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From the very beginning this war documentary is different. It concentrates on only one thing, the 'end game' in the Pacific that was far more problematic than the victory over Nazi Germany. We start out seeing unfamiliar color footage of several cargo ships exploding, probably hit by torpedoes -- they're literally lifted out of the water, blown in two. Although we see plenty of familiar Navy footage, Kamikaze suicide planes, etc., a great deal of the film in this show, much of it in color, is previously unseen, and all of it is riveting.
The American Experience production of Victory in the Pacific has a generic name but is not a generic docu. It examines the nature of the combat as the U.S. closed in on the Japanese islands. It also should be used as proof positive that big-money PBS shows are not biased, leftist or prone to tout liberal causes. There's been quite a bit of talk lately reopening the Hiroshima and Nagasaki controversy, asserting that the bombings were an unnecessary war crime. The historical analysis and expert testimony in Victory in the Pacific tells it differently.
The docu, written and directed by Austin Hoyt, demonstrates the utter brutality of the final combat without resorting to every piece of graphic footage available. The fresh, "new" authentic combat film holds our attention like a magnet. It's also free of the hectoring tone of earlier war docus (including the innovative Victory at Sea) that seek to commemorate Allied victory or over-dramatize events for casual viewers. The docu starts more or less when the Japanese have already lost. Their air force has mostly been destroyed, along with the bulk of their Navy. They keep seeking 'decisive' battles, each of which they lose. But with the survival of their nation at stake, the Japanese commanders sacrifice thousands and thousands of additional lives, hoping to find some point where the Americans will tire of fighting.
The stories of the end of the Japanese Navy and the Kamikaze pilots reinforce the idea that the Japanese homeland will resist an invasion to the bitter end. The docu takes great pains to depict the exact nature of the Japanese soldier and his American counterpart. Japanese soldiers are already instructed never to be taken alive, to die in combat. A Kamikaze pilot whose plane breaks down talks of his complete attitude reversal when he's made out to be worthless, merely for accidentally surviving. The stories of American atrocities are so deeply believed that entire communities of Japanese civilians on conquered islands leap off cliffs to their deaths instead of being taken prisoner. Mopping up islands is painfully slow, as 'defeated' Japanese refuse to surrender and must be blasted out of tunnel hiding places.
American GIs and Marines, faced with barbaric Japanese ideas of warfare, respond with atrocities of their own, and the final ground fighting becomes a merciless slaughter - tens of thousands of Americans dying on one side, and entire armies of Japanese wiped out on the other (although the heaviest Japanese losses appear to have been the result of wholesale starvation, when infantry armies are abandonded on far-flung islands).
The docu shows fighting that becomes inseparable from strong elements of racial fear and hatred. Without overplaying its hand or reaching for too much atrocious footage, the docu shows why or combat soldiers would consider their objective the extermination of the enemy, not just his defeat. The most telling visual to back this up is a color movie clip (a soldier's home movie? declassified official combat footage?) of a severed Japanese head being used to decorate an American tank. In context, it's a logical sight.
Which brings Victory in the Pacific to the big issue of its second half. It explains the background of the decision to drop the atom bomb without regard to whether an argument is liberal or conservative. The combat forces of the US prepared to launch an invasion of the Japanese home islands, knowing that the enemy still had enormous reserves augmented by divisions returned from Manchuria. The Japanese military's official policy was to defend the nation until it was utterly destroyed, to never surrender. Emperor Hirohito was more concerned with his personal power and the continuance of his divine rule than the welfare of his nation.
Negotiations for an armistice were underway, but the longer they went on, the less reasonable the Japanese became. They kept adding provisos to the surrender until their idea of a fair deal was 'everyone stops fighting and the Americans stay off the home islands.' The Imperial government remained aloof while American B29s were wiping out huge sections of Tokyo and other major cities.
President Truman had a tough decision to make. The Russians were delaying their declaration of war against Japan until the real fighting was over, obviously hoping to gain territorial concessions of the kind they had already seized in Europe. The Japanese foolishly expected the Russians to mediate the surrender on Japan's behalf. Truman was under political pressure to hold out for the same unconditional surrender as had been demanded from the Germans.
Marshall, the head of the Armed Forces, had grave reservations about the wisdom of fighting the Japanese on their own soil. For the troops massing for the attack, the invasion was seen as a suicide campaign in which millions of lives might be lost. The bullish Air Corps engineer of strategic bombing Curtis LeMay pressed forward with the annihilation of Japan from the air, which even he described would be considered a 'war crime' if done by a losing side. His onslaught subsided only because his planes ran out of incendiary bombs.
The historical experts conclude that dropping the bomb was not only sufficient to end the war, it was both politically expedient and, ironically, humanitarian. The fire bombing campaign had already killed many more Japanese and would continue to kill many more. An invasion could conceivably spend millions of lives on both sides. If the Russians moved in, they might treat the Japanese to their style of military justice, as well as grabbing off big sections of Korea, and Japan for themselves.
The enormity of the stakes can't lessen the simple logic proposed by one expert: What American would forgive the President if millions of GIs lost their lives, when a super-bomb had been available?
The details presented here also shake out in favor of the bomb. Our own experts didn't yet understand the dangers of radiation. They were preparing to use many bombs to clear a path for the home island invasion, which would have been disastrous for both sides. When the first bomb fell, the Imperial Palace had no reaction. Secret communiques reveal that militarist hardliners held firm in the belief that America had only one such bomb. The Russians declared war immediately. After the second bomb, the Emperor finally capitulated unconditionally (the exact terms were fuzzy).
It's inhuman not to be appalled by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and despising the use of the atomic bomb is a good attitude no matter what the circumstances. The reasoned argument and facts in Victory in the Pacific give a picture of a complex decision that ended a war, while starting a new Cold War and the age of nuclear anxiety.
Victory in the Pacific presents its arguments in a superior docu format. Old film footage has been carefully chosen and also appears to have been digitally enhanced and cleaned up where possible. The show appears to be an original Hi Def production retained in 16:9 for the DVD. The image quality is excellent. The editing uses soft dissolves between photos, clips and interviews not to keep up energy but to focus our attention on the issues in the text. A section dealing with frustrating negotiations repeatedly returns to idyllic views of the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo, which beautifully illustrate the feudal-era mindset of the enemy leaders. This is the best docu piece on the subject Savant has yet seen.
Paramount and PBS add two additional pieces as extras to the docu. Target Tokyo is a 1945 Air Force film narrated by Ronald Reagan, about the 'glory' of 'giving the Japs a dose of their own medicine.' Ronald Reagan narrates as bomb bay door open: "Okay boys, what are you waiting for?"
The second extra is a discussion of the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more arguments in support of the decision, actually. But Victory in the Pacific does not come off as in any way defensive about its conclusions or point of view. It also doesn't show signs of a political agenda, conservative or liberal.
The only thing marring the presentation are a couple of commercials upfront for the original PBS sponsors. Public Television is already heavily commercialized due to lack of public (government) support.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Victory in the Pacific (The American Experience) rates: