The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines: how the US failed to end war and suffering in 1944 – 1945

Carlton Meyer, “The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines” (Tales of the American Empire, 10 December 2021)

In this short documentary, military historian Carlton Meyer makes his case that the US decision to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule in 1944, when US armed forces could have bypassed that part of Southeast Asia (as they did with Singapore and Malaysia), and blockaded the island chains stretching from Formosa (Taiwan) through Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands to southern Japan, and even to the Korean Peninsula, was the most disastrous the US made in the Pacific front against Japan. By attempting to liberate the Philippines, the US action not only resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of US and Filipino soldiers, and of even more thousands of Filipino civilians and the destruction of Filipino cities, but delayed the conclusion of the war. Actions the US took to blockade Japan and cripple its military industries took place much later in 1945 than sooner in 1944. Japan’s offer to surrender might have been accepted sooner as well, though Meyer notes that the US deliberately delayed accepting Japan’s surrender because it wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of its atomic bomb program to the Soviet Union and that program was not ready in early 1945.

Meyer lays out how the US could have effectively used a blockade of Japan to force that nation to surrender earlier and save millions of lives, not to mention using its troops in areas where they really were needed (in China and Korea perhaps) and thus preventing Soviet entry into the war against Japan. (This probably might not have stopped China and Korea from accepting Communist government but might have reduced popular support for the Communists.) Cutting supplies from Japan to the Philippines by an island blockade could have led to early Japanese surrender in the Philippines followed by an orderly withdrawal of Japanese troops – in most other parts of Asia and the Pacific region, Japanese soldiers surrendered and withdrew without necessarily fighting to the death – and the destruction of cities and towns in the Philippines would have been less severe.

The weakest part of the documentary is in Meyer’s attempt to find and explain why the US did not do what it should have done. There were individuals in the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who supported US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s plan for blockading Japan. Meyer fingers US General Douglas Macarthur as the main advocate for retaking the Philippines in order to salvage his tattered reputation after his catastrophic defence of the Philippines against Japanese invasion in 1942. Whether the Roosevelt administration supported Macarthur over Nimitz’s plan or Nimitz changed his mind (under pressure from others perhaps), Meyer is unable to say. He is also unable to say what reasons may have attached to the US decision to liberate the Philippines and prolong the fighting unnecessarily, and if these reasons might themselves have been based on geopolitical or other agendas, the consequences of which would have given the US political, economic or other strategic advantages in East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Visual material including maps and archived film and photos help illustrate Meyer’s argument of what the US could and should have done. The voiceover narration can be quite fast and viewers may need to re-run the film to catch the details of what Meyer says. The implications of Meyer’s argument are enormous, as the decision not to follow Nimitz’s plan to blockade Japan resulted not just in unnecessary suffering, death and destruction but had widespread consequences for other parts of Asia beyond Japan and the Philippines which themselves generated further actions and results that are still working out in the geopolitics of this part of the world more than 70 years later.

In the context of Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series, it’s hard not to think that the US decision to “liberate” the Philippines in the way this was done was perhaps to keep the Filipino people in such a wretched and impoverished state that they would never be able to press for independence.