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Deconstructing dad history
Diplomats & Admirals: From Failed Negotiations and Tragic Misjudgements to Powerful Leaders and Heroic Deeds, the Untold Story of the U.S. Navy’s Victories at Coral Sea and Midway. By Dale A. Jenkins. Aubrey Publishing Company, 2022; Paperback pp. 402; $19.50. ISBN 979-8-9865626-0-5
I was recently given the privilege to review the book “Diplomats & Admirals” by Dale Jenkins, a former U.S. Navy officer and staff director at the Council on Foreign Relations. The book recounts the lead-up to the Pacific theater in the Second World War, from Japan’s increasingly aggressive expansionist territorial claims in China and the South Pacific, the militarization of imperial Japanese politics and its drift toward the Axis, and attempts at diplomatic mediation between Japan and the U.S. before 1941, the latter country crucially supplying Japan with much of the oil and scrap metal needed for its war in China. Finally, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 17, 1941 forces the U.S. into conflict alongside allies including China, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. It concludes after the events of the Battle of Midway in June 1942, widely held to be a turning point where strategic initiative in the Pacific Ocean passed from Japan to the United States for the remainder of the conflict.
Even for a topic tread through so frequently, there still is a more novel way of going about discussing this part of the Second World War. One could discuss many of its overlooked aspects, such as the colonial treatment of Pacific Islanders by Japan, the U.S., Australia and European powers alike, the impact of war on fragile natural ecosystems and the lives of the civilian inhabitants of the islands subjected to Japanese conquest and American “island-hopping” — the Marshall Islands, Chuuk (Truk), Mariana Islands, Saipan, Peleliu. This is not one of those books, which ultimately remains mostly as a discussion of great men (in particular, President Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese Admiral Isorkou Yamomoto, along with the relevant bureaucrats, soldiers, and sailors accompanying them), representing great powers.
Within history, the subgenre which this book belongs to would likely be best characterized as “dad history.” To some extent, one knows when they see it — for example, the comedian John Mulaney frequently incorporates into his routines allusions to fathers who have little social acumen other than to reference trivia about the Second World War to other fathers. Michael J. Douma, a professor at Georgetown University, writes about “dad history” as such, albeit more as a description of similarities rather than a definition de jure:
“To me, Dad History is a genre of history, almost entirely in book form, written for your average dad, but particularly designed for American men older than 50. The books are physically and aesthetically quite similar. A Dad History book is hardcover, 300+ pages, with high color contrast between the font on the cover and the background image. As with novels from popular writers, the name of the author is featured prominently on the cover of Dad History books. These are books generally written by older white men who work as independent scholars, not university professors. Most, but not all of the writers are politically right-of-center. Dad History authors include David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Brian Kilmeade, and Stephen Ambrose (probably the godfather of Dad History).”
“Dad history” while popular on bookshelves, has been decidedly out of fashion in the academy for quite some time, in favor of works prioritizing the perspectives of groups historically left out of official recordkeeping such as women, ethnic minorities, and workers — histories of the masses and “from below,” rather than of spectacular men (and “dad history,” primarily concerned with the “high politics” of security and conflict, is almost always about men). Although the advance review copy I received was in paperback, virtually all other “dad history” qualities described by Dr. Douma are fulfilled by Diplomats & Admirals.
While I did not see much in the way of major historical inaccuracies in Diplomats & Admirals (compare this to the works of the previously mentioned O’Reilly and Ambrose, both of which have faced major criticisms in their veracity), the biases of ‘dad history’ were still present throughout, especially in which perspectives were left out of the book. Aside from Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, women are hardly mentioned. In attempting to explain the strategic miscalculations which led the US, the UK, and the Netherlands to vastly underestimate their economically and numerically inferior Japanese enemy as they trounced across the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Pacific Islands in 1941/2, the role racism might have played in shaping the perceptions of white leaders from the time is hardly discussed. Little pause for thought is given to the implications of a whole coterie of American leadership originating at a limited selection of private schools and Ivy League colleges in the northeast and New England. In such a mass conflict, the perspectives of the common soldiers, sailors, and airmen who did most of the fighting, and much of the dying, is reduced down to unit markers on maps.
Indeed, it is this racial element of the War in the Pacific which has generated a longstanding personal interest in the topic. Like many young boys, I was proud of my grandfather’s military service in the Second World War, which in this case took place in the jungles of Burma with the Republic of China. Outside of home and in school, discussion of the Second World War, and conflict with Japan, was one of the few places where the history of Asians was discussed at all. In this sense the memory of the war became more than a fascination with machines and masculinity, and indeed could be perceived as a path to inclusion and acceptance in wider American society, where so much remained the domain of those with lighter skin and European ancestry.
This book is not about that either. The story of Asians in the Second World War is largely a history “from below,” of downtrodden countries ranging from the semi-colonized (China) to the fully colonized (virtually everyone else, aside from Japan). The class position of Chinese in the US, while improved as a result of the war, remained firmly on the lower rungs, while the internment of Japanese Americans and the theft of their property remains as one of the clearest cases of white supremacy in the US backed by the capacities of the state. The contents of Diplomats & Admirals are a fairly conventional retelling of the early years of the war, with personalities limited to elderly, high-ranking statesmen.
If one is simply looking for trivia about the opening phases of the Second World War in Asia, straightforward play-by-plays of some of the most significant aerial and naval battles of the 1940s, the specifications of ships and aircraft from the era, this book can definitely satisfy that itch, in an accessible manner. There is genuine intrigue that can be found in both the diplomatic cables before the war, as well as the chaotic actions in the fog of war after hostilities have commenced. Yet, at the same time I question the extent to which that same itch can be comparably satisfied by reading the Wikipedia articles for the Battle of Midway or the Dauntless dive-bomber, or from a good answer on /r/AskHistorians — both of which, crucially, can be read for free.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
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