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Literature / The Great Pacific War

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"War is never a paying proposition from any national point of view. . ."

Originally written as a fictional account of a war in the near-future, but nowadays fitting more in the alt-history genre, The Great Pacific War is British naval analyst Hector Bywater's 1925 novel of a 1931 war between Japan and the United States, written as if a post-war historian was recounting the facts for future generations.

It was as much Speculative Fiction as predictive. Bywater was claiming that, given the way naval warfare was developing and given the tension between these two nations, if a war did occur it would probably resemble the one in his book. He wasn't prophesying that such a war would take place. It is also possible that Bywater intended to counter worries in the West of the "yellow peril" by illustrating that Japan didn't have the ability to take on America in a prolonged war (something Isoroku Yamamoto, who may have read the book, would have agreed with).

The book opens with a summary of Japanese control of Korea and parts of China, and how the Japanese government's view of this area of the globe is that naturally it should be the sphere of influence of themselves alone, and none of the major world powers should have a stake. But after an American company wins a major mining contract in China, the Japanese Cabinet realizes their ability to exploit the region is being checked, and their already-delicate economy is in trouble as a result. The war is started both to gain a free hand in East Asia and to unify the people, who are getting involved in unrest due to communist/labor uprisings, against a common enemy.

The fighting sea-saws back and forth for most of the book, with the US taking longer to train up its sailors and get into full wartime mode than Japan, and proves taxing on both nations. However, ultimately (again, just as in the actual war that would happen 16 years later), the American advantages of population, economy, and industry make them far more able to withstand this than Japan is. After less than 3 years, Japan has lost all ability to prosecute the war and has seen the US make major gains of territory across the Pacific, and can only try to negotiate for a peace treaty that doesn't leave them humiliated diplomatically as well as militarily; meanwhile the world is left wondering how the Japanese ever believed they could take on the United States in the first place.

This book contains examples of:

  • As You Know: Done very near the beginning. The Japanese cabinet meets to discuss the dangerous riots and the seeds of revolt that are gaining strength, and the Premier basically opens by saying "As you know, our country is experiencing dangerous riots, and the revolts are gaining in strength."
  • Bread and Circuses: Averted. To quell the revolts, instead of lulling the populace into luxury, the politicians distract them with jingoist speeches against America's interference in Chinese land that should rightfully be subject to Japan.
  • Covers Always Lie: The front cover calls it "The incredible book that predicted Pearl Harbor", and the back cover says "Bywater predicted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 16 years before it happened." At first this seems like an annoying spoiler, but in fact Bywater's war never includes any sort of attack on Hawaii whatsoever.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Several, but most notably the opening sea fight of the war — pitting modern Japanese dreadnoughts with long-range firepower against the smaller and mostly outdated US Asiatic Fleet — and everybody on both sides knows it. The US Admiral's pre-battle plan is entirely based on how to lose in the least bad way possible.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: For a given value of "evil" at least (Japan is portrayed as clearly in the wrong for starting the war but isn't portrayed as outright villains). All that's really happening is that a particular American businessman happened to win a mining contract in China. It's implied this is partially due to a new, strong Chinese leader saying "screw you" to Japan. But not understanding the US system of capitalism and non-state-run industries, the Japanese see a (nonexistent) US government plot behind the mining contract. Since Japan has been secretly giving arms and aid to warlords who are against the Chinese government, they figure the US mining corporation must really be a stage for the US to send arms and aid to the opposing warlords.
  • General Failure: Admiral Morrison ordering the US Asiatic Fleet to stand and fight in the Philippines, knowing it has no chance to survive but hoping it will take the Japanese troop transports down with it. Just as its local commander predicted, the Japanese simply waltz in and annihilate it, then send in the troop transports afterward. Morrison's aide even resigns rather than give the Asiatic Fleet the order.
  • Historical Domain Character: Averted deliberately. In the preface Bywater explains that every single character in the story is fictional, and that none of them are a Captain Ersatz either.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Very prevalent on both sides. Prisoners are treated fairly, ships go out of their way to rescue enemy survivors, etc. Especially notable for the Japanese as it was uncommon for Western authors to portray them as noble warriors rather than brutish savages. It's very much in contrast to the behavior of the Japanese in the historical WW2, but at the time the Japanese military had a reputation for humane conduct in war - after the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, all Russian prisoners were released and paid for their labors while in captivity.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The ending chapter suggests the conflict might have been this for the USA. They clearly won, and were not nearly as badly affected as Japan, but their shipping fleet is diminished, the economy is in decline, and the nation is retreating back into isolationism and away from being a world power on the level with Britain and Germany.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: The portion of the American fleet based in the Atlantic is forced into this by the wrecking of the Panama Canal, having to traverse the rough seas of the Strait of Magellan instead.
  • Separated by a Common Language: Pearl Harbor and Dutch Harbor (which are the proper names of these places and thus should be spelled this way anywhere in the English-speaking world) become Pearl Harbour and Dutch Harbour.
  • Seppuku: Committed by the captain of a Japanese submarine after his ship and crew are interned by the Chilean government for interference with an American fleet which was passing with permission through waters owned by Chile. The captain kills himself to atone for this dishonor despite the Japanese ambassador in Chile trying to talk him out of it, insisting that his successful torpedo attack made him a hero back home. As it turns out, he becomes even more of a hero afterward, as it raises him to the status of an heroic martyr.
  • Taking You with Me: Invoked by Admiral Morrison, who knows the US Asiatic Fleet is doomed but decides to send it in to battle to take the Japanese troop transports down with it, preventing the invasion of the Philippines. His idea doesn't work, because the Japanese hold back the invasion force, annihilate the Asiatic Fleet, then send the transports in for the amphibious assault afterwards.