The Atomic Age

*After the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway the Japanese were on the defensive, but they seemed well-prepared to defend themselves.  They had heavily fortified and well-supplied bases on their Pacific islands, particularly at Rabaul on New Guinea, and were still trying to capture Port Moresby by land (although they never succeeded).

*The Japanese even managed to capture two of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska in the summer of 1942, the only part of America invaded by foreign troops during World War II.  They were not dislodged for over a year.  This was a minor victory, though, and one of Japan’s last.

*One great advantage the Allies had over the Japanese was that while the Allies managed to decrypt many coded Japanese messages, the Japanese did not have similar success.  This was partly due to the use of American Indian ‘codetalkers,’ most famously a Navajo unit in the US Marine Corps.  They used very simple codes, but the encoded messages were in Navajo (or other American Indian languages, as well as in Basque and Welsh, native speakers of which were used to a small extent).

*Allied codebreakers not only predicted several major battles, allowing successful plans against them to be made, but even informed the military of Admiral Yamamoto’s travel plans, so that his plane was shot down over the East Indies in 1943.

*Between 7 August, 1942 and 9 February, 1943, the Allies fought the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, especially around the island of Guadalcanal.  So many ships on both sides were sunk that one area near Guadalcanal came to be known as Ironbottom Sound.  The Japanese fought so fiercely that of about 36,000 soldiers, 31,000 died (including many of Japan’s most experienced veterans) and only 1,000 were captured.  Of about 60,000 Allied soldiers only about 7,000 were killed (and almost none captured, although partly because the Japanese would rather kill than take prisoners).

--Victory at Sea #6:  Guadalcanal

*The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first major successful attack by Allied forces against Japan, and showed how ground, naval, and air forces could work together in a strategy of island hopping.  From Guadalcanal, the Allies were able to attack other Japanese bases in the Solomons and then on other islands.  This allowed the Allies in many cases to completely bypass major bases such as Rabaul (and later Formosa), and allow them to slowly wither on the vine as their supply lines were cut.

*The Allies also began to cut off supplies to Japan itself.  Although the Allied fleets and air forces could not yet reach the home islands, Allied submarines could begin sinking Japanese supply ships and merchant vessels (just as the German U-boats had done to Allied shipping in the Atlantic).  Many mines were also laid around Japanese shipping lanes.

*There were few major naval battles in 1943, as Nimitz avoided direct conflict with the Imperial Japanese Navy, knowing that it could not do much to seek out his fleet due to fuel shortages in Japan.

*By 1944 the Allies were ready for a major campaign against the Japanese.

*On 15 June, 1944, 535 ships began landing 128,000 U.S. Army and Marine personnel on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. The Allied objective was the creation of airfields within B-29 range of Tokyo.  This, and subsequent battles in the island hopping campaign, which took islands to use as bases from which to push further against Japan, were horrible for both sides.

*The Japanese would not surrender.  Of 31,629 Japanese on Saipan, approximately 29,500 died. Only 2,100 prisoners survived, many of these only because they were too wounded to take their own lives or they ran out of the means with which to kill themselves before being over-run. 

*Even civilians gave their lives for the Emperor, refusing to surrender, in part because they assumed Americans would treat them as badly as they would have treated Americans.  In the case of Japanese soldiers that might be true—Americans often shot them rather than take them prisoner.  Civilians, though, were treated fairly, but most did not know this.  On Saipan, civilians killed themselves by holding on to hand grenades or by jumping off cliffs to their deaths, even mothers holding infant children.  Supposedly there were so many bodies off the coast of Saipan after its capture that the Navy had a hard time navigating the waters.

--Victory at Sea 17:  The Turkey Shoot

*After capturing the Mariana Islands, the US was close enough to Japan to begin bombing her.  The US bombed every major city and industrial area flat, both to destroy Japan’s industry and to terrify her people.  Whereas the US did not use firebombs in Europe, they did in Japan, creating terrible firestorms, killing 100,000 people in one night in Tokyo, on just one of many occasions.

*By the end of the war, the Japanese economy was so badly damaged that Japanese school children made huge balloons out of paper and glue, which the military then tied to bombs, and cast into the air, hoping they might fly across the ocean and all on the US, making them the first intercontinental weapons used in warfare.  These may have started forest fires near the Pacific coast and did kill one woman and five children on a Sunday School picnic in Oregon.

*On 20 October, 1944, Americans invaded the Philippines.  MacArthur landed on the beach and announced for the benefit of the news cameras, ‘People of the Philippines, I have returned.’

*During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the major naval battle of the reconquest of the Philippines, the Americans faced a new weapon, the kamikaze.  More than any other Japanese soldier, these suicide pilots were ready to die for the Emperor by diving bomb-laden planes (and driving human-piloted torpedoes) into American ships.  Despite this, the Allies won the battle, but continued fighting in the Philippines for almost a year. 

*The last POWs from the Bataan Death March were freed in January 1945.  Of 80,000 Japanese in the Philippines, 1,000 were captured, and the rest died bravely fighting until the end of the war in August, 1945. 

--Victory at Sea #19:  Battle for Leyte Gulf / #20:  Return of the Alllies

*As Americans got closer to the Home Islands, the Japanese resistance grew stronger.  In the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, Americans won 27 Medals of Honor, the most in any campaign.  Of 25,000 Japanese on the island, 216 were take prisoner, and it took 110,000 men to beat them.  When the island was taken, the Marines raised the flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi.

--Victory at Sea #23:  Target Suribachi
*The last island before hitting Japan itself was Okinawa.  It was defended by 100,000 troops who swore to defend it to the death.  The US gathered 1,300 warships and 180,000 combat troops, making the invasion even larger than that at Normandy.  2,000 kamikaze attacks were made on American ships.  The battle lasted from April to June 1945, and 50,000 Americans were killed or wounded and only 7,200 of 100,000 Japanese surrendered.

--Victory at Sea #25:  Suicide for Glory

*The home islands were next.  The problem was that the Japanese fought so hard, and were willing to die to the last man, woman, and child—indeed, women and children were building spears out of bamboo to use in a last-ditch defence of their Emperor.  Military experts said it would probably take at least three million men just to start the invasion and that perhaps one third of them would be killed and wounded.  The Army made up 500,000 Purple Hearts in advance of the planned invasion—every Purple Heart awarded since has come from that stockpile, and about 120,000 remain.

*Fortunately, America had an alternative.  Starting in 1939, under top secret security, scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, trying to make an atomic bomb.  The first research and tests were done at the University of Chicago.  Once they knew a bomb could be made, they needed fuel.  Plutonium was refined at Hanford, Washington, and uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The bombs were assembled in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and tested nearby at Alamogordo.  This was the most powerful bomb ever built.  The question was:  should it be used on Japan?

*In April, 1945, just six months after winning his fourth presidential election, FDR had died of a brain hæmorrhage while on vacation at Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry Truman became president.  The atom bomb was a surprise to him, and he only knew it as a powerful weapon.  Under the advice of experts, he chose to use it for three main reasons:

 1. To end the war with as few American casualties as possible.  The invasion of Japan was expected to cost anywhere between 125,000 and one million killed and wounded in the first three months.
 2. To end the war quickly before the USSR could get involved (which they did, invading Manchuria on 8 August 1945) and end up sharing Japan with the US.
 3. To test the bomb on a real target.

*On 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb (code-named Little Boy) on Hiroshima, killing about 80,000 Japanese and later infecting many with radiation sickness.

*On 9 August, another plane dropped the plutonium bomb (code-named Fat Man) on Nagasaki, killing 39,000.

*On 14 August, Japan surrendered on the one condition that they could keep their emperor, and on 2 September 1945 the Japanese formally signed the surrender agreement, ending WWII on V-J Day.

*In July 1945, just two months after V-E Day, the leaders of the Allied nations met in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin.  Truman, Churchill, and Stalin met.  Truman had replaced FDR at his death shortly after his return from Yalta.  Churchill would be replaced during the meeting by Clement Atlee of the Labour Party.  Despite their joint victory over Germany, these Allies would soon being to disagree over the disposition of Europe.

*Truman was mad, because the Soviets had not allowed free elections in Poland as they promised.  Americans had fought for freedom and democracy, and wanted to see free elections in Europe.  The Soviets had fought to defend themselves against invasion, and wanted to prevent another one.  They also wanted subject nations as rewards for their sacrifices in the Great Patriotic War.

*The Soviets used their military presence throughout Eastern Europe to manipulate elections and other government functions until these countries became satellite nations, as the Soviets’ subjects on their western border were known.  Because the Soviet Army was much more powerful than that of the Allies and because the other Allies were still very busy in the Pacific, they could not stop him.  Furthermore, neither Truman nor Atlee was a brilliant negotiator at this conference.  Therefore, they had to acquiesce to most of Stalin’s demands for territory at Potsdam.

*Bulgaria was largely under Communist control by 1946 when Tsar Simeon II was run out of the Country.  In 1948 Albania, dominated first by the Italians and then by Yugoslavia asked for Soviet aid and became dominated by them instead.

*The Czechoslovakians tried hard to fight for their freedom, especially after seeing how badly the Communists treated their neighbours, but Communists already in the Czechoslovakian government began replacing their opponents with other reds until they had complete control, although some Czechoslovakians would continue to try to resist Soviet dominance.

*In Hungary, Communists lost the elections in 1945, but the Soviet army demanded the police be given to the Communists.  Soon anti-Communists were arrested on flimsy charges and elections were never held again. 

*In Romania, the Red Army forced King Michel I to appoint a Communist Prime minister, who, in 1947, forced the King to abdicate.

*In 1949, the Soviet Union formed their occupation zone in Germany into the German Democratic Republic in response to the western occupation zones being merged into the Federal Republic of Germany.  The city of Berlin remained divided, too, with the eastern half serving as the capital of East Germany and the western half belonging to West Germany (whose capital city was now Bonn).  West and East Germany would remain separate countries until 1990.

*The Finns signed a treaty of co-operation with the Soviets in 1948, but it allowed them to remain neutral and govern themselves, making them essentially a free country. 

*In Yugoslavia, Communists came to power under Josip Broz, also known as Tito.  He refused to blindly obey Stalin, who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow him in 1948.  Yugoslavia would remain almost completely free of Soviet domination, but Tito would still be a brutal and ruthless dictator.

*At Potsdam, Truman learned about the successful test of the atom bomb in New Mexico, and tried to threaten Stalin with it.  Stalin already knew about the bomb and told Truman so in infuriating detail.  However, the threat of the A-Bomb would characterise US-Soviet relations for 45 years to come.

*In February 1946 with the war over and the need for co-operation gone, Stalin publicly predicted the triumph of communism over capitalism.  In Fulton, Missouri a month later, Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest speaker of all the Allied leaders, responded:  ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. This, said Churchill, was not the free Europe for which the Allies had fought, and spies and fifth columnists throughout the world were threatening to snuff out democracy elsewhere.

*Churchill said America needed to stand firm against the Soviets and not turn her back on the world as she had after WWI.  For the next forty-five years, America and her allies would confront the Soviets and her satellites at every turn, but would do so without directly going to war.  Rather, the two sides would engage in trade sanctions, spying, and minor wars fought by minor allies.  Because there was a constant state of tension during which the danger of nuclear war soon became a real and constant possibility, this period of extended peace was called the Cold War.

*The end of WWII did not end tension in East Asia, either.  Japan was occupied by the US Army, Korea was partitioned between the USA and USSR at the 38th Parallel, and in China the Nationalists and Communists fought each other with the support of the US and Soviet Union.

*During this period America would follow the policy of containment, or the attempt to keep communism from spreading by whatever means necessary, including economic and military aid to countries that seemed to be in danger of falling to communism.  The hope was that, if unable to expand, communism would eventually collapse on its own from internal failings--their bad economic system and repressive governments could not last.
*In 1947, the British, who had been doing much the same said they could no longer afford it and asked the US to start helping Greece and Turkey.  This forced America to become a world power, and the US did so, sending $400 million to those nations.  This was part of the Truman Doctrine, stated in 1947, that the United States would support any nation that tried to fight against Communism.

This page last updated 10 November, 2020.
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