Book Review: "Tower of Skulls", A History of the Asia-Pacific War, Volume I: From the Marco Polo Bridge Incident to the Fall of Corregidor, July 1937-May 1942


by Richard B. Frank

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. Pp. 768+. Maps, illus., notes, biblio. $40.00. ISBN: 1324002107

The Long Beginning of the Asia-Pacific War

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once described the Japanese vision of a post-colonial Asia as based on a “tower of skulls”. Since appearing in March 2020, Richard Frank’s book with that ominous title has created something of a sensation – although one reaction has been: “What? Another history of WW II? Why would we possibly need THAT?” But the answer is simple. New evidence is constantly appearing, weak spots in research and historiography are being filled in, and with them, a newer picture is steadily developing. But Frank’s book addresses a particularly outstanding problem – the inability of Western historians to access Japanese- and Chinese-language sources for many years after the War. This has, however, changed dramatically in recent years as the number of American scholars fluent in these languages has expanded, along with the translation of Asian primary sources and historical scholarship into English. This has made possible – and necessary – an entirely new synthesis, replacing many former commonly accepted but often misleading – or even totally wrong – ideas.

Western study of the Japanese navy in WW II begins perhaps with S. E. Morison’s assistant, Capt. Roger Pineau, a pioneer who led a small corps of Japanese-literate scholars such as David Evans and Mark Peattie. The latter’s 2001 study of Japanese naval air revolutionized our understanding of the Pacific carrier war, leading to works like Parschall and Tully’s Shattered Sword and Zimm’s Pearl Harbor Attack, demolishing many myths, such as the idea that a third Japanese air attack on the USN oil reserves at Pearl Harbor could have changed the course of the war. But if the history of Japan in WW II has been dimly and imperfectly understood, that of China in the war has been profoundly distorted by the lack of sources. The greatest military campaign of the war after the German invasion of Russia was the Japanese offensive thousands of miles into the heart of China, to knock Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government out of the war. Frank shows us that in 1937, this was the true beginning of the Second World War, a war costing China perhaps 14 million deaths in comparison to Russia’s 20 million, marked by things like genocidal mass murder and terror bombing of civilian populations that did not develop in the West until after several years of war. A detailed military history has been lacking in English until recent works like Mitter’s 2018 Forgotten Ally utilizing sources from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, describing the Chinese government’s huge, long, and nearly unassisted campaign of resistance – on which, Frank suggests, the survival of Russia in 1942 depended, and thus the ultimate victory of the Allies.

The Japanese Army saw Russia as its traditional enemy, and the Tripartite Pact of 1940 seemed to promise a supporting attack on the Russian east – which in 1941 probably would have been fatal. And could the US and Britain have possibly defeated Germany without Russia? So in 1941, Churchill, FDR, and Stalin were all desperate to support China, but once the Russian crisis was past, their concern evaporated, and China was left to face further massive offensives without outside support. But the complacent ignorance about this theater in western, and particularly American, historiography owes a great deal to the two most influential American books on the subject, T. H. White’s 1946 Thunder out of China and Barbara Tuchman’s 1971 Stilwell and the American Experience in China. Both are based on the Stilwell papers, and adopt Stilwell’s views about China and the war without reservation. Both focus on the war where Stilwell was in command, Burma in 1942 and 1944, and are at pains, like Stilwell was, to paint Chiang (and thus China) as not fighting seriously, and so ignore the massive Japanese offensives and China’s massive resistance to them. These attitudes created powerful prejudices in the American mind; much as did the same stereotypes of Asian corruption and incompetence versus American pragmatism and rationality in the discussions by the Kennedy leadership team that led to the decision to organize the coup that led to the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese president Diem, their ally.

Frank has much to say also about the complex motivations that led Japan into war – and not with Russia, but the US. Why couldn’t the Japanese government control its Army when it started the war in China on its own initiative? Why did Japan opt to attack the US after long deliberation of war with Russia? Frank makes it clear how much another traditional myth about WW II was mistaken – the idea that Japan was a dictatorship. Japan was a socially authoritarian society – but with no dictator. There was no one vested with centralized executive power, such as the US president. Rather, the heads of the major institutions of the Japanese government – Army, Navy, Foreign Office, civil administration, etc. – formed a committee to present their consensus policies before the emperor for his approval. And as is typical of committees, these decisions were dilatory, uncertain, and based on the least common denominator among the range of competing institutional interests. Frequently lower ranks within the government, such as the Army or even local commanders in China, took the initiative for war, even against the explicit commands of their superiors or even the emperor himself. The principle of “Genkokujo” or “the low overrules the high” explains what seems to be a major social principle in pre-war Japan, where the voice of aggressive nationalism is heard from junior officers, students, and the people demonstrating in the streets, while senior commanders and statesmen sought to restrain these forces in the interest of prudence, and were sometimes assassinated for their pains. Frank does a superb job of tracing the confusing internal debate that led to the decision by the Japanese Army in favor of a war with Russia, to acquiesce in the choice of the relatively anti-war Navy to attack the US immediately – initiating a war the Navy believed it could not win. Their best hope was that somehow, since they’d pulled it off against the odds in 1904-5, then maybe – just maybe – they could do it again.

Frank describes the uncertainty in American diplomacy; as Miller shows in his 2012 book Bankrupting the Enemy, the US oil embargo and freezing of Japanese assets were genuinely intended to preserve peace and relieve China – but put the Japanese Navy in an intolerable position, which provoked a war to seize the oil of the Dutch East Indies before its own slender reserves ran out. Frank gives a clear and incisive summary of the campaigns in Malaya, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies, as well as the first phase of the naval war, the phase of apparent Japanese superiority. The carrier war of 1941-1942 was one of most unusual naval campaigns in history, a duel of just six first-class ships on each side, a situation where a single commander could lose the war in an afternoon – as Nagumo arguably did at Midway. This first volume of Frank’s work carries the story to the brink of the first clash of the carriers at the Coral Sea, showing the “Kido Butai”, the Japanese carrier striking force, at its most successful, making repeated devastating raids on bases and land air forces. But not successful enough to win; it missed every opportunity to locate, catch, and sink a major Allied naval force at sea, winning the decisive battle seen by the Japanese as their only real hope for victory. Perhaps their best opportunity was catching the British Indian Ocean Fleet during their April 1942 sortie against India and Ceylon. Meanwhile the US carriers initiated their own wide-ranging offensive of pinprick raids, including the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, all causing little physical damage but impossible to intercept.

What were the differences between the two carrier forces that cost Japan its only chance to win the war, in technology, organization, tactics, and doctrine? These issues have been much studied, and Frank summarizes them well, though a look at Friedman’s 2019 Winning a Future War, an examination of the US Naval War College’s interwar studies of carrier war, reveals some subtle differences. These studies revealed the extreme vulnerability of carriers, and the short lives of their air groups in action. The Japanese also understood these issues, and perhaps expected an early loss of some of their carriers, so their fundamental attitude was “Strike first with your carriers without compromising surprise, before you lose the ability to do so.” In contrast, the American attitude might be characterized as “Locate and strike the enemy carriers first, to preserve your own carriers and obtain air superiority over the enemy fleet.” It will be interesting to see how Frank treats this in his forthcoming second volume.

This book sheds the light of the latest research on many critical controversies surrounding World War II in Asia, and creates a totally new synthesis in the process. Frank’s work is thoroughly referenced to many groundbreaking studies by his colleagues and fellow historians over the last few decades – Miller, Peattie, Evans, Parschall, Tully, Friedman, Willmot, Zinn, Mitter, to name just a few. Each of these writers has presented us with new evidence and ideas which require their incorporation into a comprehensive history of the war. For decades also, the limited Western facility with Asian languages has crippled our access to Chinese and Japanese sources, and thus our understanding.

This first volume ofTower of Skulls is endlessly thought-provoking and a milestone in the history of the Second World War.

Our Reviewer: Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore; Forerunner of the Future, and articles on the USS Triton, SS United States, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-than-Air. He has contributed book reviews to ‘The Naval Historical Foundation’ ( and The International Journal of Naval History ( He earlier reviews include The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, King Arthur’s Wars: The Anglo-Saxon Conquest of England, Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War, and The Fate of Rome.




Note: Tower of Skulls is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Robert P. Largess   

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