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By 1941, Japan had occupied much of north and central China. However, Japan was faced with continued opposition from both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Although Japan was deeply mired in a quagmire, it did not undertake or even consider undertaking policies which would help it resolve the situation. Although it created several puppet governments, its policies of brutality toward the Chinese population, of not yielding any real power to the governments, and of support to several competing governments failed to make any of them a popular alternative to Chiang government. |
Japan was also unwilling to negotiate directly with Chiang, nor was it willing to attempt to create splits in united front against it, by offering concessions that would make it a more attractive alternative than Chiang's government. Instead, Japan's reaction to its situation was to turn to increasingly more brutal and depraved actions in the hope that sheer terror would break the will of the Chinese population.
This, however, only had the effect of turning world public opinion against it. In an effort to discourage Japan's war efforts in China, the United States, United Kingdom, and the government in exile of the Netherlands (still in control of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies) stopped trading oil and steel (both war staples) with Japan.
Japan saw this as an act of aggression, as without these resources Japan's military machine would grind to a halt, and on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded Siam, Malaya, and the Philippines, and attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Faced with this situation and with the belief that although Japan knew that it could not win a sustained and prolonged war against the United States, it was the Japanese hope that, faced with this sudden and massive defeat, the United States would agree to a negotiated settlement that would allow Japan to have free reign in China. They were incorrect, and Japan was faced with a war it knew it could not win.
Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, drawing America into a two-theater war. Until then, America had remained out of the conflict, though it was providing military aid to Britain and Soviet Union through the Lend-Lease program.
Allied forces in Asia, drained of men and materiel by the European conflict, were unable to provide much more than token resistance to the battle-hardened Japanese. Major units of the British fleet were sunk off Malaya on 10th December 1941, and Hong Kong fell on the 25th. United States bases on Guam and Wake Island were lost at around the same time. January 1942 saw the invasions of Burma, the Solomons, the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and the capture of Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Rabaul. The pace of conquest was rapid: Bali and Timor fell in February 1942, Rangoon and Java in March, and Mandalay at the beginning of May. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft had all but eliminated British and American air power in South-East Asia, made major raids on northern Australia, and driven the British fleet out of Ceylon.
Allied resistance, at first shambolic, gradually began to stiffen. The Doolittle Raid in April 1942 was a token but morale-boosting air attack on Japan, and although the US Navy was narrowly defeated in tactical terms at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it still managed to derail the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby.
The crucial Battle of Midway followed in June 1942: the fortunes of war could easily have given either side the victory, but Japanese naval aviation suffered a devastating defeat from which it never recovered. Midway was the turning-point of the naval war in the Pacific theatre.
On land, the British/Indian retreat in Burma had slowed, Australian forces in New Guinea successfully defended Port Moresby along the Kokada Track and in August Japanese land forces suffered their first outright defeat of the war at the Battle of Milne Bay. At the same time, US and Japanese soldiers both attempted to occupy the island of Guadalcanal. Forces converged on Guadalcanal over the following six months in an escalating battle of attrition, with eventual victory going to the United States. From this time on the Japanese fought a defensive war.
The constant need to reinforce Guadalcanal weakened the Japanese effort in other theatres, leading to the recapture of Buna/Gona by Australian and US forces in early 1943, and preparing the way for both MacArthur's land-based thrust through New Guinea and Nimitz's island hopping campaign across the Pacific.
Hard-fought battles at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and others resulted in horrific casualties on both sides, but finally produced a Japanese retreat. Faced with the loss of most of their experienced pilots, the Japanese resorted to kamikaze tactics in an attempt to slow the U.S. advance. On February 3, 1945, Japan's longtime enemy Russia agreed to enter the Pacific Theatre conflict against Japan and was soon making advances in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other Japanese cities suffered greatly from attacks by American bombers. After the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both industrial and civilian targets, were destroyed by nuclear weapons in August of 1945 Japan surrendered.
Truman did not know about the nuclear weapons prior to taking office after Roosevelt's death. He only agreed to drop the bombs to end the war quickly to avoid further Allied casualties or death by attempting a land invasion on Japan and knew the Japanese Army would not surrender willingly.