West Across the Pacific: American Involvement in East Asia from 1898 to the Vietnam War

by F. Hilary Conroy, Francis Conroy and Sophie Quinn-Judge


This book addresses the problem of a country telling a grand narrative to itself that does not hold up under closer examination, a narrative that leads to possibly avoidable war. In particular, the book explains and questions the narrative the United States was telling itself about East Asia and the Pacific in the late 1930s, with (in retrospect) the Pacific War only a few years away. Through empirical methods, it details how the standard narrative failed to understand what was really happening based on documents that later became available. The documents researched are from the Diet Library in Japan, the Foreign Office in London, the National Archives in Washington, the University of Hawai’i library in Honolulu and several other primary sources. This research reveals opportunities unexplored that involve lessons of seeing things from the “other side’s” point of view and of valuing the contribution of “in-between” people who tried to be peacemakers. The crux of the standard narrative was that the United States, unlike European imperialist powers, involved itself in East Asia in order to bring openness (the Open Door) and democracy; and that it was increasingly confronted by an opposing force, Japan, that had imperial, closed, and undemocratic designs.

This standard American narrative was later opposed by a revisionist narrative that found the United States culpable of a “neo-imperialism,” just as the European powers and Japan were guilty of “imperialism.” However, what West Across the Pacific shows is that, while there is indubitably some truth in both the “standard” and the “revisionist” versions, more careful documentary research reveals that the most important thing “lost” in the 1898-1941 period may have been the real opportunity for mutual recognition and understanding, for cooler heads and more neutral “realistic” policies to emerge; and for more attention to the standpoint of the common men and women caught up in the migrations of the period.

West Across the Pacific is both a contribution to peace research in history and to a foreign policy guided modestly by empiricism and realism as the most reliable method. It is a must read for diplomats and people concerned about diplomacy, as it probes the microcosms of diplomatic negotiations. This brings special relevance and approachability as yet another generation of Americans returns from war and occupation in Iraq. The book also speaks to Vietnam veterans, by drawing lessons from the Japanese war in China for the American war in Vietnam. This is particularly true of the conclusion, co-authored by distinguished Vietnam specialist Sophie Quinn-Judge.


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