So far in this series we’ve been mainly covering the history of the Japanese Empire prior to the start of the Pacific War; but what about the other major player of the war? What was the position of the United States after the end of World War One? What were their interests and strategies in the Pacific? And how did they feel about their future rival and its rise as a great power? Today, we are going to answer all these questions and more as we cover the history of the United States and its role in the Pacific theater.
Since its inception, one of the primary objectives of the United States has been to secure America’s commercial interests in the world, without hesitation to use force to preserve its trade and only bothering to intervene in conflicts if they impede American profits. Yet expansionism wasn’t rare either in the early history of the US, albeit not by force of arms in most cases. Following independence, the Manifest Destiny doctrine urged Americans to expand in a westward direction until getting to the Pacific Ocean. With the Purchase of Alaska, westward expansion finally ended, but the Manifest Destiny did not; as in the late 19th Century, it evolved to promote an overseas expansion directed to the acquisition of Pacific island groups. Commercial interests in the Far East also helped to fuel this extension of the Manifest Destiny, with the US participating in the forced establishment of trade in China, Japan and Korea via the unequal treaties through the decades. And back home, as the United States resisted getting itself entangled in Europe’s perennial wars, a sphere of influence was gradually created over its own continent and the US soon started to grow as a world power. This sphere of influence then expanded into the Pacific, where the Americans found great interests on the Hawaiian Archipelago, which would eventually cause the collapse of the Kingdom of Hawaii and its subsequent annexation by the US, an event that coincided with the outbreak of war with the Spanish Empire over Cuba.
From this war, the United States also obtained the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, yet these territories were not to be new states; instead, they were basically declared as colonies, not enjoying full constitutional rights under American rule. The newly-born American Imperialism in the Pacific would continue with the colonization of the eastern islands of Samoa and the main islands surrounding Hawaii. In East Asia, the Americans opted to cede the initiative to Europeans with the objective of securing the little presence they had in the region, while at the same time helping important states like Japan or China to modernize and thus become a counterweight to European encroachment. In result, relationships with the Qing Dynasty and the early Meiji government were very amicable, with the US promising to intercede on their behalf in the face of renewed European aggression. But when the Japanese Empire quickly began to manifest its own imperial ambitions, the Americans had to act upon to prevent war between Japan and China, consequently damaging American-Japanese relations. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, however, the US helped to broker peace between them with the Treaty of Shimonoseki and refused to join the Europeans during the Triple Intervention, again becoming one of the friendliest powers to Japan.
In 1899, after a scramble for concessions in China, Secretary of State John Hay established a new American foreign policy aimed towards East Asia. With the Open Door Policy, the US wanted to preserve Chinese territorial and administrative integrity as a buffer against intensifying conflicts in the region and to secure American commercial, rail and navigational access to Chinese markets. This skilful articulation of US interests probably slowed imperial expansion within China during and after the Boxer Rebellion, yet it wouldn’t be enough to deter Russian and Japanese aggression, leading to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. Once again, the Americans would have to intervene to end the war and maintain a favorable balance of power in the region during the negotiations at the Treaty of Portsmouth. The very restrained peace terms negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt strongly damaged American-Japanese relations, as Roosevelt supported the defeated Russians in their stance to concede little territory and to avoid war reparations. The Japanese expected these reparations to help families recover from lost fathers and sons and to relieve the burden of heavy taxation; without them, social unrest erupted in the country. Roosevelt did this because he wanted the war to end with both Russia and Japan in a weak state; Russia humiliated and militarily weak, and Japan bankrupt and with unrest. The Japanese, however, managed to recover from the economic crisis and continued to modernize as we have already seen. Worried about Japan’s growing naval power after the war, the Roosevelt administration set out to improve its defenses in the Pacific and to embark on a large naval buildup capable of defending Pacific possessions from Japanese aggression.
In the remainder of Roosevelt’s presidency, an effort was made to improve relations with the Japanese, but despite the successes that American diplomats might have had, everything would change after the outbreak of the First World War. From it, the United States emerged as a great power, playing a key part in the collapse of the German Empire at the end of the war. But despite President Woodrow Wilson’s goal of world peace with the establishment of the League of Nations, his foreign policy in the Pacific would be poor and inconsistent. It was during this time that American-Japanese relations reached a point of no return, as the US condemned the Twenty-One Demands presented by the Japanese to China in an effort to increase their sphere of influence in the region. The growing tensions between Japan and the US then reached a climax at Versailles, forcing the Allied nations to strike a compromise during the peace negotiations. In exchange for the German leases in China and their colonies in Micronesia, the Racial Equality Proposal presented by the Japanese would be rejected, mainly due to the opposition of the British and the US itself. This compromise was seen as a humiliation by both the Chinese, who believed that the German leases should return to them, and the Japanese, who felt alienated by the Western powers and in response suffered a rise of nationalism and anti-American sentiment.
Overall, however, Wilson would maintain the Open Door policy towards China in a more friendly way and would succeed at supporting democracy and self-determination in Asia and the Pacific, even going so far as to propose the decolonization of the Philippines. But the devastation of the Great War had an unforeseen consequence: it left only the US and the Japanese Empire as the main players in the Pacific. To preserve the Open Door, the Americans would now have to balance their own power in the region and that of Japan; and to increase the difficulty of their task, the Republic of China would also fracture into several Warlord states, so the Open Door was detrimental for the Chinese territorial integrity. Meanwhile, the American Navy had been preparing for war with the Japanese Empire since the start of the century, developing and adapting their War Plan Orange through the years. Their plan initially involved the defense of their Pacific possessions from their base at Corregidor Island while waiting for reinforcements to arrive from the Atlantic, as the US expected a sudden Japanese attack. Then, advancing up the Caroline and Marshall Islands in preparation for a decisive counterattack against the Japanese Navy, the Americans would take Japan’s home islands under blockade and then end the war. Thus for the success of War Plan Orange, continued parity with the IJN in the Pacific and the fortification of the US Pacific possessions was of absolute importance. If the Americans neglected these endeavors, they would then throw away an invaluable military advantage and risk prolongation of war, maximum expenditure and uncertainty of outcome.
But the Roaring Twenties were a time of great prosperity for the US, one in which naval spending had very little support, as the Republican governments instead focused on business prospects. By the end of the decade, the Americans had become the largest exporter of the world, expanding the size of its domestic market and becoming less dependent from trade; and to avoid a costly naval arms race with Japan, the US would turn to convene an international disarmament conference in Washington. Furthermore, the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 was an important matter for the Americans, so they would pressure Great Britain to terminate the treaty, leaving Japan alone and isolated. As such, they would be easily pressured into agreeing with the Washington Naval Treaty. The Treaty itself, signed in 1922, established a 5:5:3 ratio in battleship tonnage for the US, Britain and Japan, as well as a non-fortification clause in the Pacific. It also enforced the Open Door Policy by making all the powers guarantee the commercial and territorial integrity of China. The Treaty was thus a great success, securing American superiority against the IJN and managing to soothe Japanese aggression against China for the remainder of the decade. Yet in the long term, the Treaty would render War Plan Orange completely ineffective, as the non-fortification clause left the US at a severe disadvantage in the Pacific, and, since [in?] the 30s, Japan would begin to build up its Navy again to compete with the US and to establish hegemony in East Asia.
The Japanese would also see the growth of anti-American sentiment with the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924, which closed off Japanese immigration to the US. This Act further provoked the rise of ultranationalism and racist-driven fascism in the Japanese Empire, which would eventually lead to the decision to abandon disarmament and to prepare for war against the US. For the remainder of the decade, the US would try to financially support Japan to heal a little their poor relationship; but with the signing of the London Naval Treaty of 1930, which further established limitations on cruiser and submarine construction, the ultranationalists in Japan finally began their rise to power. The prosperous Roaring Twenties would also end very poorly, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 signaling the beginning of the Great Depression. What followed was a time of high unemployment, poverty, deflation, emigration and economic crisis, poorly managed by the government of President Herbert Hoover. The 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, however, saw the establishment of an economic recovery plan, the New Deal, which would allow for much of the economy to recover by 1936, although the effects of the Great Depression would still be felt for many more years. In 1937 for example, the American economy would unexpectedly fall again, with a renewed decline of production, profits and employment. FDR reacted by launching a rhetorical campaign against monopoly power and a $5 billion spending program to increase mass purchasing power. Luckily, the 1937 Recession had ended by 1939, and the American economy was recovering once again.
In the Pacific meanwhile, the economic turmoil in the US coincided with the consolidation of ultranationalist elements in Japan, which launched a successful Invasion of Manchuria, left the League of Nations, and abandoned the naval disarmament. Overwhelmed by the financial crisis at home, the Hoover administration wanted no problem with Japan, so they allowed the Japanese to get away with it without enacting economic sanctions against them. As the Open Door was falling apart, FDR would also focus exclusively on more pressing domestic programs, resulting in the Japanese having a free hand to act in China. Furthermore, the American Navy was in a miserable state, with the Asiatic Squadron still using aged vessels from the Great War. Hoover and FDR would also cut down the army and navy budgets, and in Hoover’s mandate not a single ship would be constructed, further weakening the American military. In response, Congressman Carl Vinson, the main champion of a stronger navy during the 30s, would work with Roosevelt’s administration to use the naval buildup as a jobs program in accordance with FDR's own politics. Through the Vinson Acts, by 1942 the American Navy had been successfully built up back to the London Treaty limits, which gave a little more confidence for War Plan Orange. But still, Japan held considerable superiority in the Pacific, so the Americans would design the Royal Road, a plan that anticipated a sustained campaign of island hopping culminating in a decisive fleet engagement and the fall of Japan. As we'll see, this plan would become essential during the strategies of the Pacific War.
Next week, however, we’ll return to East Asia as we cover the civil strife within China and the outbreak of war with the Japanese Empire, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see the next video in the series. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more. This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.