The best books on the Asia Pacific War 1937-1945

Ronald Spector Author Of In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia
By Ronald Spector

The Books I Picked & Why

Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War: July 1937-May 1942

By Richard B. Frank

Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War: July 1937-May 1942

Why this book?

Until about twenty years ago writers about World War II tended to treat the contest between the United States and Japan as separate from, and more significant than the other conflicts that engulfed China and Southeast Asia between 1937 and 1945. Today many historians, including almost all academic ones, speak of an “Asia-Pacific War” as a more accurate and appropriate description for this destructive era. Tower of Skulls, is the first general history that not only integrates the conflicts in the Pacific with those in mainland Asia but also demonstrates the close interconnection between them.

The first of a proposed trilogy, Frank’s book covers the period from the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 through Pearl Harbor and the Japan’s conquest of an empire rivaling Genghis Khan’s to the eve of the Imperial Navy’s first setback the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Despite its formidable length, the book is a clearly written and an engaging read. Prodigiously researched with over 150 pages of notes, it seems likely to be the definitive work.


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War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

Why this book?

John Dower’s path-breaking book, aims to illustrate the profound impact of racial stereotypes and race hatreds as a major factor that clearly distinguishes the United States’ approach to the War with Japan from its approach to the war in Europe. At the most basic level, American soldiers and most of the American public clearly differentiated starkly between their German and Japanese enemies. German soldiers were viewed as merciless and deadly but still as human beings. Indeed Americans often drew a distinction between “bad Germans”, the Nazi leaders and government, and ordinary “good Germans”. 

On the other hand, there were no good Japanese. All were viewed as treacherous, sadistically cruel and fanatical,  behaving more like ants than humans. Indeed many Americans saw the Japanese as something less than human. As the numerous illustrations in the book demonstrate, Japanese were routinely shown in American movies posters and cartoons as vermin or as bearing a strong resemblance to King Kong---except far more bloodthirsty. Japan’s “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor, its merciless treatment of Allied military and sometimes civilian prisoners and Japanese soldiers’ own refusal to ever surrender seemed to validate these stereotypes.

The Japanese had their own set of stereotypes. Americans and Britons were depicted as demons, Churchill and Roosevelt as devils. Yet Japanese propaganda spent far less time vilifying the enemy than on praising Japanese racial and moral superiority and expounding Japan’s divine mission to liberate other Asian peoples from western colonialism, then lead these less advanced peoples toward “co-prosperity.”


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The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway

By John B. Lundstrom

The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway

Why this book?

First published over thirty-five years ago, The First Team remains the definitive account of the naval air war in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Lundstrom, examined almost every relevant record in the National Archives and Naval Historical Center, arranged for the translation of  Japanese materials, and corresponded with, or interviewed dozens of naval aviation veterans, including the legendary John S. Thach and E. Scott McCluskey.  The book includes seven appendices that provide detailed information on subjects ranging from naval flight training to “Fundamentals of Aerial Gunnery” to a detailed list of the makeup of every fighter squadron embarked on the five U.S. carriers in the Pacific from December 1941 to March 1942. 

Unusual for such a detailed work, it also provides the reader with a genuine feel for the desperate and contingent nature of the Pacific war from Pearl Harbor to Midway when the U.S. Navy’s “First Team” of naval aviators faced a numerically superior enemy equipped with better planes and nevertheless prevailed. 


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Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

By Rana Mitter

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

Why this book?

For many years, American views of the China’s role in World War II were strongly influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s best-selling, Stilwell and the American Experience in China published in 1971. Tuchman painted China’s war effort as brave but costly and ineffective thanks to the incompetence and corruption of Chiang Kai Shek. Portrayed as a kind of Chinese George Washington in the U.S. media, Tuchman saw Chiang as being in fact, far less interested in defeating the Japanese than in ensuring that his regime survived the war in a position to vanquish its domestic rivals, especially Mao Zedong’s Communists 

In contrast, Mittar’s focus is not on policy squabbles or specific military issues but on the overall impact of the war on China and its people. He highlights that country’s remarkable achievement, not in winning battles but in surviving the Japanese onslaught for eight long years despite the early loss of almost all industrial resources, fragile political and social cohesion and almost intolerable demands on its domestic population. The war cost China at least 14 million, perhaps 20 million dead, shredded its economy and created at least 80 million refugees.


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Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

By Alvin Kernan

Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

Why this book?

Though less well known than Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed or Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary, this is one of the finest memoirs of World War II and one of the few by an enlisted sailor. At his death at 94, Alvin Kernan was a recognized expert on Shakespeare with long years on the faculties of Yale and Princeton but in 1940 he was a seventeen-year-old boy from the mountains of Wyoming who enlisted in the Navy because he was unable to meet a small cash fee connected to his college scholarship. 

Kernan was aboard the carrier Hornet when it carried Doolittle's Raiders to Tokyo,  during tthe Battle of Midway and when it was lost during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942. He served aboard two other aircraft carriers and advanced from ordnance-man to aerial gunner and chief petty officer. His descriptions of the dramatic events he experienced are decidedly undramatic but insightful, vivid, and elegantly written.


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