The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War, 1941-1943: Pearl Harbor Through Guadalcanal

Alan Schom, Author W. W. Norton & Company $28.95 (540p) ISBN 978-0-393-04924-4

This opinionated but cluttered history covers the dramatic slugfest in the Pacific during the first year and a half after Pearl Harbor. Schom's treatment of historiographical issues--the rise of Japanese militarism, the need for raw materials that set Japan on the path of conquest, America's woeful unpreparedness and obliviousness to warnings of the impending Pearl Harbor attack--is usually well judged, although not groundbreaking. He emphasizes naval operations, and his analysis of initial American tactical ineptitude, especially in handling aircraft carriers, is particularly acute. Schom (Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life) turns a beady eye to history's personalities here, offering gossipy character studies of its leading (and not-so-leading) participants. This approach sometimes yields pungent insights, as in his blistering attack on MacArthur, a""befuddled"" self-promoter and""greatest natural-born autocrat of them all,"" whose bungled defense of the Philippines Schom pegs as the worst American failure of the war. But the frequent intrusion of extraneous biographical detail (e.g.,""Chester Nimitz walked to school barefoot as a child"") disrupts coherent thematic development, while the author's fondness for living-history tableaux (""the smiling FDR wore a Panama hat and light beige tropical suit, his cigarette at its usual jaunty angle"") pads the narrative. Schom has done a lot of research, on everything from the love lives of American commanders to the London theater season during Hirohito's 1921 state visit, to a strained encounter between Roosevelt and a nude Churchill, and he seems determined to let none of it go to waste. Some readers will love this; others may find themselves wishing he would lay off the human interest and get on with the war. Photos.