The best books to understand the Asia Pacific War from 1937-1945

Why am I passionate about this?

I am Emeritus Professor of History and International Relations at George Washington University. Although I trained at Yale to be a college teacher, I spent most of the first twenty years of my career working in and with the military. I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and later as a reservist on active duty during the Grenada –Lebanon Operations in the early 1980s and during the Gulf War.. As a civilian, I worked at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and subsequently as Director of Naval History and of the Naval History and Heritage Command. I  joined George Washington University in 1990. I am the author of six books about military history, two of which, Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan and In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia are directly about the Asia- Pacific War.   

I wrote...

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

By Ronald Spector,

Book cover of In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

What is my book about?

On the day of Japan’s surrender, General Douglas MacArthur declared in a radio address “ today freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the March.” The question, after Japan’s “Greater East Asia“ crashed in flames was, whose freedom? And, the freedom to do what In the burnt-out ruins of the old empires of the British, the Dutch, the French, and the Japanese?

Everything was up for grabs and new wars soon broke out all through the territories just “liberated” from the Axis. In Indochina and Indonesia Nationalists fought bloody battles against the British Commonwealth forces that had supposedly come to “liberate” them. In China there were two claimants for power,  Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedung; in two Korea two as well, Kim Il Sung and Syngmun Rhee. The thousands of Japanese soldiers still in Asia fought for all sides. Indeed, it might appear to some observers that World War II never ended, everybody just switched sides. In the Ruins of Empire was a New York Times Book Review “Editor”s Choice” book.

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The books I picked & why

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

Ronald Spector Why did I love 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.

By Richard B. Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tower of Skulls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1937 the swath of the globe from India to Japan contained half the world's population but only two nations with real sovereignty (Japan and Thailand) and two with compromised sovereignty (China and Mongolia). All other peoples in the region endured under some form of colonialism. Today the region contains nineteen fully sovereign nations.

Tower of Skulls is the first work to present a unified account of the course and impact of this part of the global war. It expands beyond military elements to highlight the critical political, economic and social reverberations of the struggle. Finally, it provides a graphic…

Book cover of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

Ronald Spector Why did I love 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.”

By John W. Dower,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked War Without Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD • AN AMERICAN BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A monumental history that has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most original and important books to be written about the war between Japan and the United States.”

In this monumental history, Professor John Dower reveals a hidden, explosive dimension of the Pacific War—race—while writing what John Toland has called “a landmark book ... a powerful, moving, and evenhanded history that is sorely needed in both America and Japan.”
Drawing on American and Japanese songs, slogans, cartoons, propaganda films, secret…

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

Ronald Spector Why did I love 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. 

By John B. Lundstrom,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The First Team as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as one of the finest examples of aviation research, this comprehensive 1984 study presents a detailed and scrupulously accurate operational history of carrier-based air warfare. From the earliest operations in the Pacific through the decisive Battle of Midway, it offers a narrative account of how ace fighter pilots like Jimmy Thach and Butch O'Hare and their skilled VF squadron mates-called the `first team'--amassed a remarkable combat record in the face of desperate odds.

Tapping both American and Japanese sources, historian John B. Lundstrom reconstructs every significant action and places these extraordinary fighters within the context of overall carrier operations.…

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

Ronald Spector Why did I love 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.

By Rana Mitter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Forgotten Ally as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Economist Book of the Year
A Financial Times Book of the Year

“A book that has long cried out to be written.” — Observer (UK), Books of the Year

In 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland, Chinese troops clashed with Japanese occupiers in the first battle of World War II. Joining with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, China became the fourth great ally in a devastating struggle for its very survival.

Prizewinning historian Rana Mitter unfurls China’s drama of invasion, resistance, slaughter, and political intrigue as never before. Based on groundbreaking research, this gripping…

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

Ronald Spector Why did I love 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.

By Alvin Kernan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Crossing the Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this memoir of life aboard aircraft carriers during World War II, Alvin Kernan combines vivid recollections of his experience as a young enlisted sailor with a rich historical account of the Pacific war.

"One of the most arresting naval autobiographies yet published."-Sir John Keegan

"An honest story of collective courage, evocative, well-written, and fixed before the colors fade."-Kirkus Reviews

"[Kernan] recounts a wonderful and exciting American story about a poor farm boy from Wyoming who enlisted in the Navy. . . .[He] has written eight other books. I will go back and read them all."-John Lehman, Air & Space…

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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…

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