5 Things I Learned from Reading “Pacific”

I just finished reading “Pacific” by Simon Winchester, a collection of essays about some of the most important episodes since 1950, on or around the Pacific Ocean. Winchester does an excellent job of selecting important, but relatively unknown, events in history to discuss interesting economic, scientific, cultural or geo-political themes. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading modern history and is interested in learning about countries around the Pacific.

Here are 5 things I learned from Pacific.

Mushroom-shaped cloud and water column from the underwater Baker nuclear explosion of July 25, 1946. Photo taken from a tower on Bikini Island

#1: The US conducted dozens of nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in the 1940s and 50s, harming the local population and contaminating the Earth’s atmosphere.

On Bikini Atoll, the U.S. Military embarked on a series of nuclear tests that ravaged and contaminated the island, and also spewed destructive radioactive matter into the atmosphere that ended up being blown to nearby islands like Rongelap and harming its inhabitants. 23 nuclear tests were conducted on Bikini Atoll, before the military switched to conducting underground tests in the deserts of Nevada. As a result, we have polluted the Earth’s atmosphere with radioactive elements like carbon-14, whose impact and presence will likely last for thousands of years.

Sony’s TR-55, the first transistor radio it produced

#2: An unknown Japanese company called Sony overcame technical and cultural challenges to introduce the transistor radio in 1955, sparking the rise of consumer electronics.

In late 1940s Japan, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka created Sony and embarked on a project to create a portable transistor radio. Ibuka, Sony’s chief engineer, had to inspire his team to abandon the Japanese concept of mentsu — “losing face” — in order to become willing to fail and experiment to solve the challenging technical problems involved with using transistors in radios. Ibuka cajoled, persuaded, demanded a mindset change in his engineers. After months, “beating against the undertow of traditional thinking… the timid became the tentative. Hesitancy morphed into determination, and the dragging weight of mentsu began to evaporate.” Sony solved the technical challenges and introduced the TR-55 transistor radio in summer 1955. The success of Sony’s transistor radios sparked the rise of the entire consumer electronics industry, which grew to produce tape and CD players, TVs, computers, cameras, and other gadgets. The introduction of the TR-55 was a seminal moment in business history — kind of like the launch of the iPhone about 50 years later.

Military vehicles crossing the 38th parallel during the Korean War.

#3: In 1945, a young army officer arbitrarily drew a line that divided the Korean peninsula into two parts at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel.

In August 1945, just days after the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, a group of army officers met to decide how they would establish a series of army checkpoints to stem the advance of Soviet troops into the Korean Peninsula. One of them got up and arbitrarily drew a line on a National Geographic map at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel — coincidentally about the same latitude of San Francisco — carving up the peninsula into North and South Korea. These officers were surprised when the Soviets readily accepted their proposal for dividing up Korea, and this order became part of the conditions for the Japanese surrender. Thus, with the swipe of a pencil on a map, two separate spheres of influence were created in Korea, which ultimately led to a series of conflicts in the region. It started with the Korean War in the early 1950s, and over the decades continued with thousands of “cross-border shootings, kidnappings, incursions, tunneling, and myriad other nuisances for which the Thirty-Eighth Parallel is still known today.” Despite all of the conflict and the enmity of the United States, North Korea has endured and remains a dangerous and unpredictable presence in the Pacific.

Prime Minister Whitlam reacting to news of his dismissal

#4: In November 1975, the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was sacked in what is known as “The Dismissal.”

Gough Whitlam was a reformist Australian Prime Minister who was elected in 1972, and who quickly embarked on a series of bold changes, such as pulling Australian troops out of Vietnam; ending the draft; opening diplomatic relations with China; and introducing universal health care laws, free university schooling, and voting at age eighteen. As a result of all of these reforms, the Australian government greatly over-extended itself financially, and Whitlam’s political opponents sensed an opportunity to turn the tide in their favor. They voted to cut off government funding, which created a crisis that could only be resolved by the head of state — which, for Australia, was actually the distant Queen of England. Or, her local representative, the Australian governor-general, Robert Kerr. During this government fiscal crisis, Kerr summoned Whitlam and dismissed him, handing power over to his political opponent, Malcolm Fraser. The move sent shockwaves throughout Australia, and had the impact of reminding the Australian people that a distant monarch had ultimate authority of their affairs. The Dismissal triggered a sense of national resolve to distance itself from British authority, that Australia should stand on its own as a sovereign power and a regional force within the Pacific.

#5: In October 2006, the USS Kitty Hawk spotted a Chinese submarine within attack range in the Western Pacific.

For most of the 20th century, American military power steadily grew in the Pacific, especially after the Allied victory in WWII. For decades, the US has asserted its rights to patrol and protect the international sea lanes that enable vast amount of global trade within the Pacific, including the waters right off the coast of China. In October 2006, the USS Kitty Hawk spotted a Chinese attack submarine within striking distance —a sign of the level of sophistication of China’s submarine fleet, and its potential to threaten the American forces in the Pacific. The move was also interpreted by the US that, in addition to its already hostile rhetoric, China was now ready to flex its military might to support its assertion that the waters off the coast of China were no longer international waters, but actually Chinese territory.

Since the US closed its last military base in the Philippines in 1991, China has been steadily expanding its role and territory within the Pacific. Over the last 25 years, one-by-one, China has been building settlements, military bases and airstrips on disputed islands, islets and even coral reefs — and expanding its territory and military sphere of influence. These expansionist moves by China have challenged the US’s influence in the Pacific, and caused America to “pivot” its military policy towards the Far East — in essence, tilting its strategic attention away from Europe. The discovery of a Chinese attack submarine so close to a US aircraft carrier in what the US claims are international waters has had a profound impact on US-China relations, as well as on the military policies of both countries.

I loved reading Pacific — it’s a well-written collection of essays and stories that provided so many insights about modern historical events and their impact. Although I’ve focused on geo-political and business events in my post, the book also contains some fascinating essays on cultural themes (like the rise of surfing) and scientific themes (worsening weather patterns in the Pacific due to global warming; the bleaching of coral reefs off the coast of Australia). If you want to learn a tremendous amount about the Pacific — read this book!

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