best understood as a bid on their part to stake out early claims on whatever resources might become available to the Allies in 1942 by the quick opening of a new fighting front in the Pacific. The Guadalcanal campaign, which grew out of these proposals, itself developed into a protracted fight for resources between the services as well as a protracted struggle on the battlefield. In the Tarawa campaign also, as I argue later, Nimitz’s need for haste led him to risk a landing when unfavorable tides might be expected: this was due not only to the need to keep the Japanese off-balance, but also to King’s concern to “get the Central Pacific drive underway so that the British could not hedge” on their recent agreement at the Quebec Conference to devote greater resources to the Pacific.

Resources were significant in another way as well: the Pacific War was in many respects a war of attrition. After the recent conflict in Vietnam, it has become almost a tautology to say that the U.S. cannot win a war of attrition. Yet this was essentially the kind of war the U.S. waged against Japan after mid-1942. Following the Battle of Midway, United States forces did not confront a major Japanese fleet until mid-1944. They did not engage even a medium-size Japanese army until the end of 1944. Yet by that time Japan had been effectively defeated. Her supply lines had been severed by American submarines, her air power had been dissipated in costly air battles over the Solomons and New Guinea, Rabaul and Truk; and her cruiser and destroyer forces had been worn down in countless night clashes in the Solomons. That war of attrition—and the even more deadly attrition by submarines and heavy bombing in 1944–45—finally spelled Japan’s defeat.

The leadership of the Pacific War has recently been subject to reexamination by a number of scholars. Most notably, General Douglas MacArthur, popularly regarded as the hero and strategic genius of the war against Japan, has been subjected to searching reexamination. Scholars such as D. Clayton James and Carol M. Petillo have questioned MacArthur’s conduct and judgment in a number of key episodes of his career as a theater commander. In addition, the recent discovery of the diaries of Dwight D. Eisenhower has shown that Ike’s attitude toward his former chief, far from being worshipful, was often one of angry impatience and skepticism.

My own view of MacArthur is that, despite his undoubted qualities of leadership, he was unsuited by temperament, character, and judgment for the positions of high command which he occupied throughout the war. This was most clearly demonstrated in the Philippine debacle and the bloody campaigns in Papua. Both were attributable—at least in part—to MacArthur’s errors of judgment and his refusal to face reality. He demonstrated these failings in success as well as in adversity, as witness his mismanagement of the northern Luzon campaign near the end of the war.

Other commanders, of course, made serious errors of judgment in the war, most notably Admiral Yamamoto at Midway, Admiral Spruance at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Admiral Halsey at Leyte Gulf. Yet MacArthur stands alone in his refusal to confront or even acknowledge the consequences of his actions. It is impossible to imagine MacArthur saying, as Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell did after the Allied defeat in Burma, “I say we got a hell of a beating . . .” Stilwell had misjudged—and would continue to misjudge—the willingness and capability of the Chinese government to wage war, but he did not seek, as MacArthur consistently did, to pass the blame to subordinates, the Allies, or Washington.

No history of the Pacific War can fail to show the vital role played by intelligence in that conflict. The recent declassification of records relating to communications intelligence activities during World War II has made available a flood of new material on the subject. Some of this information, I believe, appears for the first time in this book. These newly declassified records demonstrate the contributions of code-breaking to the Allied victory, yet they also demonstrate its limitations. Thus, I have tried to show how vital messages concerning the Japanese landings in Papua and Admiral Mikawa’s devastating night attack on the American naval forces in the Battle of Savo Island were intercepted and read by U.S. intelligence. Unfortunately, they were of no practical value. In the first case they were not believed; in the second case the message was “broken” too late. Similarly, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger ignored the excellent cryptographic intelligence available to him in 1944 about Japanese operations on Leyte in the area of Ormoc. The result was that his forces had to fight a bloody slugging match in rugged mountains astride the route to the town.

The sudden, awful end of the war in the radioactive ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has obscured the less spectacular horrors which both sides had inflicted on each other by 1945. The conduct of Japanese military forces in Southeast Asia and China and their treatment of prisoners of war is well known. Less obvious are the thousands of other deaths from famine and disease caused by the crushing demands of the locust-like Japanese war machine upon the fragile agricultural economies of the countries it occupied.

Americans usually assume that the unrestricted submarine campaigns and the incendiary air raids on Japanese cities were measures of expediency and desperation, adopted only after the war had begun and the implacable nature of the foe had been demonstrated. In fact, as I show, the U.S. Navy’s plans and preparations to wage unrestricted submarine warfare were made months before Pearl Harbor, and American military experts had been discussing the possibility of incendiary raids on Japanese cities since 1919.

The reader will probably come to share the conclusion of the distinguished Japanese scholar Asada Sadao: the war “dehumanized both victor and vanquished alike,” ** and, in the course of the desperate struggle, Americans came to abandon some of the principles which they had long upheld. A nation which had entered the First World War in large part out of opposition to unrestricted submarine warfare deliberately chose to wage such warfare from the opening day of World War II. Similarly, American opposition to the Japanese conquest of China rested largely on revulsion against the Japanese use of air power on civilian targets. Yet the United States itself initiated an unprecedented campaign of aerial bombardment against Japan.

* Frank O. Hough, The Island War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincotc Company, 1947), p. vii.

** Asada Sadao, “Japanese Perceptions of the A-Bomb Decision 1945–1980,” in Joe C. Dixon, ed., The American Military and the Far East (Washington: G.P.O., 1980), p. 216.

About The Author

Ronald H. Spector is an award-winning scholar of modern military history and has taught at the National War College and the US Army War College.  A frequent contributor to scholarly journals, his publications include In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia and After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. He is professor of history and international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (November 3, 2020)
  • Length: 624 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982135232

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Raves and Reviews

"Spector has done the impossible and done it with dazzling brilliance. Mining a warehouse of material with absolute control, he has produced a superbly readable, insightful, gripping, unbiased one-volume history of the American-Japanese war that is at the same time a glorious celebration of the American spirit."
—Clay Blair, Washington Post Book World

"The best one-volume history of that complex conflict. . . . No future book on the Pacific war will be written without paying due tribute to Eagle Against The Sun."
—Drew Middleton, The New York Times

"Excellent. . . . Likely to be for a long time to come the standard, comprehensive history of the Pacific Ocean War."
—Russell E. Weigley, Distinguished University Professor of History, Temple University

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