Review of “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945” by Max Hastings

This is an exceptionally well-written book about the final year of the war against Japan. Hastings smoothly intermixes grand strategic analysis with poignant anecdotes from “little people” whose stories are part of the vast tale of WWII.


Hastings argues that our understanding of the events of 1939-45 would be improved by referring to World Wars II, since the only thing in common between the Europe conflict and the Pacific war was the identity of adversaries.

He points out that a Japanese attack on the Soviet rear in 1941 would have had much more consequence than Pearl Harbor, where they did not smash the American fleet, but sank only six old battleships, two of which were repaired and fought later in the war. Hitler did not even try to enlist Japanese assistance until the loss of Stalingrad in 1943, by which time the Japanese could offer very little.

It also helps our understanding of the war to realize that the Japanese did not attack independent countries in Asia. Rather, they invaded colonial outposts that Europeans had dominated for generations. Japanese treatment of the Asian people they conquered was even worse than their treatment of whites they captured.


Hastings blames the Japanese warrior ethic of bushido for the barbarous way their armed forces treated conquered people and prisoners. Their cult of honor precluded individual surrender, even requiring suicide to avoid loss of face. That attitude caused them to treat prisoners with contempt and made it exceedingly difficult for them to admit defeat. At a time when 50,000 Germans were surrendering each month, the Allies held fewer than 2,000 Japanese prisoners. Many Japanese who appeared ready to surrender were actually setting traps to kill their putative captors. Japanese sailors rescued from drowning by Americans after their own ships were sunk often tried to sabotage the rescuing vessels. After many such incidents early in the war, Americans became justifiably reluctant to take prisoners.

Hastings tells the tale of the British fighting in Burma under their very able general William Slim. Fighting was brutal and logistics were dreadful. Although the effort was heroic and competent, that theater did little or nothing to end the war.

Hastings paints incisive portraits of some of the principal characters of the drama. Stalin is calculating and ruthless, no surprise here. Truman is limited in talent, but his wisdom, honesty, and general goodness enables him to make great decisions. MacArthur is egomaniacal and not even a good general, but his behavior after the surrender was magnanimous and admirable. Nimitz and the navy did much more than MacArthur’s army to defeat the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek was petty, ineffectual, and corrupt, much more interested in fighting Mao that the Japanese. Mao stayed out of the way of the Japanese and avoided conflict until the Japanese had been defeated and left China.

B-29s in formation near Mt. Fuji

B-29s in formation near Mt. Fuji

The story of the B-29 is particularly interesting. The development of the bomber was more expensive than the development of the atomic bomb. Moreover, the first B-29s delivered were not very reliable, and were as much a danger to their own crew as to the Japanese. The first B-29s were deployed in India and China, but the Japanese soon conquered enough Chinese territory to drive the B-29s out of range of the home islands. The later models of the plane became very formidable, and rugged enough to hold off Japanese fighter aircraft by themselves.

By August 1945, the Soviets were no longer allies of the Americans. The U.S. would have preferred for the Russians to stay out of the war, but Stalin ordered 1.5 million soldiers to invade Manchuria. The Russians took nearly the entire manufacturing infrastructure of Manchuria back with them.

The Japanese government was incapable of reacting quickly. By early summer 1945, after the loss of the Marianas, the Japanese situation was clearly hopeless with the home islands within the range of the improved B-29s. The atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion might have been avoided, but Japan could not make timely decisions that would fundamentally change their conduct of the war.


The decision to drop the atomic bombs was made before Potsdam, with Truman concurring rather than leading. The theater commanders were then given full authority to select the timing and targets.

Hastings argues that the bombs saved lives, certainly compared to the loss of life that an invasion of the home islands would have entailed. Even if it had not been necessary to invade the home islands, the bombs hastened the very slow decision making of the Japanese. Because the Japanese had no effective air defenses many more lives would have been lost through firebombing cities and the total destruction of the Japanese transportation system.

Many key governmental and military officials committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after the surrender. Those who did not feared junior officers would assassinate them. Even after surrender, Japan still had millions of soldiers stationed in China and the remaining Pacific islands, many of whom did not want to surrender.

The topic is vast, but Hastings covers it thoroughly. This review short-changes some of the elements of the story (like details of the fighting for key islands and Japan’s futile efforts to enlist the aid of the Soviet Union to mediate with the Americans) in the interest of (relative) brevity. I highly recommend this book.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007


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