FORTY YEARS have passed since the memorable meeting between General Douglas MacArthur and the Japanese representatives on the deck of the battleship Missouri which marked the end of the war with Japan. Yet the books about that conflict continue to pour forth, for the Japanese-American war continues to exert a powerful fascination for millions of Americans, both those who remember the war and those who came after. Anthropologist Sheila K. Johnson compiled a list, in 1975, of popular American books dealing with, or closely related to the Pacific war. She found no less than 22 titles which had appeared on The New York Times best-seller list between 1942 and 1968. Her count was done too early to include such recent best-sellers as William Manchester's >Goodbye, Darkness, Gordon Prange's At Dawn We Slept and John Toland's Infamy. In addition to the well-known best sellers there have been literally hundreds of other books, ranging from lavishly illustrated coffee-table histories of "Great Fighter Planes of the Pacific War" to scholarly monographs on everything from FDR and his generals to Japanese occupation policy in Borneo.

The books discussed here represent nothing more than my personal choices. I would like to think that other specialists on the subject would agree with most of my titles, but I am sure that they would take strong exception to at least a few of them. I have selected books primarily for their literary and scholarly merit but I have also applied the test of whether the work has had, or is likely to have, a major influence on our knowledge of, and ideas about, the war with Japan. I have also restricted my choices to books devoted largely, or entirely, to the war in Asia and the Pacific. My assignment was to choose 20 books; this has meant omitting many books devoted to other subjects that have important implications for our understanding of the war -- works such as Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, Forest C. Pogue's George C. Marshall and Martin J. Sherwin's A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance, to name only a few.

The keystone of all historical research on the American role in World War II and the work upon which all other authors are dependent to a greater or lesser degree are the four official histories of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force (or as it then was, the "Army Air Forces"). The formal titles are: The U.S. Army in World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison's History of United States Naval Operations in World War II; History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II and The Army Air Forces in World War II, edited by Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate. All of these multi-volume works contain a wealth of hard-to-find information. Whether you are planning to rewrite the Battle of Lone Tree Hill, need to know how the Chemical Corps was organized, want to find out what your father's old outfit did in New Guinea or merely want to settle an argument about when and where General So-And-So was relieved of command, you will probably find what you need in one of these books.

The U.S. Army's comprehensive history of its role in World War II was begun as far back as 1943. Rumor has it that the final two volumes in the series will be published later this year. In between there have been some 75 volumes, making this the largest collective historical publishing enterprise ever undertaken in the United States. Many of the Army books have long since become standard works on their subject. The two classic volumes by Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines (1953) and Strategy and Command (1962) have not been superseded despite the passage of many years. Other books in the series like Robert Ross Smit's The Approach to the Philippines (1953) and the splendid trilogy on China- Burma-India by Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland (1953-1959) are not only the best, but nearly the only reliable general accounts of their subjects. Finally, these books are cheap! At the Government Printing Office Book Store, which is generally the only place you can buy them, they sell for about two-thirds or less of what a commercially published book of the same length would cost.

That's the good news. The bad news is that these books are sometimes very hard to read. Not that they are poorly written, but the requirement to give comprehensive coverage has obliged many of the authors to jump from subject to subject while at the same time treating everything at excruciating length. The end result may induce terminal boredom in some readers not avid for military detail. But stick with it. Once you've struggled through the first few chapters you will begin to see the forest as well as the trees.

Far more appealing to the general reader is Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison's History of Naval Operations (15 volumes, 1947-1962). Morison, a distinguished professor of American history at Harvard, was a master prose stylist long before he became an admiral. His books are clear, lively and exciting to read. However, Morison's work lacks the reliability and comprehensiveness of the Army histories. His battle narratives are superb but there is little for the reader interested in the strategic, administrative or logistical aspects of the war.

The Marine Corps volumes have many of the strengths and shortcomings of the Army works. (The Marine Corps books are, if anything, even more detailed.) There are some gems in the Marine Corps series such as Robert D. Heinl's The Defense of Wake (1947) and Saipan: The Beginning of the End (1950) and The Seizure of Tinian by Carl W. Hoffman (later a Marine general in Vietnam) that should not be missed by anyone seriously interested in the Pacific War.

CONTEMPLATING the thousands of pages churned out by the official historians, the reader may wonder whether there is any serious work left for other writers. Actually, there are relatively few serious analytical books on many, I might even say most, of the campaigns of the Pacific war. This is not so much because authors have been intimidated by the official histories as because of the continuing preoccupation of both specialists and the general public with the extraordinary and unforgettable beginning and end of the war.

The Pearl Harbor attack and the atomic bomb have been the subject of a blizzard of books, memoirs and articles; so it is with some trepidation that I offer my choices on these topics. Concerning Pearl Harbor, the two works which I believe will have the most lasting influence are Gordon Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (1981) and Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962). The two are quite different in approach and emphasis. Prange is exhaustively detailed yet fun to read. Wohlstetter is severely analytical, at times hard to follow, definitely not fun to read. Yet together they provide a balanced picture of the Pearl Harbor attack. Prange provides the definitive narrative. Wohlstetter's book, published 20 years before Prange's, changed the terms of the entire debate about Pearl Harbor, shifting the inquiry away from the sterile question of who was to blame to one of how does surprise occur despite warning. Why is it so often successful, and how can it be prevented? On the subject of the end of the war there are, again, many titles to choose from, but my vote is for Robert J.C. Butow's Japan's Decision to Surrender (1954). This remains, I believe, the best guide to the complexities of Japanese decision-making in 1945.

In contrast to the many books on the beginning and end of the war, the actual campaigns have received relatively little attention. A rare example of an author who does take a serious look at the operational side of the war is John Lundstrom. His The First South Pacific Campaign (1976) provides an interesting contrast, both in style and substance, to Morison's work on the some subject. An author who has done the same on a far greater scale is Clay Blair, whose Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (1975) not only provides an authoritative treatment of the submarine war in the Pacific but adds immensely to our knowledge of such related subjects as code-breaking, technology and command relationships and personalities. Himself a former submariner, Blair pulls no punches in his frank and thorough discussion of such subjects as the failure of the Navy's torpedoes, the relief of submarine commanders and the sinking of Japanese ships carrying U.S. prisoners-of-war.

The political side of the war had long been even more neglected than the operational side, but this has been remedied by Christopher Thorne's massive and definitive Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain, and the War With Japan (1978). Don't take this one to the beach with you; it's not light reading. But if you want to find out, for example, about the political developments in India which form the backdrop to the TV series The Jewel in the Crown, or want to know more about the British-French and American disagreements over Indochina that were mentioned in the Vietnam TV series, you will find it here.

The Japanese perspective on the war was for long unfamiliar to American readers, partly because few American writers on the subject used Japanese sources extensively and even fewer Japanese works were translated into English. A valuable exception is Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan by Masataka Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi (1955), which provides a fine account of the battle from the Japanese side and throws light on Japan's strategic decision-making during the first half of the war. Yet it was not until the publication of John Toland's Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (1970), that American readers really became aware of the Japanese perspective on the war. While some authors, including this one, have questioned some of Toland's interpretations, he is unmatched in the breadth of his research into, and ability to portray, the human side of the war, and for this reason, I believe, The Rising Sun will long remain a classic.

ON THE HUMAN side of the war, there is another book well worth attention. This is George McMillan's The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War II (1949). Not only is it the finest of all the dozens of unit histories of World War II, but a classic social portrait as well. Books like Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl's The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War (1951) contain many pages of sound analysis, but if you want to know how it felt to be in the island campaigns of World War II read The Old Breed. My other choice is Stanley L. Falk's Bataan: The March of Death (1962). Although many articles and first-hand accounts have been written about the appalling Bataan death march, Falk's work remains the only complete analytical account based on both U.S. and Japanese sources, and therefore an indispensable reference.

Another way to get at the human dimension of the war is through first-hand accounts, of which the war with Japan produced many fine examples. My purely subjective choices are Richard Tregaskis, Guadalcanal Diary (1943) for reportage; Robert Sherrod, Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944; revised 1954), which combines both reportage and historical narrative and remains an important source, and Charlton Ogburn's The Marauders (1959), a remarkably clear, balanced and even-tempered account by a participant in what must have been one of the toughest campaigns of the war, that of Brigadier General Frank Merrill's commando force in Burma.

Some of the best works in the Pacific war are the biographies of leading actors in the conflict. Here again, it's hard to make a choice because there are many good books, such as James Leutze's >A Different Kind of Victory: A Biography of Thomas C. Hart (1981), Hiroyuki Agawa's The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy (1979), E.B. Potter's Nimitz (1976) and Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971). However my personal vote goes to D. Clayton James' The Years of MacArthur (3 vols., 1972-1985) on the military side, and Thomas E. Buell's The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond Spruance (1974) on the naval side. James' work is a masterpiece of balance and objectivity concerning subjects about which few can be objective, and also provides the definitive account of MacArthur's remarkable career. Buell's work, to which he brought the technical knowledge of an experienced sea officer, not only adds to our knowledge of the campaigns in which Spruance took part but is a model of objective and insightful biography.