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Beyond Pearl Harbor: The Other Japanese Attacks That Changed Geopolitics

That dawn, Japanese imperial forces advanced through the darkness and launched a series of airstrikes that took the Western powers by surprise, starting World War II in the Pacific.

At that time, the sun had not yet risen in Hawaii, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor was still more than an hour away.

Although traditionally reference is made to the attack on this American naval base, located in Honolulu, as the starting point for the Pacific War, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a series of coordinated attacks parallel to the one at Pearl Harbor that lasted about seven hours against US and UK-controlled territories in Southeast Asia.

In an overwhelming offensive, Japan defeated US forces in Guam and the Wake Islands, as well as the Philippines; and he did the same with UK troops in Hong Kong and what was then called British Malaysia.

“The Japanese victories were very, very quick; and when they entrenched, they made it very difficult for the Allies to regain those areas,” says Mark Roehrs, professor of history at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois, USA, and co-author of the book World War II in the Pacific, on BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service.

The consequences of these Western defeats would be felt even after the end of World War II and would permanently affect geopolitics in Southeast Asia.

But what was Japan looking for with the conquest of these territories?

Paving the way for war

Japan was not at war with either the United States or the United Kingdom when it attacked those territories in Asia. However, it had been immersed since 1937 in a regional war with China that generated friction with the West.

“The main reason Japan was expanding into the Pacific is because their own territory is not very rich in natural resources, so they wanted to get colonial possessions that would provide them with the resources they needed. They were looking for things like rubber, rice, tin, and bauxite, resources you would find in the islands of the central and southern Pacific,” says Roehrs.

Of all the raw materials, what Japan needed most was oil.

“Oil was the really crucial issue, because the Japanese had nothing, and if they were going to fight a war, they needed a safe source of oil,” says Raymond Callahan, professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware, USA, to BBC News World.

He points out that, paradoxically, the territories that the Japanese simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbor were not particularly rich in these resources.

“The oil fields they were targeting weren’t actually in the Philippines or British Malaysia. They were in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. And they knew they had to eliminate American forces in the Philippines and British troops in British Malaysia and Singapore, because these forces were on the margins of the Japanese route to the south, towards the Dutch East Indies”, he explains.

Since most of the European powers had transferred their local forces to the Old Continent to fight the war that was taking place there, the biggest obstacle facing the Japanese in the Pacific was the military presence of the United States.

“The reason Japan attacked the United States was to try to neutralize its fleet, the only force that remained intact and that posed a real threat to Japan’s advances in the South and Southwest Pacific,” notes Roehrs.

The historian emphasizes that, in general, the territories attacked were seen as “aircraft carriers that could not be sunk” and that, from a military point of view, the most important was the Philippines.

“The British, the French, the Dutch had exhausted their defensive forces, and the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines was the main military threat facing the Japanese,” he says.

In the Philippines, the United States had a force of about 100,000 men commanded by the famous General Douglas MacArthur.

Quick victories, lasting humiliation

With the coordinated and simultaneous attack against all these targets, Japan sought to obtain a swift and decisive victory.

“The Japanese knew they couldn’t withstand a long war of attrition, so part of what they were looking for with this quick series of attacks was not just to defeat Allied forces on the ground, but also to gain a psychological victory that would make opponents think it would be too much. difficult or that it was simply not worth trying to regain these territories,” says Roehrs.

And, in fact, they managed to assert themselves relatively quickly and easily.

After being bombed for two days, Guam was occupied on December 10, 1941, by an unstoppable ground invasion. Though she managed to hold out for a few more weeks, earning her the title of “Poplar” of the Pacific, Wake Island met a similar fate.

“Both the US Navy and Army believed that it was not possible to defend those islands. The plan was to keep small garrisons there that would fight to the best of their abilities and then surrender. Their loss was already taken for granted before the war begins,” explains historian Raymond Callahan.

A similar situation happened in Hong Kong. Months before the start of the war, British military leaders came to the conclusion that it was not possible to defend that colony, although, in the end, they agreed to strengthen it somewhat by sending more troops.

“Hong Kong’s water supply came from mainland China, so once they lost control over this reservoir, they wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, no matter how many soldiers there were,” explains Callahan.

“The Hong Kong garrison had about five or six battalions, half of them Canadian. They fought well, but it really was impossible.”

Although it had better defense resources and was the most important British military base and port in Southeast Asia, Singapore was occupied in just over two months.

“We could talk for four hours about the things that went wrong in Singapore. There, as the saying goes, ‘Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.’ All the assumptions and hunches from the prewar period were incorrect,” says Callahan.

A similar situation happened in Hong Kong. Months before the start of the war, British military leaders came to the conclusion that it was not possible to defend that colony, although in the end they agreed to strengthen it somewhat by sending more troops.

“Hong Kong’s water supply came from mainland China, only once they lost control over this reservoir, they wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer, no matter how many soldiers there were,” explains Callahan.

“The Hong Kong garrison had about five or six battalions, half of them Canadian. They fought well, but it really was impossible.”

British military base and port in Southeast Asia, Singapore was occupied in just over two months.

“We could talk for four hours about the things that went wrong in Singapore. There, as the saying goes, ‘Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.’ All the assumptions and hunches from the prewar period were incorrect,” says Callahan.

“The case of the Philippines is really inexplicable ​​because news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had already reached the island when Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field, north of Manila, where most of the American air force was concentrated, and the MacArthur’s B17 attack planes were parked side by side at the air base like it was still a time of peace,” says Callahan.

“There is still no adequate explanation today as to why MacArthur’s bombers were found parked on the ground,” he adds.

Geopolitical changes

The Japanese defeat in 1945 and the subsequent surrender of the country on September 2 of that year, signed aboard a US warship and in the presence of General MacArthur, ended World War II in the Pacific.

However, the military defeat that Japanese forces inflicted on the Western powers with the December 7, 1941 attacks (December 8, Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Philippines) would have lasting consequences.

“The long-term consequence of these Japanese attacks is that they dealt a fatal blow to European colonial empires in Southeast Asia,” says Raymond Callahan.

The historian explains that France’s control over Indochina (Vietnam), the Netherlands over Indonesia, or the United Kingdom over Singapore was based in part on that region of Asia’s belief that European armies were unbeatable.

He points out that seeing American and British soldiers surrender to Asian troops had a huge impact on the minds of the inhabitants of that region of the world.

“This destroyed the prestige of the European settlers, which could never be regained. In fact, I think you can draw a parallel between what happened during the first six months of the war in the Pacific and what happened in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in Southeast Asia,” says Callahan.

After the end of the Japanese occupation, the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, the British withdrew from Singapore and Malaysia, the Netherlands lost control over Indonesia; and France, first, and the United States, later, are defeated in Indochina (Vietnam).

“The British Empire in Asia lasted another five or six years after the war. The British came back there as victors, but they immediately had to prepare to leave again,” he adds.

Callahan recalls that one of the goals Japan set itself in the war was to eliminate European influence in Asia.

“Paradoxically, although the Japanese have finally been defeated, we can say that this goal has been achieved,” he concludes.

Source: BBC / Ángel Bermúdez

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