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Secrets of the Serial Set: The Pacific Theater of World War II


This month, HeinOnline continues its Secrets of the Serial Set series by investigating the course of events in the Pacific theater of World War II and their culmination in V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, the official end date of the War.

Secrets of the Serial Set is an exciting and informative monthly blog series from HeinOnline dedicated to unveiling the wealth of American history found in the United States Congressional Serial Set. Join us each month to explore notable events in U.S. history using the primary sources themselves. Grab a seat and prepare to be blown away by what the Serial Set has to offer.

About the Serial Set

The United States Congressional Serial Set is considered an essential publication for studying American history. Spanning more than two centuries with more than 17,000 bound volumes, the records in this series include House and Senate documents, House and Senate reports, and much more. The Serial Set began publication in 1817 with the 15th Congress, 1st session. U.S. Congressional documents prior to 1817 are published as the American State Papers

The Serial Set is an ongoing project in HeinOnline, with the goal of adding approximately four million pages each year until the archive is completed. View the current status of HeinOnline’s Serial Set project by clicking the button below.

Overview of World War II


In 1918, the devastating impact of World War I left the world forever changed. Four European powers—Germany, Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Russia—collapsed under the weight of the war. Bitterness lingered between nations, and especially those forced to pay heavy reparations under the Treaty of Versailles. A strong sense of nationalism pervaded the weakened nations, leaving its citizens vulnerable to the evolving ideologies of Nazism and fascism.

Germany’s significant losses after World War I—no less than 13% of its home territory—laid the groundwork for Adolf Hitler’s eventual political takeover of the country in the 1930s. Around the same time, Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy under a totalitarian agenda, with the intent to form a “New Roman Empire.” In the Pacific, the Empire of Japan was battling China with the intent to dominate Asia.

View a full chronological history of the worldwide events leading up to World War II in HeinOnline’s Serial Set. 

A War on Several Fronts

Damaged nations were cultivating expansionist agendas all over the world, thus setting the stage for a second World War. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded its neighbor Poland from the north, south, and west, prompting initial hostilities from other European powers. After declarations of war were made, Germany, Italy, and Japan joined together to form the Axis powers due to their aligned expansionist interests. To combat the Axis powers, several nations formed the Allied powers, including France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and later the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Axis and Allied powers fought the war on three major fronts: (1) the European theater, (2) the Mediterranean, African, and Middle East Theater, and (3) the Pacific-Asian theater.

Introduction to the Pacific-Asian Theater

The Empire of Japan vs. China

After weathering the Great Depression, the Empire of Japan sought new territory rich with resources in the interest of boosting its economy and avoiding dependency on larger nations. In pursuit of this goal, Japan invaded Manchuria (northeast China) in 1931, establishing its own “puppet regime” in the region. In 1937, Japan extended its empire further by launching a full invasion of China.

By 1941, events in the European theater and Germany’s interest in world domination had prompted the United States to declare a national state of emergency. Meanwhile, Japan was in control of the majority of eastern China and Vietnam and had sent troops into French Indochina, as well. Viewing this as a direct threat to British and Dutch possessions in the region, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that Japan withdraw its forces. Upon Japan’s refusal, the United States and the United Kingdom froze all Japanese assets and instituted an embargo on all Japanese oil trade.

Economic Negotiations

The United States and Japan commenced negotiations to improve their much-strained relationship. Several proposals were put forth on both sides, but none were considered adequate compromises. In October of 1941, a new Japanese government under Hideki Tojo took a more aggressive attitude. Both America and Japan knew that tensions were high and that war was possible—in the same month, the United States made efforts to reinforce the Philippines in the event of a Japanese attack.

Tojo’s government presented a final proposal requesting that the United States cease all aid to China and lift its economic sanctions on Japan. In return, Japan would withdraw its forces from Indochina. The United States presented its final counter-offer that Japan perform a full evacuation of its troops from China, without any conditions. Met with the choice of relinquishing its hold on China or forcibly seizing the land it was after, Japan prepared for war.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Fearing that the United States could interfere with its forthcoming military operations in Asia, Japan sought to neutralize the American fleet. On December 7, 1941, the country launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. View President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to Congress on the state of the union following the attack.

Until this point, the United States had maintained a neutral stance toward the unfolding wars in Europe and Asia. However, immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States formally declared war on Japan. In solidarity with Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States soon after, marking the official entry of the U.S. into World War II. View President Roosevelt’s summary of past policy relating to the events in the Pacific and reasoning for overturning that policy.

Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill approached the United States Senate for the first time to offer words of encouragement and denounce the Axis powers.

War in the Pacific

By the time the United States entered the fray, its European allies had already been at war with the Axis powers for two years. With the atrocities of Hitler and Mussolini looming in distant Europe, the United States initially focused its efforts on the European theater.

Japan, however, was intent on proceeding with its own agenda. Under Tojo’s aggressive government, the empire had prepared for the eventuality of war with the United States. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces relentlessly attacked U.S. and British territories in the Pacific, including Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Burma. By the spring of 1942, America’s outlook in the Eastern theater was bleak—Japan had expanded its empire and fortified its perimeter throughout the Pacific.

By May of 1942, however, the momentum was shifting. The United States achieved its first major victory over Japan in the Battle of Midway, dealing a crushing blow to the Japanese navy. From then on, the United States was on the offensive, and began planning its strategy for capturing Rabaul, Japan’s main Southeast Asian base. A necessary first step in the strategy required the Allied forces to seize Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands. Between August 1942 and February 1943, the Allies launched an offensive military campaign around the island of Guadalcanal. After three land battles, seven naval battles, and daily aerial battles, the Japanese evacuated their troops, placing the strategic location in the hands of the United States. View a description of the events of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Axis Collapse in Europe

Throughout 1944, battles continued in the Pacific but increasingly resulted in the Allies’ favor. The United States tirelessly pressed the Japanese perimeter until the decisive defeat of Japanese forces in the early summer Battle of the Philippine Sea. Facing growing opposition within the Japanese government and military, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned from office.

In early 1945, the Allied leaders began planning their strategy for the rest of the war while outlining the structure of a post-war world. At the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill met with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. The meeting resulted in a demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender and planned for the nation to be divided into four zones, administered by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union respectively. The leaders further agreed to try all war criminals before an international court as well as establish the United Nations in the interest of maintaining peace. In exchange for Japanese territory, the Soviet Union also agreed to join the war against Japan should Germany be defeated. View Roosevelt’s address to Congress summarizing the events of the Yalta Conference.

On April 12, little over a month after his address to Congress, Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage. View this compilation from Congress of important documents relating to Roosevelt’s foreign policy during the war. Two weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Benito Mussolini was killed by members of an Italian resistance movement. Adolf Hitler committed suicide two days later. The collapse of these major Axis powers resulted in their total and unconditional surrender in Europe. Despite this huge success, however, war still raged in the Pacific theater. View newly inaugurated President Harry S. Truman’s address to Congress on the progress of the war, establishing the next primary task of defeating Japan.

The Surrender of Japan

In July of the same year, President Truman met with Churchill and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in Germany. After confirming the agreements made at Yalta regarding Germany, the leaders demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. If Japan did not agree, the empire would face “prompt and utter destruction.”

Believing more favorable terms of surrender could be reached, the Japanese government refused the Allies’ call to surrender. In August, with the consent of the United Kingdom, the United States detonated nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the midst of the bombings, the Soviets held to their promise at Yalta and invaded Japanese Manchuria. In the following days, Japan announced its surrender. On September 2, 1945, the empire’s formal signature of surrender officially ended World War II. View the October 1945 report from Congress detailing the surrender of each Axis power.

Since 1945, the date of September 2 has come to be commemorated as V-J (Victory over Japan) Day.

Help Us Complete the Project

If your library holds all or part of the Serial Set, and you are willing to assist us in completing this project, please contact Shannon Hein at 716-882-2600 or shein@wshein.com. HeinOnline would like to give a special thanks to the following libraries for their generous contributions which have resulted in the steady growth of HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Serial Set.

  • Wayne State University
  • University of Utah
  • UC Hastings
  • University of Montana
  • Law Library of Louisiana
  • George Washington University

We will continue to need help from the library community to complete this project. Download an Excel file listing the missing volumes of the Serial Set below:

Check back next month to unveil another secret of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set with HeinOnline. While you wait, catch up on previous Secrets of the Serial Set. Alternatively, learn more about how to use HeinOnline’s Serial Set with our in-depth LibGuide.

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