Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940.
The debacle in Burma in May 1942 followed a long train of Allied disasters in the Asia-Pacific theatre: Pearl Harbor, the breeching of the Malay Barrier, and the fall of the Philippines. "We got a hell of a beating", remarked General Joseph Stilwell at the time, "and it is humiliating as hell". Brian Linn sets out to examine the causes of the cataclysm that befell American forces in the western Pacific in 1941-42.
Tradition holds that the defeat sprang from military incompetence, misappreciation of the Japanese threat, and botched intelligence. Linn's close analysis of US military policy and planning in the Philippines and Hawaii during the four decades preceding World War II renders a different set of conclusions.
The book begins with short chapters on the conquest and pacification of the Philippines and the establishment of the Pacific Army - familiar ground for Linn, the author of the most authoritative account of the U.S. Army's role in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines Insurrection. Linn also includes a chapter on the social history of the "Pineapple" Army in Hawaii and the "Caribao" Army in the Philippines. But the real focus of his treatment rests on the intertwined histories of the two armies and now their leadership wrestled with common - how to defend against a presumably superior Japanese invasion force - but also distinctive problems. The author structures his chronological and thematic chapters around five themes: U.S. Army strategic thinking; operational and tactical planning for insular and harbour defense; the contradictory mission of controlling colonial populations while creating local reserves; and, most dominant, the expanding gulf between policy and resources.
Between 1919 and 1922 - the Versailles peace conference, the updated Army-Navy plan for war against Japan [ORANGE], the National Defense Act of 1920, and the Washington conference treaties - the US government fashioned a defense structure consistent with extant currents in American foreign policy making and public opinion. A sound reaction to the security concerns of the 1920s, the policies were never adjusted to deal with the international crises of the 1930s or the economic conditions imposed by the depression. The War Department tinkered with its organizational schemes for the continental Army, divorced from ongoing planning in the Pacific commands. In 1939, the Army found itself in a lamentable state of readiness; the Navy reported it could not operate too far from the west coast much less west of Pearl Harbor. Throughout the 1930s the United States lapsed back into its traditional policies of unilateralism, neutrality, and hemispheric defense.
Confronted by two decades of strategic indecision in Washington, the Pacific commands operated largely in a vacuum. At the apex of the Pearl Harbor-Alaska-Canal Zone triangle, Hawaii's strategic importance was above question. Long before Pearl Harbor the Hawaii command recognized the dangers of a carrier-borne attack and developed integrated plans to defend Oahu's harbor complex and beaches against a Japanese invasion. While never solving inter-service antagonisms over control of land-based air, by 1940 the reinforced Hawaii command, in Linn's opinion, possessed the power to thwart any invasion of the islands. According to Linn, failure to blunt the aerial assaults originated in "individual mistakes, poor communications, and bad fortune" (p. 146).
In contrast, the Department of the Philippines faced an insurmountable set of dilemmas. According to ORANGE, its mission included defending American sovereignty (guardian against the "natives" as well as the Japanese) and preserving Manila not only as a forward base for a western Pacific counter-offensive but also as a entrepot for Asian trade and as a lever to keep the door open in China. The Washington treaties forbade the US from modernizing base facilities and fortifications in the Philippines with the result the Army had responsibility for defending a nonexistent naval base. How the Manila command would fulfil all its tasks with a garrison averaging 11,530 men (40 per cent American) backed by inadequate weapons, facilities, and finances remained the eternal question. Some senior officers in the 1930s, coinciding with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934), argued for expedited Philippines independence and US withdrawal back into the strategic triangle. Others, most notably Douglas MacArthur, believed a Japanese invasion could be successfully countered. The illusion the Philippines could and should be defended - enhanced by MacArthur's belated attempt to create a Philippines Army and the eleventh hour dispatch of reinforcement in 1941 - persisted right up until the Japanese exploded the chimera.
Guardians of Empire is unquestionably an important book but not above criticism. An Ohio State Ph.D., Linn is part of the Columbus-driven positive reassessment of the interwar officer corps. He dismisses the commonly held view of the imperious "military minded" interwar officer obsessed with defending the autonomy of his service and branch and preparing, in between polo and bridge, to fight the next war in accordance to the rules of the last. Instead, Linn maintains the Pacific Army's officer corps possessed a surfeit of talent. "Had [officers] not been so energetic, so competent, so capable of overcoming the almost impossible barriers they faced," Linn concludes, "the army might have abandoned the struggle [to defend the Philippines]" (pp. 251-52). It seems the level of military professionalism rose with distance from Washington. Many historians would disagree with his wholesale acquittal of senior interwar officers and take issue with Linn's characterization of the collective officer corps as forward-minded and innovative. Regrettably, the names of scholars with views contrary to the author's cannot be found in the bibliography. In a curious way, the book suffers from the same structural problem Linn chronicles in his book: the Pacific commands existed in separation from Washington and the continental Army; Linn's dissection of the Pacific Army similarly marginalized the War Department, Leavenworth and the War College, and the U.S. Army in toto. He is also guilty of narrowing too far his focus on US forces in the western Pacific. The expedition to Vladivostok, the 15th Infantry in Tientsin, and the forces stationed in Alaska and, more important, the Canal Zone equally qualify as "guardians of the Pacific empire" but were ignored. These interpretive and structural questions aside, Linn's scholarship is of a high order. Deeply grounded in primary sources and engagingly written, Guardians of Empire will undoubtedly emerge as the definitive work on the interwar US Army in the western Pacific.
Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University
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|Publication:||Journal of Southeast Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1999|
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