A War without Mercy?

Tom Hanks reminds us that the Pacific War was a war of racist brutality:

Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different.

Racism in lurid intensity was a big part of the war. John Dower has already done the hard work on this. But the story is also a bit more interesting than that.

From my own research into American psychological warfare in the Pacific, it turns out that racism existed but at decisive moments failed to trump high policy. The dynamic of merciless race war applies more to the conduct of the fighting, to the patterns and motives of combat, than to the grand strategic conduct of the war.

In a war organized primarily around racial hostility, America would probably have bombed the imperial palace in Tokyo and Kyoto, the former capital and revered site of ancient palaces and shrines. Yet Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Truman opposed this, on the basis that it might undermine post-war reconciliation with Japan or drive Japan into the arms of the Soviets.

Some argue that anti-Asian racism motivated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But America’s nuclear programme was initially driven by the greater fear of Nazi Germany, a white European enemy. Specifically anti-Japanese or anti-Asian racist sentiment was not fundamental to ‘causing’ the use of nuclear weapons.

After Japan’s surrender, and despite public and congressional opinion, the demand for vengeance against the Emperor and the Japanese people was trumped by the desire for orderly surrender and stability in Japan, and fear of a costly prolonged occupation. In victory, the US rebuilt Japan as an allied anticommunist counterweight in Asia.

US politicians and popular culture recast Japan from diabolic enemy to infant democratic ally under Western tutelage and outright race hate yielded to the milder bigotry of superior paternalism, as Dower also notes. Whereas the Japanese were depicted as evil monsters in wartime, they were recast as child-like dependents in peacetime, as the exhausted and hungry country became America’s ward. Emotive ethnic loathing existed but did not override power-political calculations and cannot explain these intellectual and emotional gymnastics.

In other words, for a country that was gripped by hatred and the desire to annihilate these ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’, America’s actual behaviour was mixed. Brutal in its killings of prisoners and indiscriminate bombardment, it was in other areas remarkably restrained, sparing sites of Japanese cultural heritage, refusing to prosecute its Emperor, and rebuilding Japan into a valuable ally.

Of course, racial hatred can consume warring people against their own vital interests. Amidst a brutal war which threatened defeat and oblivion as the tide turned, Adolf Hitler still insisted on diverting precious resources into his systematic killing of European Jews. But America’s handling of the Pacific War at the highest level was businesslike, even if it lacked clarity for long periods.
There’s an interesting broader issue here: racists don’t always behave in racist ways. President Harry Truman had some extremely unkind things to say about the Japanese. He described Japan as a ‘beast’ that only understood bombardment. Yet this bestial view of the Japanese did not dictate his policy choices.

Digressing wildly, it reminds me of the debate about Obama’s chances of being elected in 2008. A very well placed political source assured me that the blue collar white folk of Ohio were too racist to vote for a black man.  Which was wrong. It may be that he was overstating their racism. But there’s another flaw in his reasoning: people with racial prejudices are not always ruled by those prejudices. A struggling worker with a mortgage who dislikes black people may also have judged that Obama was a better man to run the economy than McCain.

People usually have multiple identities and interests. Harry Truman loathed the Japanese, but also feared the consequences of Japan being ruined or aligning itself with the Soviet Union, or of a costly post-war American occupation. Conversely, Franklin Roosevelt we know from historians would have been willing to use the atomic bomb on Germany, despite the many Anglo-Saxon links with his own country. There’s much more to war than ‘demonising the other.’

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