Atlas Evaluation: A Day of Infamy

I’m very late to the blog post this week, but here goes. One of the things that has most intrigued me the past few weeks has been the enormous political power of maps, and so I was struck while reading Hayes’ Historical Atlas of the United States by some of the wartime-era maps shown in the section labeled “Day of Infamy,” detailing the Second World War, particularly, as the name implies, the Pacific War against Japan. (Note: Unfortunately I lack a camera to take pictures to add to the blog, so I will have to describe them as best I can.)

Most of the maps shown in the section only became available post-war. Many of them were military maps and thus labeled “secret,” unlikely to be shown outside of the armed forces. What really intrigued me, however, were the few “newsmaps,” government made maps that would be put up in newsreels, homes, and factories to show how the war was going.

The first of these maps is in the bottom corner of page 245, and was part of a government drive at the end of 1944 to show off their new superplane: the B-29 Superfortress. The map is centered on Japan, with the ocean and land around it shaded to show the furthest extent of the Japanese empire and the area under Japanese control as of mid-December 1944. Arrows extending from China and from the Mariana Islands converge over Japan, showing the targets of the B-29s. The caption, entitled “Pacific War in the Air” lists the cities struck by the B-29s, as well reports of over 700 enemy aircraft destroyed and numerous enemy vessels sunk in fighting then going on the Philippines.

What was first very noticeable for me was how small Japan was portrayed compared to the large swath of territory it had taken gave the appearance that the empire was bloated and overextended, with it then being cut back down to size over time. The second–and very political–thing I noticed was the direction the Japanese were being forced back. The eastern border, across the Pacific and the United States, had shrunk dramatically. But the western border, facing China and especially British India, had barely shrunk at all. This would reinforce the idea that this was a war of the United States versus Japan, minimizing the contribution of the Chinese (apart from basing our airplanes there) and especially the British Commonwealth in fighting the Japanese. What’s more, the inclusion of colonial lands still under Japanese occupation, such as “Netherlands Indies” and “French Indochina” seems to suggest the idea that instead of fighting themselves, the European powers seem to be patiently waiting for the United States to liberate their colonies for them, while the arrows directed at Japan instead state the United States’ refusal to put European colonial interests ahead of winning the war against Japan. 

To me, this reinforced a common stereotype seen in relations between the United States and Europe, that Europe was fighting merely for their own interests in their empires, and that only the United States was actually fighting for the right reasons: truth, justice, liberty, and so on.

Hayes in the atlas seems to select rather random images with little connection to one another and little connection to the text describing them. Although some of the maps are very interesting, the layout in which they are shown gives no sense of flow, and many of the maps are extremely specific, like a tactical map of the Normandy landings or a bombing map of Japan. Such specific images are interesting in their own right, but among such a general overview of America’s involvement in World War Two–the entire war in only four pages–it would seem a mistake to have only one overall map of the Pacific War, and no overall map of the war in Europe and Africa. Hayes’ maps are interesting, but merely a jumble of interesting maps does not an informative atlas make.

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2 thoughts on “Atlas Evaluation: A Day of Infamy

  1. While I agree with your assessment that Hayes’ atlas does show a disconnect between the text and many of the maps, the maps he uses are informative and good historical maps in their own right. Hayes does seem to make the maps fit his text instead of fitting the text to the maps which largely hinders the historical value of the atlas. How would you suggest Hayes’ improve on his atlas? Would merely making better mention in the text of the maps used help improve on the atlas as a whole? This would possibly help, in my opinion, but the whole atlas would need a drastic overhaul and investigation into the text and maps used in order to improve the quality overall.

  2. I like the skeptical view you have of Hayes’ text and images. The detail in which your analysis of the maps chosen to depict the pacific theater in WWII is interesting because you were able to question what was being implied in the way the map was presenting the data. Of course, these maps were made during a time of war and politics played a major role in almost all of published culture – support the cause. Do you think if the maps we made today, of same period, would they have to global – international view that is current? Would the maps try to depict more of an Asia-centric tone? And finally, do you think the cartographers of the time consciously skewed the maps to favor America’s right reasons, or were they caught-up in the “zeit giest”?

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