Pacific World

The theater of war is the province of strategy.


The Mediterranean is the ocean of the past, the Atlantic, the ocean of the present, and the Pacific, the ocean of the future.



The Pacific World

Much that has been written about the Pacific area is a mixture of romanticism and exaggeration. But for those who seek an understanding of the Pacific as a theater of war, a knowledge of the ocean, its islands, its peoples, and its history is a prerequisite. It was these factors which in large measure determined where and how the war would be fought, shaped strategy, complicated logistics, and conditioned tactics. Before his return journey came to an end under the Golden Gate Bridge, the World War II soldier who had fought his way across the Pacific had seen many strange sights and heard stranger tales. Nowhere did the grim reality of life in the Pacific correspond with the idyllic existence pictured in romantic literature.

The Pacific Ocean is the world of Melville and Maugham, of white whales and long-extinct animals and birds, of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and of the long-sought continent of the South Seas, Terra Australis Incognita. In its vast reaches lie countless islands ranging in size from the tiniest coral outcroppings, so low they barely break the rays of the setting sun, to continental Australia, three million square miles in extent. It has every kind of clime from sweltering heat to polar cold, and a startling variety of physical settings -- steaming and noisome jungles, foggy, frozen, wind-swept islands, deserts, palm-covered coral atolls, grassland plateaus, parched treeless plains, and live volcanoes throwing up new islands and destroying old ones.

Racially and culturally the Pacific world is a bewildering patchwork woven out of millennia of isolation and migration, when small bands of black and brown men, the "Vikings of the Sunrise," pushed their way eastward in fragile canoes across the whole wide Pacific to populate its far-flung islands. The white explorers, when they ventured into these waters centuries later, found there an astonishing variety of peoples and cultures. In the mountainous interior of New Guinea, in the Indies, and in the Philippines, were the dark, woolly haired, pygmy Negritos, who, like the aborigine of Australia, existed in almost neolithic state, traveling naked in migrant bands and living on roots, grubs, reptiles, and game; in Papua the fuzzy-haired natives lived much like' the Negrito but had a primitive political and social organization in which prestige often depended upon the number of heads a man could collect; in the Solomons, the Fijis, and New Guinea, were the dark-skinned Melanesians, fierce fighters who carved intricate and grotesque patterns in wood, ate human flesh, and were as addicted to exclusive men's clubs and secret societies as the American of today; and in the lush, beautiful islands of the eastern Pacific, where the Europeans came first, dwelt


the tall, gold-skinned Polynesian who, with more time for leisure in a land where food abounded, created complex mythological and religious rites, and developed intricate social patterns.

In the wake of the European explorers came the treasure seeker and trader, the scientist and map maker, the whaler and planter, the beachcomber and missionary. They were of all nationalities -- Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, American, German, and Japanese -- and they brought with them the doubtful blessings of a superior technology and civilization. Some exploited the native mercilessly, cheated and robbed him, others altered and destroyed his institutions, pushed him off the land, took away his few possessions and enslaved him. In the interests of progress, they converted islands into pastures, plantations, and mines; ceremonial halls into schoolhouses; and, with firearms, gin, and white man's diseases, depopulated large areas and annihilated whole tribes.

When the less savory aspects of this era of "discovery" and exploitation could no longer be ignored, the great powers stepped in to stem lawlessness and control trade. National prestige and power and the acquisition of strategic bases became the touchstones of policy; colonial administrators and naval officers the symbol of the new authority. Under official sponsorship the annexation of the islands, begun almost four hundred years earlier with Magellan's great voyage, went forward so rapidly that by the end of the nineteenth century all of the Pacific world, "every exposed volcanic crust and coral outcrop,"1 had been divided among the powers. Henceforth, they could gain additional land there only at each other's expense. The islands of the Pacific had become pawns in the great game of international rivalry and their fate rested on the moves dictated in the great capitals of the world.

Even in the twentieth century the Pacific world has lived up to its reputation for vastness and variety. The first World War and the subsequent reshuffling of control under the mandate system passed almost unnoticed by the islanders, who, like the natives of Rabaul, were only bewildered by pronouncement "No more 'um Kaiser; God save 'um King." But the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor opened a war which was fought all the way from Hawaii and Australia to Japan and the coast of Asia. It was a war waged in all the elements. Large fleets ranged the vast ocean searching for the enemy, aircraft flew hundreds and thousands of miles over water to drop their bombs, submarines hunted secretly in the lanes of empire for their prey, and troops fought desperately for islands with strange and unpronounceable names. Solomon Islanders helped carve airstrips out of jungle, Fijian and Tongan scouts performed heroic feats behind the Japanese lines on Bougainville, Papuans carried supplies over the Owen Stanley Range to the troops in New Guinea, and Filipino guerrillas met MacArthur on the beaches at Leyte. Volcanic wastes and coral atolls rising in a lonely ocean were scrutinized from the air and sea and charted with all the meticulous care of modern science. Islands where few white men had ever been were the subject of serious and lengthy debate at the council tables in Washington and London before they became major battlegrounds of the


war and then, overnight, great bases on the road to Japan.

The war came to an end with the loudest man-made explosion the world had yet heard. It was in the Pacific -- last to be settled by primitive man, last to be divided among the colonial powers, and last to witness the terrible ferocity and devastation of modern war -- that the atom age opened. The Pacific world, the home of the head hunter, had, by the middle of the twentieth century, become the proving ground of the H-bomb.

The Ocean and Its Islands

The Pacific is the biggest and the deepest body of water on the earth. With a total area of 68,634,000 square miles, it is twice as large as the Atlantic and covers more than one-third of the surface of the entire globe. Measured along the equator it is about 10,000 miles wide, but its greatest width, 12,500 miles, is between Panama and Malaya where it extends half the distance around the earth. From Bering Strait on the north, where the ocean is only 56 miles wide and 300 feet deep, to the Antarctic Circle, the Pacific measures 9,300 miles.2 So vast is its extent that if a giant bulldozer scraped off all the land on the surface of the earth to sea level and dumped it into the ocean, the Pacific would still have an average depth of two miles.

The best way to get a true picture of the immensity of the Pacific world is to imagine yourself on Mars, observing the planet Earth through a telescope more powerful than any yet built. From this vantage point, the most prominent feature on the globe before you, dwarfing the mountains and the continents, is the Pacific Ocean. But to the earth-bound, who see their planet most often in Mercator projection on a flat map, the great ocean shrinks in size and takes on distortions which seriously limit an appreciation of its actual dimensions. By showing meridians of longitude as parallel -- actually they converge at the poles -- and by increasing the spread between the parallels of latitude in proportion to their distance from the equator, the Mercator projection produces a double distortion which has the effect of blowing up the size of the areas to the north and south. Thus, Greenland appears larger than the continental United States on a map drawn to Mercator projection, whereas it is actually less than one-third the size. Conversely, New Guinea, which lies just below the equator, appears on a flat map to be only as large as New Zealand, 2,000 miles to the south, but its total area is actually three times greater and its 1,300-mile length would reach almost halfway across the United States.

Though practically all the islands of the Pacific were formed by violent upheavals of the earth's crust and volcanic activity and consist essentially of hardened lava, their origin is often masked by a coating of coral rock, the remains of once-living plants and animals. The most familiar of these is the coral polyp, a tiny marine animal that builds its own shell by extracting lime from sea water, thus providing the aviation engineers of World War II with the base for many of their airfields.


The coral polyp creates not only islands but atolls and reefs as well. The atoll, so characteristic of the eastern Pacific, consists of a chain of coral-encrusted islets, usually roughly circular or horseshoe-shaped in formation and enclosing a shallow lagoon; the reefs -- in this case, fringing reefs -- are platforms built upon the shoulders of volcanic peaks and extending between the shore and deep water. Reefs which are separated from the shore by a stretch of open water are called barrier reefs, and the largest of these, the 1,200-mile-long Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia, is probably the greatest monument left by the tiny polyp.

The coral atoll with its many islets and reefs is actually the visible portion of a single land mass resting on a subterranean mountain. It is a haven in a wilderness of ocean that forever rolls high to boil whitely against the fringing reefs. In the lagoon, where the waters are blue and calm and where fish abound, lie safety and sustenance. Troops stationed on a coral atoll during the war admired its beaches of dazzling sand where thousands of birds nest, and its rows of graceful palm trees whose fruit is the lifeblood of the atoll. And everywhere they saw coral, shaped and colored in infinite variety, and incomparably beautiful.

It is the coral atoll that has become for many the typical South Sea island. Actually there is no typical Pacific island. Some are made of the same stuff as continents, some of volcanic rock, and some of coral. In climate, size, height, and shape; in distribution of plant and animal life; in population, culture, and political affiliation, they vary so widely as to defy any simple classification. Any grouping of the islands, whatever the basis chosen, must of necessity be a compromise. But since it is necessary, for convenience of description, to adopt some system, perhaps the most suitable would be that which was most familiar to the soldier of World War II, the division of the Pacific world into five groups -- Australia, Indonesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia.

Before examining this grouping more closely, it would be well to understand clearly the meaning of certain geographic terms-frequently used in connection with the Pacific world. One of these is the South Seas. As used by its originator, the Spanish explorer Balboa who first sighted the Pacific from his well-publicized peak in Darien, it referred to the waters off Panama, then to the trade routes followed by the Spanish galleons. More recently, it has been used loosely to refer to that portion of the ocean south of the equator. Oceania is another term that is loosely used. Generally it is taken to mean all the islands of the Pacific but some authorities exclude Australia and the Indies, and others reserve the term for the French possessions in the southeast Pacific. There is no disagreement, however, about the international date line where one moves mysteriously from one day to another and which rarely failed to confuse the soldiers who sailed across it. It is the line which, except for zigzags to place politically related areas in the same time zone, coincides with the 180th meridian. When it is Sunday to the east of the line, it is Monday to the west.

Of the five regions of the Pacific, Australia is the smallest in terms of ocean area covered, but the largest in terms of land mass. About 7,000 statute miles of


ocean separate it from San Francisco and 8,000 from the Panama Canal, and, whether one travels east or west, London is 12,000 miles distant. These facts alone explain why for centuries Australia, closer to but ignored by Asiatic countries, was for Europeans and Americans an isolated continent.

The area of Australia is approximately the same as that of the continental United States, but most of it is flat and much of the western and central region is a desert. The coast line is regular -- no continent has a more compact or smoother form -- with few large natural harbors. The climate varies from tropical to temperate, and, since it lies entirely in the southern hemisphere, its seasons are the reverse of those in the United States. The most favorable year-round temperature is in the east and south, and it is there that the Europeans first settled, where industry and agriculture flourish, and where American troops were first stationed during the war.

Second of the major divisions of the Pacific world is Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago and the treasure house of the Pacific.3

The islands of Indonesia are divided into three groups. The largest and most important of these, and the one that contains the bulk of the land in the archipelago, is the Greatest Sunda group, which includes Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and the Celebes. Extending eastward from Java toward Australia is a double chain of smaller islands known as the Lesser Sunda group in which lie Timor and the famed island of Bali. To the north, between the Celebes and New Guinea, lie the Moluccas or Spice Islands. The entire archipelago, from the tip of Sumatra on the west to the Moluccas on the east, is almost 5,000 miles long, and from Borneo to Bali, about 1,000 miles wide. To the south is the Indian Ocean and to the north the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, that vital water route to the ports of Asia and Japan. Thus, lying between two continents and two oceans, Indonesia is the key to the control of the lines of communication in one of the most strategic areas in the world.

Few regions of the world are so rich in resources, have so even and comparatively pleasant a climate, and so much natural beauty and variety as Indonesia. The islands have mountainous spines skirted by extensive plains of great fertility, and a variety of plant and animal life equaled nowhere on earth. Gold, silk, spices, tea, and precious stones attracted adventurers and merchants from India and China to Indonesia centuries before the Portuguese and the Dutch ventured there in search of the luxuries of the Orient. Since then it has become one of the chief sources of the world's supply of rubber and quinine, kapok, pepper, and tea. It is one of the few places in the Far East where petroleum is found and its mineral resources are enormous. Little wonder that the islands of Indonesia have been coveted by the nations of Europe and Asia since earliest times.

North of Indonesia, fringing the coast of Asia, are several large groups of islands which some geographers consider, with Indonesia, as part of the Asiatic land mass. To the American troops the best known of these were the Philippines. Comprising almost 7,100 islands, only one-third of them named, and extending


FUJIYAMA, sacred mountain of Japan, dominates the Tokyo Bar area. (Photo taken in 1945 with American warships in the harbor.)

for 1,150 miles from Borneo to Formosa, the Philippine archipelago is strategically situated in the geographic heart of the Far East, athwart the trade routes between Japan and China to the north and Indonesia and southeast Asia to the south. Only eleven of the islands have an area greater than 1,000 square miles and two of these, Luzon and Mindanao, together comprise more than two-thirds of the 115,600 square miles of land in the archipelago.

Between the Philippines and Japan, forming a series of stepping stones northward, are Formosa and the Ryukyus. Named by Portuguese navigators the "Beautiful Island" and occupied briefly by the Dutch and the Japanese, Formosa has been largely under the control of the Chinese, who named the land Taiwan, or terrace bay, for its giant green terrace-like cliffs. The island has an area of 13,887 square miles, almost twice that of the state of Maryland. About a hundred miles to the west, across Formosa Strait, lies the southeast coast of China, and Hong Kong is only 360 miles away.

The Ryukyu Islands, scene of one of the last great battles of World War II, separate the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean and extend in a wide arc from Formosa to Japan. In ancient times the land was ruled by native dynasties, but after the fourteenth century the islands


ON BOARD THE POWHATAN.Commodore Perry entertains the Japanese Commissioners in July 1854.

paid tribute to China and then, in the twentieth century, to the Japanese, who finally took over control of the country.

The Japanese archipelago consists of four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, and hundreds of smaller islands which extend in a 1,250-mile-long arc off the coast of Asia. The total land area of the archipelago is about the same as that of the state of Montana, 147,000 square miles, over half of which is accounted for by Honshu, the so-called Japanese mainland and site of the capital and chief cities. The structure of the islands is volcanic and mountainous, but there are few mineral resources and only 20 percent of the land is arable. Most of Japan's people live on the plains, the most notable of which is the Kanto Plain, which includes Tokyo and has a population density of 750 to 900 persons to the square mile. It is on these plains that the rice, barley, and millet needed to feed the people is grown and so intensive is the system of cultivation that as many as four crops are produced in a year. Fishing boats swarm over the waters around Japan and provide that other staple of the Japanese diet. Meat, milk, and dairy products are scarce and little used in Japan, and cheese is so little liked that it is said even the Japanese rats will not eat it.


The Japanese islands are the only ones in the Pacific that have retained their independence and integrity since earliest times. According to legend, Japan was founded by the goddess of the sun and its rulers are her direct descendants. Before the middle of the sixteenth century the islands had a loosely organized feudal government headed by a shogun, or military leader, and virtually independent lords. After a period of internal conflict in the sixteenth century, the country came under new rulers who reformed the government and followed a policy of complete isolation from the rest of the world. It was not until Admiral Perry's visit in 1853 that Japan entered the community of nations, began to adopt western customs and techniques, and embarked on a policy of expansion.

Eastward across the Pacific, the direction taken by the successive waves of migration from Asia, lie the three remaining major divisions of the Pacific world: Micronesia and Melanesia, lying side by side along the equator, and Polynesia, whose islands fall within a vast triangle extending from Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. These names, so deceptively alike, include areas of wide variation in climate and physical environment, and a great diversity in racial and cultural patterns.

The islands of Micronesia (meaning tiny islands in Greek) lie north of the equator, between the Philippines and the date line, an ocean area larger than the continental United States. The amount of land in this huge expanse of ocean, however, totals only 1,260 square miles, about as much as Rhode Island. Most of this land consists of low coral atolls, but many of the islands are volcanic in structure with peaks as high as 3,000 feet. Farthest north and closest to the Bonins, scene of the bloody battle for Iwo Jima, are the Mariana Islands, resting on the edge of a vast submerged mountain chain jutting deeply into Micronesia. It is on the southern extremity of this group that Guam, the largest island of Micronesia and an important American base in World War II, is located. Westernmost of the Micronesian islands and about 500 miles off the coast of Mindanao are the Palaus where soldiers and marines also fought during the war. From here the islands stretch eastward, south of the Marianas, for about 2,000 miles through the mysterious Caroline Islands, where lie Yap and Truk. Along the eastern border of Micronesia, roughly parallel to the date line, are two other island groups: the Marshall Islands, to which belong Bikini and Eniwetok, and the Gilbert Islands, where lie Makin and Tarawa, the scenes of important battles in the war against Japan.

The importance of the tiny islands of Micronesia is far out of proportion to their size. For the prehistoric settlers from Asia they provided malaria-free homes and, for those who followed later, stopping places on the voyage farther eastward. Since Magellan's time they have been a vital link in Pacific trade and communication, and a source of critical materials such as phosphate and bauxite. Guam served the Spanish galleons, and, 300 years later, the U.S. Navy and Pan-American aircraft. Truk, once a Spanish and then a German possession, became later the nerve center for the Japanese Imperial Navy in the central Pacific. Today, naval bases, airports, and cable and weather stations are scattered throughout the area and it is here that


the latest models of the atom and hydrogen bombs have been tested.

South of Micronesia, parallel and almost equal to it in extent, is Melanesia, the black islands, so named for the complexion of its people. The islands of Melanesia form a broad-curving arc that stretches east and south from Indonesia to the date line. Though these islands have certain characteristics in common climate, location, and structure -- they represent the widest diversity of cultural and racial patterns in the Pacific and are grouped together only because it would be more confusing to group them separately.

Melanesia is probably the poorest place in the world to live, to work, or to fight, a verdict with which all soldiers unlucky enough to be stationed there heartily agreed. For convenience, it may be divided into a western and an eastern area. The first includes dragon-shaped New Guinea, second largest island in the world and almost continental in the variety of its climate, structure, and plant and animal life; the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, New Ireland, and New Britain with its magnificent natural harbor at Rabaul; and, guarding the northern approaches to the Bismarck Archipelago, the Admiralty Islands. Together, these islands comprise one of the most backward and least-known regions of the world, peopled largely by the primitive black, fuzzy-haired Papuans, and a strange variety of bird life -- the ostrich-like cassowary, the brilliantly hued but raucous bird of paradise, and the snow-white cockatoo. But their shore lines contain anchorages large enough to accommodate the combined fleets of the world, and their position adjacent to Indonesia and north of Australia gives them great strategic importance.

The eastern portion of Melanesia consists of six major groups of islands: the Solomons, Santa Cruz, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Loyalty, and Fiji. The Solomon Islands, which stretch in a double northwest-southeast chain for 700 miles to the east of New Guinea, include seven major and many small islands, whose names sound the roll of notable American battles: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, New Georgia, Vella Lavella, and Bougainville. With their damp, hot climate, malarial mosquito, and well-nigh impenetrable jungle they constitute one of the most forbidding areas on earth.

Southeast of the Solomons lie the New Hebrides, and below them, New Caledonia. To the east and forming the eastern limit of Melanesia are the Fiji Islands, whose remarkably well-built natives were once the most famous cannibals of the South Seas.

Last and largest of the regions of Oceania and the most homogeneous of its cultural and racial groupings, is Polynesia. It extends from New Zealand, far to the south and 1,200 miles east of Australia, to lonely Easter Island, outpost of Polynesia and home of an ancient and still unknown civilization, a distance of 4,000 miles. And from Easter to Midway and Kure, northernmost of the Hawaiian chain, is almost 1,000 miles more. In this vast ocean area, four times larger than the continental United States, are scattered innumerable bits of land whose total area, exclusive of New Zealand, is no larger than the state of Vermont.

The southern apex of Polynesia consists of two large mountainous islands and their outlying clusters of land known collectively as New Zealand. The islands,


which became a rest area for American troops during the war, measure about 1,000 miles from north to south and extend from the subtropical to the subarctic regions with seasons comparable to but reversed from those in the United States.

Northernmost of the Polynesian islands is the Hawaiian chain and the island outposts nearby. The chain extends for almost 2,000 miles in a northwest-southeast direction. Located 2,100 miles from San Francisco, 3,400 miles from Yokohama, and midway between Panama and Manila, the Hawaiian Islands stand at the crossroads of the air and water routes of the central Pacific.

Only eight of the Hawaiian islands are inhabited. The most important are Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu, where the capital city and most of the islands' military and naval installations are located. At the opposite end of the Hawaiian chain, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, is Midway, a lonely coral atoll six miles in diameter, where the United States won its first important victory after Pearl Harbor. Together with Wake and Johnston Islands, Midway is important chiefly as a civil air station and military base.

The remaining islands of Polynesia, with a few minor exceptions, lie below the equator and east of the Fijis, an area to which few American troops found their way. The most important of these are Tonga, Samoa, and the islands of French Oceania. The Tonga, or Friendly Islands as Captain Cook called them, lie to the east of the Fijis and extend for 200 miles north and south. There are about 150 islands in the group, the largest of which, Tongatabu, is about 100 square miles in extent. The Samoa Islands to the north extend in an east-west direction for about 300 miles. Western Samoa, which includes the two largest islands, is under the control of New Zealand, and the eastern portion, including Tutuila with its splendid harbor of Pago Pago, is American and was administered by the U.S. Navy until 1951.

French Oceania is comprised of seven separate groups of islands, the most important of which are the Marquesas, Society, and Tuamotu. The Society Islands are probably the most storied islands of Oceania. Almost all of the eighteenth century explorers of the Pacific stopped there and wrote glowing accounts of the people and the land. The largest island in the group and the one most often associated with tales of adventure and romance is Tahiti. The Tuamotu group is one of the largest archipelagoes in the Pacific, consisting of seventy-six atolls and stretching southeast of the Societies for about 1,300 miles. Remote from Asia, America, or Australia, subject to destructive hurricanes, and lacking fresh water or a fertile soil, the Tuamotu Islands have never attracted as much interest as other Polynesian islands.

Far to the north of Polynesia, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, lie the Aleutian Islands. From Alaska they sweep eastward for over 1,000 miles, like a finger pointing at Asia. Poor in resources and scene of some of the most disagreeable weather in the world, the islands were for many years almost ignored by the great powers. But their strategic location between America and Asia marked them as outposts for the defense of Alaska and a target for the Japanese early in the war.


The Great Powers in the Pacific

The exploitation and settlement of the Pacific world by Europeans had begun with the first voyages of the Portuguese and Spanish.4 Under the papal Line of Demarcation, these two nations had in 1494 divided the world between them, Spain claiming exclusive rights to all land 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands and Portugal all land to the east. The main objective of Magellan's voyage had been to find a shorter, western passage to the Spice Islands, which the Portuguese held, and thus prove that these islands fell within Spain's half of the world. Though he found the western passage, Magellan failed to establish Spain's rights to the Spice Islands and the Portuguese continued to enjoy exclusive control of the highly profitable trade of the Indies. There was none to challenge Spain's rights to the rest of the Pacific world, however, and Spanish galleons sailed regularly between ports in the new world and the outposts of empire in the Marshalls, the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Philippines.

The Dutch empire in the Far East was exclusively economic. The Portuguese and Spanish sought converts to Christianity as well as spice and gold; the Dutch wasted no energy on saving men's souls or on settlements. With single-minded persistence they sought economic advantages in the Far East and ultimately established a flourishing commercial empire extending as far as Formosa and Japan.

The English and French entered the Pacific much later. Following the precedent set by Sir Francis Drake, they first sought the wealth of the Pacific in the holds of Spanish galleons and in weakly defended Spanish settlements. In the years from 1675 to 1726 alone there were over a hundred English and French voyages into the Pacific, most of them officially sponsored buccaneering expeditions. But, despite the weakness of Spain, neither government showed any inclination to extend its sovereignty into the Pacific. Instead, it was the whalers, the traders, and the blackbirders who first brought western civilization to Oceania.

The establishment of trading posts, plantations, and missions was the prelude to annexation. As a result of the explorations of the eighteenth century, England and France had established conflicting claims to most of the Pacific world, but because of trouble in Europe and the belief that these islands were scarcely worth the risk of war neither government had pushed its claims. England, it is true, had established a penal colony in Australia shortly after the American Revolution, but no one opposed British claims to the isolated continent. Nor was there any serious opposition when France established a protectorate over Tahiti, then over all the Society and Marquesas Islands. But under the urging of the planters, merchants, and missionaries who now had an important stake in the Pacific, the


attitude of the governments changed and each sought to establish its claims. To these interests was added later in the century the need for coaling stations and strategic bases, a need created by the use of steamships and the increased importance of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand in world politics and economics.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the fight for the most desirable islands in the Pacific was on in earnest. England's efforts to settle New Zealand in the 1820's and 1830's had met strong opposition from the French and its was not until 1840 that the British felt their claim to the islands sufficiently strong to annex them. The French in their turn barely nosed out the English in New Caledonia, which Captain Cook had discovered, and annexed the island with its rich mineral resources in 1853.5

When German vessels began appearing in the Pacific, the race became three-cornered. in 1868 the Hamburg firm of Godeffroy began operations from Samoa and before long had branches in Hawaii, Fiji, and New Guinea. Though these activities were not official, they worried the British enough to make them annex the Fijis when German vessels began showing an undue interest in these islands. The French then strengthened their position in French Oceania by making Tahiti a colony and formally annexing the Tuamotus.

The German Government began acquiring land in the Pacific in 1884, after Bismarck had endorsed a strong expansionist policy. In that year the Germans seized the Bismarck Archipelago and the northeast coast of New Guinea. The Dutch had already added western New Guinea to their empire in 1828 and the British took the remaining portion of New Guinea for themselves. The next year the Germans seized control of the northern Solomons and, with splendid disdain for Spanish rights, hoisted the imperial flag over Yap and established a protectorate over the Caroline and Marshall Islands. The English and French thereupon proceeded to help themselves to additional slices of the Pacific pie. The two nations in 1887 established joint dominion (condominium) over the New Hebrides and the following year England established a protectorate over the Cook Islands. Before the end of the century, Samoa, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the Southern Solomons and Tonga had been divided among the powers, with England getting the lion's share.

The United States embarked on a colonial career in the Pacific comparatively late. With its energies absorbed in the settlement of a continent and in the Civil War, the United States was unable to take advantage of the early interest of the whalers and traders who had ventured so daringly and profited so enormously in the Pacific. But the ambition to establish mastery of the ocean and its commerce was almost as old as the republic, and formed a consistent pattern in the patchwork of westward expansion to the Pacific coast. Americans had discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, and had


taken the lead in the whaling industry and the China trade. During the War of 1812, Captain David Porter raised the American flag in the Marquesas and established happy relations with the natives, a relationship which "with the common sailors and their girls all was helter skelter."6

But the government showed little inclination to follow up Porter's action and no claim was made to the island. Forty years later another naval officer, Commodore Matthew G. Perry, met the same reception to his proposals to establish bases in the Ryukyus, the Bonins, and Formosa. Ironically, the most significant result of his expedition to Japan was to promote the development of a nation which in time was to become America's chief rival in the Pacific.

Despite the hopes and initiative of many who dreamed of an American empire in the Pacific, the government moved slowly. In 1856 it passed the Guano Act which permitted U.S. claims to unoccupied islands for the purpose of working the guano deposits. These deposits were much in demand as fertilizer, and claims were laid to forty-eight islands, largely in the Line and Phoenix groups. But the guano, which had required thousands of years and countless millions of birds to create, was exhausted in twenty-five years and with it disappeared American interest in the islands. Most of the islands finally went to England, but the United States did establish claims to Howland, Baker, Palmyra, and other small islands which proved useful later in building a military air route across the south Pacific.

The acquisition of Alaska, Midway, and Samoa also came in this period. The first was acquired, with the Aleutians, by purchase from Russia in i 867 and gave the United States many more thousands of miles of Pacific coast line as well as an arc of islands extending far across the north Pacific. Midway, which was discovered by an American vessel in 1859, was formally annexed the same year as the Alaska purchase, and about the same time other small islands between it and Hawaii were acquired. But all proposals to take over the Hawaiian Islands, where the Americans held a dominant position, were rejected by Congress. The United States did, however, at the urging of the Navy acquire the right to establish a naval station at Pearl Harbor in 1884. It was also largely through the efforts of the Navy, backed by commercial groups, that the United States gained the harbor of Pago Pago in 1877. More than twenty years later the United States acquired Tutuila in eastern Samoa while Germany took the western half of the islands. England, in return for German concessions in Tonga and the Solomons, withdrew altogether from Samoa.

American expansion into the Pacific reached its peak with the annexation of the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands at the end of the century. As early as 1843 there were more Americans in Hawaii than all other foreign nationals, and the value of their property was over one million dollars. They held posts of responsibility in the government and virtually controlled the political and economic life of the island. For years they urged annexation by the mother country and by 1860 the issue was being debated hotly in the United States. Finally in 1893 the Americans in Hawaii overthrew the native monarch, established a republic, and requested annexation to the United


States. The offer was rejected, largely because of President Cleveland's opposition, but the new republic of Hawaii was recognized as the rightful government and, with support from important interests in the United States, continued to press for annexation. The Spanish-American war and the increasing interest of the Japanese in the islands led to a change of attitude. On 11 July 1898, by a joint resolution of Congress, the Republic of Hawaii was annexed by the United States.

The great prize of the Spanish-American War, which ousted Spain from the Pacific and made the United States a full-fledged colonial power, was the Philippine islands. But having won the islands by force, the American Government still had to decide what to do with them. Germany, fishing in troubled waters, had a fleet in Manila Bay and was ready to take over if the United States defaulted. McKinley's decision was for annexation, and formal cession of the islands, as well as of Guam, was made on 10 December 1898 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Few considered the other Marianas and the Carolines worth taking and Germany purchased them from Spain soon after.

The construction of the Panama Canal completed the transformation of the United States into a Pacific power. The first Spanish explorers had searched eagerly for a way around America and had found the westward passage far to the south. But this route was a long one, and Americans during the California gold rush had as often gone overland across the disease-ridden Isthmus of Panama to save time. A water route across the isthmus from the Atlantic to the Pacific would cut off almost 10,000 miles from the journey, and the French began work on a canal in 1880. This effort failed, but American engineers took up the task in 1902 and when the canal opened in 1914 the United States gained control of the eastern gateway to the Pacific.

Last to enter the Pacific in search of empire, though itself a Pacific power, was Japan. In the years after Commodore Perry's visit, Japan, emulating the Western Powers, began to extend its control over weaker neighbors and to push its boundaries north and south. Between 1875 and 1880 the Japanese acquired the Kurils (Chishima), the Bonins, and the Ryukyus. The Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95 gave Japan Formosa and the Pescadores, accorded Korea a nominal independence, and demonstrated to a surprised world that Japan was a factor to be reckoned with in the Far East. In the treaty ending the war China also ceded to Japan the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria, but Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to disgorge the peninsula.7

American annexation of Hawaii and, next year, of the Philippines aroused strong hostility in a Japan which was already angered by the French, Russian, and German interference with the provisions of the treaty with China. Many Japanese were convinced that the aims of the nation could only be achieved by force, and the influence of the Army and Navy, already considerable, increased sharply. As a result Japan embarked on a military and naval expansion program designed to make the nation so strong


that it would never again suffer so humiliating an experience.8

Japan's first opportunity to test its new strength came in 1904 when, without the formality of a declaration of war, it attacked Russia. Despite unqualified success on land and sea, the Japanese were anxious to end the war within a year because of the heavy drain on the nation's resources. When President Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate the dispute, therefore, both nations promptly accepted and some months later the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed. By this treaty, Russia recognized Japan's paramount interests in Korea and transferred to Japan the lease on the Liaotung Peninsula, railway and mining privileges in southern Manchuria, and the southern half of Sakhalin. Five years later Japan added Korea to its empire, and, by secret agreement with Russia, made southern Manchuria a Japanese sphere of influence.

Japan's opportunity to expand into the Pacific came with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914. Using the pretext of the alliance with England signed in 1902, Japan declared war on Germany and seized the Marshall, Caroline and Mariana (except Guam) Islands, thus extending the Japanese empire almost 3,000 miles into the Pacific. Other Pacific powers, it should be noted, did not let this opportunity for expansion go by without gain to themselves. Australia took over the German possessions in New Guinea, the Solomons, and the Bismark Archipelago, and New Zealand troops occupied western Samoa. Japan, not content with expansion into the Pacific, took over Germany's interests in the Shantung Province of China and the port of Tsingtao as well. The following year, 1915, in the Twenty-One Demands, Japan requested from China enormous additional economic and political concessions which, had they been granted, would have brought that nation under Japanese domination. But a vigorous protest from the United States, and other reasons, forced Japan to withdraw the most drastic of the demands.

By the Treaty of Versailles, Japan's wartime acquisitions, already approved by secret agreements with Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, were formally sanctioned. President Wilson opposed strongly the cession of the German islands to Japan, asserting that their only value was military and that their control by Japan would make the defense of the Philippines virtually impossible. But he failed to win over the Allies and Japan was granted under a mandate the islands it had seized, while England and Australia secured similar sanction for their actions.

With the Treaty of Versailles, the division of the Pacific world was complete. Japan was the dominant power in the western Pacific, north of the equator, and held almost all of Micronesia. The United States controlled the northeast Pacific with Hawaii and the Aleutians, and held outposts deep in Japanese-controlled territory in Guam, Wake, and the Philippines. The British Empire was dominant in the central and


southwestern Pacific, from Samoa westward to Australia and New Guinea, including almost all of Melanesia. France held most of the southeast Pacific, French Oceania, as well as New Caledonia, and, jointly with the English, the New Hebrides. The Dutch still had their rich empire in the East Indies, and in addition held the western portion of New Guinea. No nation could expand in the Pacific except at the expense of another and in violation of existing treaties. For Japan, this meant conflict with the stronger Western Powers. But on the Asiatic continent lay a weakened China and it was there that Japan sought the fulfillment for her dreams of empire. And it was there, in China and Manchuria, that the seeds for conflict with the United States were sown.


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1. Douglas L. Oliver, The Pacific Islands (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 253.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, this section is based upon O.W. Freeman, ed., Geography of the Pacific (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1951), pp. 1-34; Fairfield Osborn, ed., The Pacific World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1944), pp. 21-4; Don Leet, Causes of Catastrophe (New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1948), pp. 150-53, 189; R.W. Robson, The Pacific Islands Handbook (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946).

3. Indonesia as a geographical and cultural unit is not to be confused with the political entity, the recently established Republic of Indonesia.

4. For accounts of the exploration and exploitation of the Pacific, see J.C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (on: A & C Black, Ltd., 1934); Oliver, The Pacific Islands, pp. 63-103; Freeman, ed., Geography of the Pacific, pp. 61-87; Rob The Pacific Islands Handbook; Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921); Christopher Lloyd, Pacific Horizons, The Exploration of the Pacific Before Captain Cook (London: Allen & Unwin, 1946); James A. Williamson, Cook and the Opening of the Pacific(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948).

5. For the rivalry of the Western Powers in the Pacific, see: Jean I. Brookes, International Rivalry in the Pacific Islands, 1800-1875 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1941); Foster R. Dulles, America in the Pacific (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932); Sylvia Masterman, The Origins of International Rivalry in Samoa, 1845-1884 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1934); Richard W. Van Alstyne, "Great Britain, the United States, and Hawaiian Independence, 1850-1855," Pacific Historical Review, IV (1935), 15-24.

6. Quoted from Captain David Porter's Journal by Dulles, America in the Pacific, p. 100.

7. It is interesting to note that acceptance of the Russian, German, and French terms was decided by a seidan, that is, a sacred or personal decision of the Emperor Meiji, and was the only precedent for Hirohito's personal decision to end the war in 1945.

8. For Japanese expansion and Japan's relations to other powers in the Pacific, See Roy H. Akagi, Japan's Foreign Relations, 1542-1936 (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1937); Payson J. Treat, Diplomatic Relations Between the United States and Japan, 1853-1895, 2 vols. (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1932); Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of Japan (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947); Paul Clyde, The Far East (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1947).

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation