Empires on the Pacific

Book Review



Empires on the Pacific


Robert Smith Thompson


Basic Books, New York, NY



Reviewed By:

Frank Fogg

Review Date:

June, 2003


Empires on the Pacific tells the story of the conflict in the Pacific during the Second World War. More than just a recap of the battles, this book looks at the reasons for the conflict and the  consequences that flowed out of it.

Empires on the PacificThe  author seems to suggest at the start of this book that the most important reason  for the war came from the desire of the European powers and the United States  to maintain the colonial power structure and special trade privileges that had  been imposed on China. Robert Thompson spends several chapters recounting the never ending struggle of the Europeans to control trade with China and tells how they forced China into concessions that usurped her sovereignty. He highlights this history to show how the invasion of China by the Japanese in the late 1920's  was perceived as a challenge to the rights of the western powers to be in Asia  at all and why some viewed the Japanese as liberators.

The book also examines Japanese history and explains how the view of the foreigners  in Japan differed from China, leading to the dominant role in Asia that Japan would play in the 20th century. He shows that the Japanese were different from China in their form of government, outlook on life, and methods of dealing with foreigners and these differences prevented the western powers from exploiting  Japan as it had many of the Pacific rim countries. One advantage the Japanese possessed was their ability to build upon the basics of western technology.  While the Chinese did not seem to be interested in adopting new technological  ideas, Japan was just the opposite. Another important point brought out in this book is the impact of the Japanese government's indoctrination of the masses to create a national identity as the saviors of the Asian people. The role of technology and the new national identity both contributed to the expansionist policies of the Japanese government after 1900.

Most of this book covers the actual conflict as a timeline of events and personalities.  The story does not dwell very much on any one battle or leader, giving instead  a broad portrait of the war. Conversely, many details are skipped over as unimportant  to the larger story. Because virtually every theatre of the Pacific war is included, it is easy to see how events at one end of the ocean influenced the combatants elsewhere. Extensive coverage is given to people and events in China during the war, such as the incursion of the Japanese into Manchuria, the Flying Tigers,  "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell, the long march, and Chiang Kai-Shek. As one can see, the focus of the story is the view of the war from the Asian end of the ocean.

Empires on the Pacific provides a macro view of the conflict in the Pacific  as well as demonstrating that the push for colonial interests in China contributed significantly to the eventual conflict between the western powers and the Japanese. Its conclusions also show why the western powers were unable to forge an alliance with the post-war communist leadership in China. If you need to see the "big picture" in this theatre of operations, Empires on the Pacific will provide insights into the reasons for the war. It explains how the battles unfolded,  and illuminates the eventual change in the structure of power for all of the  countries on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean.

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