"Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War": A Review

By David Chamberlain posted 06-28-2022 12:22:04 PM


Tower of Skulls:  A History of the Asia-Pacific War, July 1937-May 1942, by Richard Frank.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.  768 pages.  $24 paperback. 

The title of Richard Frank’s ambitious book, the first in a planned trilogy dedicated to the conflict that spread across Asia and the Pacific during the late 1930s and 1940s, was inspired by the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. In a 1938 letter to the Japanese writer Yone Noguchi, he warned prophetically that Japan’s vision of a new order in the east would “be raised on a tower of skulls.”  In his sweeping five hundred page narrative, Frank exhumes the documentary record to prove the horrific truth of Tagore’s comment, beginning in 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and concluding with the fall of Corregidor, America’s last bastion in the Philippines, in the spring of 1942.  However, his book is much more than a bloody ledger of the costs of Japan’s violent expansionism.  It represents an important reframing of World War II that will likely reshape how educators approach teaching about the conflict in their classrooms.   Most histories of the war refer to the military campaign against Japan as the War in the Pacific and foreground the critical role that the United States played in its defeat.  Frank, however, contends that this narrative is doubly flawed for it fails to account for the geographical reach of the war into mainland Asia and also minimizes the vital contributions of America’s allies, particularly China.  

Frank’s most important contribution to the historiography of World War II is restoring the centrality of events in China both to American entry into the conflict and to the ultimate triumph of the Allies.  The Japanese invasion of French Indochina in September of 1940 is widely understood as a pivotal moment that precipitated U.S. economic sanctions against Japan and set in motion plans for a strike against Pearl Harbor.  According to Frank, however, this assessment is correct only by half for it neglects to point out that the Japanese incursion into Indochina was an outgrowth of the Second Sino-Japanese War, designed to cut off supply lines to Chiang’s beleaguered forces and provide a staging area for attacks into southern China. 

Many popular histories have compounded this interpretive diminishment of China by depicting events that took place there as a sideshow to more important developments unfolding elsewhere in the 1930s and 1940s.  This is surprising for the key international actors at the time–Stalin, Churchill, and FDR–recognized the oversized role that China played in their own strategic calculations.  Stalin’s regime, prior to the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, provided aid to Mao’s forces in an effort to bog down the Japanese and forestall an attack on the Soviet far east.  And as Frank reminds readers, after Hitler betrayed Stalin in June of 1941, the successful Soviet defense of Moscow was possible in large part because Japanese forces were tied down in China and were in no condition to invade the Soviet Union from the rear.  Moreover, after the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war in Europe, there was agreement in both Washington D.C. and London that continued Chinese resistance was essential to the British war effort because it reduced the likelihood of a Japanese attack on their colonies in Asia and thereby allowed Great Britain to marshal the resources of its empire for the defense of western Europe.

Tower of Skulls is also a stunning example of the promise of fusing traditional military history with the new military history, the latter of which the historian Robert Citino describes as seeking “the nexus between armies and the societies that spawn them.” Fittingly then, Richard Frank is as adept at explaining the intricacies of troop movements as he is at discussing the cultural values that shaped the behavior of these armies as well as the impact of the war on civil society.  In some of the book’s most illuminating passages, Frank offers a penetrating analysis of how fissures within Japanese military culture hamstrung their grand strategy and contributed to their eventual defeat.  The most compelling evidence is that the Imperial Navy and Army could not even agree on what rival power posed the greatest threat, with the former concluding that the focus should be on the United States and the latter holding that the menace of communism, embodied in the Soviet Union, was paramount.  Japan’s lack of strategic focus was not the only dispute within their military culture however.  The army, for instance, was deeply divided between a “Control” faction that pressed for military modernization and preparation for a long war while the so-called “Imperial Way” faction advocated for rapid, bold attacks that would be predicated on the purported racial and spiritual superiority of their soldiers.  The triumph of the Imperial Way faction goes a long way toward explaining both the string of successes that the Japanese army had in 1941 and 1942 and their inability to counter the American onslaught of men and equipment in the second half of the war. 

International rivalries and war often have a seminal influence on the development of national identity.  Those interested in the process by which China emerged from a patchwork of regional polities and European enclaves into a unified, self-conscious, modern state would do well to consider Frank’s treatment of the Second Sino-Japanese War.  He credits the massive wartime migrations of both peasants and urbanites and their mixing in refugee camps with undermining local conceptions of identity and for sweeping away regional dialects in favor of standardized Mandarin.  Given Frank’s interest in national identity formation, it was surprising that he did not explore how Japan’s dealings with the United States and the European powers in the 1800s and early 1900s contributed to the acceleration of a culture of militant nationalism in Japan.  Apart from a brief allusion to the impact that victory in the Russo-Japanese War had in this regard, he neglects to engage with works such as Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire, which argues that hyper-nationalism in Japan was an odious ‘reaction against foreign aggression and maltreatment” at the hands of American and European colonialists in Asia and the Pacific.  

While the bulk of Frank’s book examines Japanese aggression in China and its military operations against European colonies in Asia, he does devote two outstanding chapters to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Readers looking for a lively and succinct overview of the attack and an accounting of the losses in men and materiel would do well to consult this work.  However, it is the way that Frank dispels a long lingering myth about Pearl Harbor that merits the most praise. He does not directly respond to those who claim FDR knew an attack on Hawaii was imminent and allowed it to transpire so that he would have a galvanizing casus belli. Instead he urges readers to recognize that the Japanese took America unawares because their plan was both strategically and operationally surprising.  

In the two decades prior to World War II, the strategic vision shared by Japanese war gamers and their American counterparts assumed that a decisive ship battle would occur in the western Pacific, closer to the Philippines and the home islands of Japan.  An attack that reached so far eastward into the vastness of the Pacific was not entertained as an option until Admiral Yamato drew up his unorthodox plan in the early days of 1941.  Furthermore, on an operational level, the massive six carrier strike at Pearl Harbor broke radically with prevailing naval thinking on both sides of the Pacific, which called for the dispersal of carriers rather than gathering them en masse due to the ship’s defensive vulnerabilities.  It was the unexpected location of the attack coupled with the creativity of the Japanese fleet arrangement that led to the disaster in Honolulu rather than the kind of deliberate blindness on FDR’s part that is espoused by the conspiratorial minded. 

The most important works of history are those that compel readers to reconsider a dominant interpretation of the past and to adjust their perspectives accordingly.  After reading this work, it is no longer tenable to attribute Great Britain’s stand against the Nazis in 1940 and 1941 to Churchillian rhetoric and British resolve alone.  Standing beside the British, half a world away, China hindered Japan from turning its formidable military toward the British Empire in its hour of greatest danger.  Similarly, while the efforts and sacrifices of the Soviets during the winter of 1941-1942 are rightly celebrated as instrumental to the defeat of the Nazi regime, China must be seen as a vital partner in this endeavor, holding the Japanese in place to prevent a Japanese strike into the Soviet far east.  For far too long American historians have focused their gaze on the naval battles and blood soaked islands of the Pacific and averted their eyes from the massive military campaigns in Burma, India, and China.  If in the future teachers and students jettison the descriptor The War in the Pacific and replace it with the Asia-Pacific War, it will be a testament to Richard Frank’s herculean effort in Tower of Skulls.  

David M. Chamberlain

History Teacher

The Lawrenceville School