"At the White House, President Truman Announces Japan's Surrender." Abbie Rowe, Washington, DC, August 14, 1945.
Credit: Image courtesy of the National Archives.
For American diplomacy, the war against Japan was not just about the destruction of Japanese supremacy in the Pacific, China, and Southeast Asia. The ultimate issue was just what would replace Japan's imperial design of a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." President Roosevelt and his diplomats saw the conflict as an opportunity to end not simply Japan's imperialism in the area, but also that of Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The Japanese conquests of 1942 had already expelled European colonialists. As Japan was forced to retreat, indigenous nationalist movements would begin to stake their own claims to power. The American anti-imperialist vision was motivated in part, no doubt, by an economic interest in formerly closed Asian markets, but in the main it was the product of a long-held American faith in freedom and self-determination. This vision was enshrined in the Atlantic Charter, a document of far greater importance to Americans than to their British or Soviet allies. As the war in the Far East moved toward a close, American diplomacy had to grapple with the differing visions and objectives of other important partners in the Grand Alliance.
This lesson plan focuses on two major postwar problems—the future of China and (using French Indochina as a test case) the future of Western imperialism in Southeast Asia. Teachers with limited time may wish to select only one of these problems for class exercises and discussions. The documents relating to each have been grouped together in order to facilitate such an option.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
Throughout the war, the United States adhered to the strategy of defeating Germany first and devoted the bulk of its resources to the war in Europe. However, American manpower was so extensive and war production so great that it was possible to conduct increasingly major operations in the Pacific. By the time of the Yalta conference in February, 1945, Japan, although still in control of Indochina and much of China, had been pushed back across a broad front in the Pacific. Its leaders could only hope that fierce suicidal resistance would inflict such serious casualties that the United States would refrain from an invasion of the home islands, negotiate a peace, and leave the wartime establishment in power.
Despite a terrible toll of killed and wounded, however, President Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders were determined to extract unconditional surrender from Japan. One of their major goals at the Yalta Conference (see previous lesson) was to reconfirm Soviet entry into the war on the Asian mainland. The USSR was more than willing to comply, given US support for the recovery of territory and influence Czarist Russia had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905–06. Stalin and Roosevelt would seal the deal at Yalta. The Yalta accords deprived Japan of the southern half of Sakhalin Island (acquired from Russia in 1906) and the Kurile Islands, long a Japanese possession (see map). They also conceded dominant Russian influence in Outer Mongolia and effectively guaranteed that Manchuria, the most heavily industrialized part of pre-1931 China, would become a Soviet sphere of influence. These last two provisions were concessions made by the United States to the USSR at the expense of another ally, China.
The imperial aspirations of the Soviets clashed with the stated ideals of the Grand Alliance, especially as embodied in the Atlantic Charter. Here, however, the Russians were hardly alone. The British under Winston Churchill also expected to restore a restive South Asian empire that extended from India and Burma across Malaya to Singapore. In addition, they supported restoration of colonial authority by the French in Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), doubtless on the theory that the survival of one Western empire required the reestablishment of all. Yet aside from India, the Japanese offensives of 1942 had destroyed white imperial rule and unleashed nationalist sentiment. In India, a strong independence movement predated the war. Little wonder that Churchill would deny (justifiably, at least in strict legal terms) that Britain was bound by the Atlantic Charter!
Indochina emerged as the great test case for the reestablishment of imperial rule. Japan had occupied the country before Pearl Harbor with the agreement of the Vichy French government and had reduced French garrisons there to little more than a lightly armed constabulary. The new Free French government, under General Charles de Gaulle, determined to restore French sovereignty, pressed the U.S. and Britain to transport its troops to a colonial possession that it insisted was part of France. Churchill was supportive. Roosevelt, reflecting a general American policy of anti-imperialism as well as a personal loathing for the difficult de Gaulle and widespread American contempt for the way in which France had collapsed in 1940, disregarded de Gaulle's requests.
The president hoped that Indochina (and by implication other colonies) might become "trusteeships" under the jurisdiction of the new United Nations organization and be prepared for eventual independence. He also believed that a China strongly influenced by the United States would be an ideal trustee. Stalin was vehemently disdainful of the French and aware that the impending end of the war created opportunities for a strong Vietnamese independence movement headed by the pro-Soviet Communist Ho Chi Minh. He may also have seen the issue as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Roosevelt and Churchill. The Chinese Kuomintang (or Nationalist) government of Chiang Kai-shek was too overwhelmed with problems of its own to find Indochina an attractive prospect.
Roosevelt may have retained a belief in principle in favor of trusteeship, but by early 1945, he appears to have given up on the plan as a matter of operational policy. The United States had perhaps the means but not the political-diplomatic will to prevent determined Western imperial allies from attempting to reestablish their rule in Asia. Nor did the United States possess a strong interest in doing so. Britain, France, and the Netherlands all would try to reclaim their former colonies, and in the end all would relinquish them.
China was far more important to American diplomacy, politically, economically, and emotionally. Americans had long both sentimentalized the Chinese people and tried to gain access to Chinese markets. The country was too large to ignore and possessed the potential to become a great power. Roosevelt hoped to establish it as one of the "Four Policemen" that would maintain the postwar order. Japan, although able to win one military engagement after another and occupy most of the eastern part of China, had lacked the resources to achieve a decisive victory. The United States and most of the rest of the world recognized Chiang Kai-shek's regime, which had retreated to the southern interior and established its capital at Chunking. Communists under Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) controlled large areas of the North, which they ruled from Yenan.
As the war progressed on other fronts, China was not a priority for the Grand Alliance. The United States extended considerable financial and military aid to the Kuomintang government, but Nationalist China was in fact an inefficient and corrupt government barely functioning in conditions that would have daunted paragons of efficiency and virtue. By contrast, the Communists at Yenan seemed fairly liberal, and more effective militarily. Chiang's "Nationalism" could easily be seen as an Asian variant of fascism; the Communists, by contrast, looked like progressive reformers working for the common people. American diplomats generally gave them good reviews. The Soviet Union seemed more intent on pursuing traditional interests in China than in aiding the Communists, who, Soviet diplomats insisted, were not real Communists at all.
Quickly, Americans settled into a policy of working for a coalition government as the means to a unified, effective postwar China. Roosevelt himself would urge this solution in communications to both Chiang and Mao. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S. Truman, were both products of a political culture that was far less divided over fundamental issues. Neither ever quite understood the refusal of Nationalists and Communists to seize the opportunity for a grand coalition, nurtured by U.S. support. Just as Western imperialism would have its last fling elsewhere, the two leading Chinese factions would not be deterred from having their civil war.
The atomic bomb brought World War II to an unexpectedly sudden end, presenting the United States with total victory over Japan and an unparalleled opportunity to remake a bitter enemy into an ally. Winning the peace through the establishment of a new postwar order friendly to American aspirations would be a much more elusive objective.
On the decision to use the atomic bomb, see EDSITEment Curriculum Unit "'The Proper Application of Overwhelming Force': The United States in World War II: Lesson Plan Four, Victory in the Pacific, 1943–1945."
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
Students will examine the following map, either individually or as a group in class:
Using colored pencils and this blank map of the Pacific region during World War II, students will note the locations and the extent of the Asian holdings of the major imperial powers of the region on the eve of World War II: Great Britain, France, The Netherlands, the United States, and Japan.
They will then look at the extent of the territory controlled by Japan on August 15, 1945 (indicated in pink) on this map. They should mark these territories on the map of the Pacific region during World War II used above; this can be done, for instance, by using a highlighter.
The students should also read the brief description of "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" (see page 1 of the Text Document) as background for a quick discussion of Japanese imperialism—the empire that replaced European imperialism. The students should then be asked a series of questions: What replaced the European colonial administrations in those areas taken over by Japan?
Next, have the students read the Atlantic Charter (August 14, 1941), to which the three major powers of the Grand Alliance had committed themselves either then or in subsequent declarations (such as the Declaration by The United Nations of January 1, 1942).
Ask them which parts of the Atlantic Charter would appear to conflict with the re-establishment of imperial domination in Asia after the defeat of Japan.
Tell the students that they will now explore the actual plans and reasoning of the various allies as these nations looked to a post-war Asia. This will then allow the students to assess the consistency of the plans of each of these nations with the principles laid out in the Atlantic Charter.
There are various ways the teacher might divide students into either three, four, or seven working groups (as explained below) to examine documents relating to plans for post-war Asia. The teacher may wish to examine either all the documents or a selection of documents (noted in the document list with an asterisk) for French Indochina or for China or for both. This reading of documents should be by country (U.S., USSR, Britain, France for French Indochina; U.S., USSR, Britain for China) and to determine for each country answers to the questions below, but teachers may choose to have four country groups look at French Indochina and another three country groups look at China. For the teacher's convenience, a Table of Documents can be found on pages 2–4 of the Text Document. It lists all the documents in chronological order, provides an Internet link to each, marks which apply to China and which to Indochina, and notes which may be chosen by those teachers in need of a lighter reading assignment.
The four questions for the U.S., the USSR, Great Britain, and France with regard to French Indochina and/or China (France omitted) are:
Working groups will answer these questions by examining the documents assigned to them by their teacher. The documents are:
A. The Grand Alliance and the Future of French Indochina, 1945
All of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documents below are recommended, but teachers who need to give lighter assignments will likely find those designated by an asterisk (*) most useful. All of the following documents are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History.
B. The Grand Alliance and the Future of China, 1945
The Yalta Conference Agreement Regarding Japan, esp. provisions affecting China [excerpt available on pages 5–6 of the Text Document]
All of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documents below are recommended, but teachers who need to give lighter assignments will likely find those designated by an asterisk (*) most useful in understanding discussions about China with the Soviet Union and in understanding American attempts to grasp the political situation in China itself. All of the following documents are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History.
Each group should fill out the "Report on ___" worksheet for their assigned country (e.g., "Report on France" or "Report on the USSR."). This worksheet—found on pages 7–8 of the Text Document—allows student groups to gather and sort information from the assigned and relevant documents in order to answer the questions listed below and to make their report back to the whole class. They are to indicate the document from which information is drawn by noting its number in parentheses at the end of that information.
Groups will then come together to discuss as a class the issue of the consistency of allied practices and plans with their publicly stated principles in the Atlantic Charter. Group members will cite evidence and share with the class the practices and plans of the nation they studied. Some of the questions that the teacher might ask of the class include:
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write essays answering several of the following questions, depending upon the teacher's emphases. Teachers might also turn some of the questions into debate topics, as appropriate:
The post-World War II effort to reestablish French imperialism in Indochina and the resistance to it led more or less directly into the Vietnam War. The online sources below—all of which are linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History—can provide students with a basis for discussing, or writing short papers on, the forces that lead to the expulsion of France from Indochina after World War II and the subsequent involvement of the United States.
In China, the end of World War II led quickly to the full-scale civil war between the Kuomintang (Nationalists) and the Communists that the United States had hoped to avoid. The online New York Times obituaries below—also linked from Digital History—survey the lives of the two leaders of that conflict. Students might be asked to use them as a basis for class discussion or short essays on such issues as whether World War II led directly to the establishment of Communist China.
3-4 class periods