Paramount // 2005 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // September 5th, 2005
Take no prisoners. Fight to the bitter end.
This installment of PBS's multiple Emmy-winning American Experience documentary series focuses on the climactic final weeks of the Second World War. The struggle against European fascism was over, but a battle of apocalyptic proportions loomed in the Pacific as Japan prepared to sacrifice her entire population -- soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children -- to repel an anticipated invasion of the home islands by American forces.
Victory in the Pacific begins with the American campaigns on Saipan and Okinawa, two islands whose conquest signaled the beginning of the end for the Japanese Empire. It was on Saipan that American forces and their accompanying newspaper and radio reporters first witnessed the mass suicide of Japanese soldiers and civilians who preferred death to the dishonor of defeat at American hands. The fierceness of the resistance and the causal attitude toward sacrifice exhibited here gravely concerned the generals and admirals who were busy planning the invasion of Japan slated for November 1, 1945. The fierce resistance anticipated in such an invasion played into the political and strategic decisions surrounding Gen. Curtis LeMay's firebombing campaign against Tokyo as well as the eventual use of the atomic bomb.
American Experience -- Victory in the Pacific makes great use of several points of view, including many historians but also people who were involved in the actual events, such as B-29 crewmen, a failed kamikaze pilot who had the audacity to survive his mission, and even a man whose father threw him off a cliff in an attempted family suicide at Saipan. Tying it all together is David Ogden Stiers's resonant, assured narration. The program makes for a fascinating, detailed look at the final weeks of the war, including the domestic political situation and attitudes at the time.
The decision to drop the A-bomb remains one of the most scrutinized episodes of World War II, and is the focus of the main special feature on the disc, an extended discussion between two historians, experts on the war. Based on documentary evidence, including intelligence intercepts, diplomatic traffic between Tokyo and Moscow, and much more evidence not even available until well after the war, they come to the conclusion that the surrender of Japan simply was not a credible possibility until the bomb changed Emperor Hirohito's mind. Even after Hiroshima, many of the most powerful voices in the Japanese cabinet urged continuation of the war, arguing that the Americans had at most a small supply of such weapons. The evidence presented here and in the documentary proper seems to put to rest many of the lingering questions about the bomb's use, but this decision will no doubt continue to inspire impassioned debate from both supporters and naysayers.
The other special feature on the disc is an Army Air Force training/documentary/propaganda film about the B-29's first mission over Tokyo. It's an interesting historical artifact, not least because it was narrated by Lieutenant Ronald Reagan of the Army Signal Corps.
History buffs both causal and serious will enjoy this sober, objective look at the American experience during the final days of World War II. It's also nice to see a program that doesn't neglect the Pacific Theater, as so many purported World War II documentaries seem to do. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Target Tokyo, US Army Air Force Film Narrated by Ronald Reagan
* Discussion: The Bomb and the End of the War
* Official American Experience Site