Pace on Heinrichs and Gallicchio, 'Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945'

Waldo H. Heinrichs, Marc S. Gallicchio. Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiii + 711 pp. Ill. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-061675-5

Reviewed by Andrew O. Pace (University of Colorado Boulder)
Published on H-War (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Nearly thirty years after the late Waldo Heinrichs wrote about how Franklin D. Roosevelt and the United States entered World War II in Threshold of War, he and Marc Gallicchio have added a complementary bookend that narrates the final eighteen months of America’s war against Japan, Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. Like the earlier book, Implacable Foes focuses on the strategic, operational, and political limitations that constrained US policymakers and made America’s total victory dependent on the atomic bombs and the emperor’s intervention. Methodologically, the Bancroft Prize-winning tome integrates military history and domestic politics while interpretively, it suggests that the United States could have come close to a conditional peace settlement.

While the American home front was blessed during the war with national unity, abundant natural resources, robust industrial traditions, and immunity from attack, Heinrichs and Gallicchio show that US war making suffered from constraints that made America’s final victory over Japan more uncertain than inevitable. For starters, the Pacific itself was against them. The ocean’s size strained supply lines of food, clothing, medical supplies, and construction materials while jungle insects, island diseases, and tropical humidity attacked US troops relentlessly. The book’s descriptions of combat on Tarawa’s beaches, Peleliu’s coral spines, in the Philippine wilderness and Iwo Jima’s caves, and on Okinawa’s ridges reinforce that each island-hopping campaign in the Pacific was “its own special kind of hell” (p. 6). Of course, each assault was exacerbated by the enemy, and American progress was challenged by the implacable resistance of Japanese defenders who refused to surrender and tried to kill as many Americans as possible. Japanese fortifications, infiltration, and night raids meant US soldiers had to spend weeks or months “mopping up” after islands were officially captured while banzai charges, kamikaze attacks, and military buildup on Kyushu created qualms about invading the home islands.

Other limitations were self-inflicted. The Germany First strategy meant that no new divisions entered the Pacific theater after July 1944 while interservice rivalries between the Army and Navy divided commands and resources. Meanwhile, Douglas MacArthur’s vanity and competition with Admiral Nimitz, his staff’s consistent underestimation of Japanese forces, and his retention of ships, determination to liberate all of the Philippines, and plans for attacking Java meant that the famous general was as much a liability as an asset for the United States. Above all, Americans deplored US casualties, and the authors contend that the primary constraint policymakers experienced was the public’s intolerance for the human and economic costs of the war.

The ordeals of the Pacific War will sound familiar to military buffs, but, in the second half of the book, the authors show how American military dilemmas and self-constraints after Germany’s surrender in May 1945 challenge traditional understandings about the end of the war. As the US prepared for the invasion of Japan, the Army began to redeploy soldiers from Europe to the Pacific (including Waldo Heinrichs, who served as an infantryman in the 86th Division). Simultaneously, the Army began to discharge two million GIs from Europe and the Pacific based on their length of service, combat experience, and family obligations. Demobilization and redeployment worked against each other, however. The home front, expecting a return to normalcy, hoped that rationing and regulations would be lifted or loosened and called for the return of their boys. But even as it transitioned to a one-front war, the Pentagon remained committed to using maximum forces and resources to compel Japan’s unconditional surrender and rejected any relaxation as the war entered its most decisive and costly phase. The Army’s plans for invasion though, strained American logistics, tested the limits of military resourcefulness, and conjured fears from Republicans and Democrats of economic collapse, and the book’s strongest chapters illustrate how the country was caught “somewhere between peace and war” (p. 503). The White House, the Pentagon, Congress, and the American public were all debating alternative strategies, reduced war aims, and the war’s purpose when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Within days, the emperor gave the order to surrender, ending the war.

The sudden end of World War II has been chronicled as much as any event in history, but by integrating domestic politics with the military history of the war’s final year, Heinrichs and Gallicchio restore the uncertainty of victory that the atomic bombs turned into inevitability. “The capitulation of Hirohito saved our necks” (p. 3), an Army staff officer recalls at the book’s beginning, and the authors suggest that the atomic bombs not only saved the United States and Japan from a bloody invasion but saved US policymakers from more excruciating dilemmas about unconditional surrender and economic reconversion. Of all the ways that the atomic bombs changed history, the one Americans have forgotten is how close Japanese resistance and American war-weariness came to forcing the United States to accept an incomplete victory.

That contribution is somewhat obscured by the book’s length and detail, which also make some of the island-hopping chapters feel formulaic. But scaling the Pacific War’s battles, politics, grand strategy, and logistics from the front lines to the White House in less than six hundred pages of text is an incredible achievement, and Implacable Foes deserves wide readership among American historians for refining the context and contingency of the Pacific War.

Citation: Andrew O. Pace. Review of Heinrichs, Waldo H.; Gallicchio, Marc S., Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

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