[HISTORY] Book Review: “Killing the Rising Sun,” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

20 August 2018

Book Review:

Killing the Rising Sun

By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Review Summary

Positives:

  • The narrative style reads like a thriller, making the history enjoyably digestible.
  • Convincingly supports the assertion that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was the least bad of the bad options available.
  • Point of view rotates through a diverse cast of historical characters at all political/military levels, on both the Allied and Japanese sides, providing an excellent breadth of context.

Negatives:

  • At least one odd factual error I noticed. (The assertion that America declared war on Germany a day after Pearl Harbor when in reality Germany declared war on the U.S. first.)

My Amazon Review: 4/5 Stars

mushroom cloud

Description (From Amazon):

Autumn 1944. World War II is nearly over in Europe but is escalating in the Pacific, where American soldiers face an opponent who will go to any length to avoid defeat. The Japanese army follows the samurai code of Bushido, stipulating that surrender is a form of dishonor.

Killing the Rising Sun takes listeners to the bloody tropical-island battlefields of Peleliu and Iwo Jima and to the embattled Philippines, where General Douglas MacArthur has made a triumphant return and is plotting a full-scale invasion of Japan. Across the globe in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists are preparing to test the deadliest weapon known to mankind. In Washington, DC, FDR dies in office, and Harry Truman ascends to the presidency only to face the most important political decision in history: whether to use that weapon. And in Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito, who is considered a deity by his subjects, refuses to surrender despite a massive and mounting death toll.

Told in the same pause-resistant style of Killing LincolnKilling KennedyKilling JesusKilling Patton, and Killing Reagan, this epic saga details the final moments of World War II like never before.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve.” -Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Admiral, referring to the Pearl Harbor Attack

By late 1944, the sleeping giant that was America was thoroughly awake, active, and stomping over Japanese forces all across the Pacific. And yet, total victory remained elusive, in the face of a sucidially determined Japanese leadership clique, and the remaining legions of Japanese soldiers and kamikaze pilots ready to die for their Emperor and Homeland.

What routes to final victory did the United States consider? And why did it ultimately decide on the dropping of two atomic bombs on two of Japan’s biggest cities, as the least bad option?

In Killing the Rising Sun, O’Reilly and Dugard take readers through the suspenseful, intriguing, harrowing, brilliant and dark story of why and how American leadership wrestled with that decision. The authors make clear why destroying Imperial Japan was morally correct, and how the use of the atomic bombs ultimately saved more lives than it destroyed by ending the war faster and without a ground invasion of Japan. They provide plenty of detail on the horrors of the island hopping campaign, the thinking behind the development of the A-bomb in the first place, the atrocities committed by Japan all through the lead-up to 1945,

Kamikazes

This photo provided by former Kamikaze pilot Toshio Yoshitake, shows Yoshitake, right, and his fellow pilots, from left, Tetsuya Ueno, Koshiro Hayashi, Naoki Okagami and Takao Oi, as they pose together in front of a Zero fighter plane before taking off from the Imperial Army airstrip in Choshi, just east of Tokyo, on November 8, 1944. None of the 17 other pilots and flight instructors who flew with Yoshitake on that day survived. Yoshitake only survived because an American warplane shot him out of the air, he crash-landed and was rescued by Japanese soldiers. (AP Photo)

I picked this book up on Audible because I enjoyed the four other books I’ve read in the “Killing” series by O’Reilly and Dugard, and I love military history. Overall, I recommend this book as a well-done popular history book that conveys the drama of WWII very well, without erasing the weight of any of the human misery inherent in it.

The language is very active, emotive, with a solid but not overwhelming amount of flair. Scenes of US Marines storming the beaches of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, of the awestruck tension and horrifying triumph of the first atomic bomb test, and of Vice President Truman’s urgent summons to the White House immediately only to learn that FDR is dead and he is now president: all of these read like the scenes of an epic HBO mini-series. There are even the cliffhanger moments before jumping scene, from Los Alamos, to Washington, to Tokyo, to the Philippines.

flag raising on Iwo Jima

I think the authors took a generally well-balanced view of the historical characters. MacArthur is neither overglorified, nor villainized: as the authors I think correctly portray, he was a highly competent leader and tactician with a great sense of history and culture, but at the same time, had a massive ego and a power-streak that ultimately got him in trouble – and YET, he was undeniably a competent and helpful occupier of post-war Japan. The authors correctly capture the general’s complex legacy.

A highlight of the narrative is the emphasis on how much of a culpable moral villain Emperor Hirohito was. The authors contrast the story, seemingly hard-wired in the public mind now, that the Emperor was little more than a ceremonial revered puppet during the 1930s and WWII, and that the military was always the ones running the show, with little input or oversight from the Emperor.

I have admittedly not read much detail on the Emperor himself, as the Pacific War sources I’ve read focus on the actions directly related to the war and accept the conventional narrative as fact. Yet, I am convinced by the authors that Hirohito knew full well of the atrocities carried out by his soldiers in China, Korea, and other occupied territories, and found them at least acceptable, and possibly often adding to the glory of the all-conquering Japanese Race. While he may admittedly have faced pushback, (indeed, the book covers the coup attempt against him when he surrendered his Empire to the Allies,) he did have the loyalty and power of enough generals to at least partially rein in atrocities if he had the will to. Besides that, while he may have been deceived by the War Hawks in his cabinet, as the supreme sovereign leader of Japan, the decision to initiate the fateful sneak attacks of December 1941 was his.

Emperor Hirohito in Disneyland

Look, he even went to Disneyland!

The fact that the emperor was able to keep his throne was a matter of necessary political stability. Propaganda to rehabilitate the emperor’s reputation in the post-war public’s view were begun by MacArthur, and proved successful since with seemingly only a small number of revisionist historians championing the view that the Emperor was a monstrous leader roughly on par with the European Axis leaders.

A neat addition to the book are the letters received by O’Reilly from three living Presidents of the United States, (Carter, Bush Sr, Bush Jr,) on whether they thought the atomic bombing of Japan was the correct decision. All said yes. It’s worth mentioning in this review that, yes, O’Reilly is a partisan conservative with a clearly stated opposition to Obama (who was president when this book was written,) and that the introduction and epilogue both throw some “gotcha!” jabs at Obama for his associations with outspoken critics of the atomic bomb decision.

Col. Tibbets with the B-29 "Superfortress" Enola Gay

Col. Tibbets with the B-29 “Superfortress” Enola Gay

Wrapping it up

Who will like this book? People with an interest in military history, especially WWII history. Even if they know the history of the Pacific War fairly well, the focus of this book on the final decisions that led to the Allied victory is well-merited and well-executed, and the details on the under-discussed coup attempt against Hirohito, MacArthur’s connections to the Philippines, and Truman’s experience in having to suddenly take up the job of President are all awesome stories.

I think that if you’re someone who doesn’t normally read military history, but wants to learn more quickly in an easily digestible, thriller-like form, this is a great option.

If you really hate O’Reilly for his political views, I imagine you might take issue with this book, although it truly is focused on WWII and not modern politics. (Fun fact: O’Reilly’s father served in the Navy in the Pacific during the War, and likely would have been in the invasion force sent to conquer Japan, had the bombs not been dropped.)

If you’re already a well-read student of this history, you may want to spend your non-fiction reading time on stories less tread for yourself.

But, I think O’Reilly and Dugard do popular history very well and Killing the Rising Sun is no exception.

 

 

 

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