"Let the punishment fit the crime"

Back from Beppu and continuing my reports on the book War Without Mercy that I introduced here before my travels commenced. I’ve finished the section on allied and Japanese war atrocities, which were numerous and terrible on both sides, and which I briefly mentioned in my previous post, and now I’ve also read the section on allied representations of the enemy. This section makes clear that the allied response to Japanese aggression was both furious and exterminationist in its content. That is, the allied war planners and propagandists, and allied media, made clear both their deep hatred of the Japanese, its racial origins, and their belief that the only solution to the problem of Japanese aggression was extermination of the Japanese as a race. Obviously since the Japanese survived this goal was not enacted and cooler heads prevailed,  but the propaganda that was driving the allied war effort in 1943-45 was genuinely disturbing stuff.

Exterminationism, US style

However, the nature of allied propaganda began to create uncomfortable contradictions in both internal political struggles in their own countries, and between them and some of their less “enlightened” allies. This is because it called on fundamentally old-fashioned racist tropes, but its connection to exterminationism and the defence of the colonial project led them into tricky political terrain.

The Eternal Racist

In an illuminating section of the book, professor Power points out that the allied anti-Japanese propaganda used in WW2 drew on a wealth of existing racist caricatures with almost no change or originality, simply substituting Japanese for Native Americans or black Americans. In fact, Roosevelt’s own father had been saying almost exactly similar exterminationist things about Native Americans, and the common images used to describe Japanese were borrowed directly from the racist lexicon: they were animals, apes, children, insane, cunning, treacherous and had special “occult” powers. The accusation of “occult” powers was particular to anti-Asian racism and had previously been used against the Chinese; but all the other epiphets and images could have been used for any previous racial enemy of the US or Britain – and Power observes almost exactly equivalent language being used against Native Americans, black Americans, Mexicans, Chinese migrants and the Chinese nation, and then finally the Phillipines, over the course of just 150 years. He also points out that the original Spanish descriptions of the Native Americans of South America were interchangeable with the allies’ claims about the Japanese; and to this he could undoubtedly have added the British defense of their colonial practices in India, and western descriptions of Aborigines and Maoris[1].

The Colonial Project Continues

The other aspect of allied propaganda that was quite surprising was its open acknowledgement and approval of the colonial project in the Pacific and Asia. The US even had a popular song, To Be Specific, It’s Our Pacific that summarized western ideas about the war. Political and opinion leaders didn’t shy from defending their right to own territories or colonies in Asia, and their anger at Japanese temerity in attempting to either establish its own colonies, or to take theirs. The war now is seen as a war to preserve freedom, but the western peoples of the 1940s were comfortable seeing it as a war to preserve their overseas colonies. One report to war planners even observed that many Asians in the fighting territories saw the war “cynically” as a war between fascists and imperialists. How very cynical of them! Churchill openly stated his aim as the preservation and continuation of Britain’s colonial possessions, and many war leaders saw the Pacific war specifically as a race war, between “white supremacy” and the “coloured races.” They worried that the “coloureds” were stirring, and explicitly saw the Japanese attack as a threat to the long-standing world order. Having portrayed the Japanese as apes and animals, they now had to face the fact that these “apes” were capable of besting the “superior” races in military activity, and were setting an example that other Asians might choose to follow. Some of the more alarmist planners saw in this the germ of the long term collapse of the white race, and openly stated so.

These worries were acutely seen in two areas: fear of the effect of the war on black Americans, and fear of the collapse of China.

Racism at Home

It’s well-established (though not often discussed) that the US was extremely racist in its dealings with black soldiers. Black Americans were not allowed in combat roles until very late in the war, were not allowed many promotions or the best or most skilled jobs in the army, and were even required to maintain a separate blood plasma supply: that’s right, black blood couldn’t be used in white soldiers, even though the people writing this policy knew that the scientific evidence was that the blood types were indistinguishable. Some racists portrayed plans to amalgamate the blood supplies as an attempt to weaken the white race by merging its blood with black blood. Black American blood. In Australia, the US government sought (and was granted, I think) special permission to maintain its segregation laws in the housing of US soldiers in Australia, and conflict regularly occurred between US and Australian soldiers in public places when Australian men and women failed to observe American ideals about segregation – particularly, Australian women would date black soldiers and the soldiers would be punished by their white colleagues for miscegenation[2]! Black Americans were acutely aware of their unequal status as combatants for “freedom,” as exemplified in these two slogans from black freedom activists:

Defeat Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito by Enforcing the Constitution and Abolishing Jim Crow


I want you to know I ain’t afraid. I don’t mind fighting. I’ll fight Hitler, Mussolini and the Japs all at the same time, but I’m telling you I’ll give those crackers down South the same damn medicine[3]

One black soldier upon enlistment gave as his suggested headstone “Here lies a black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of the white man.” This distinction between racism at home and race-hate abroad created a problem for the white authorities, a problem they were aware of and, sadly, not particularly interested in addressing: how can you call for the extermination of a race of apes overseas, using exactly the same language you use to describe a group of people you are oppressing domestically, and expect loyalty from those same people? And how can you maintain your theories of superiority over that domestic group, when the people you paint in the same language overseas are kicking your arse in an area the size of the Pacific?

Loyalty from black Americans was a source of worry for American war planners, who broke up a few groups that may have been getting support or information from the Japanese, and the Japanese certainly attempted to use the Jim Crow laws as propaganda against America (in Japan). However, black American loyalty was largely to America, and the bigger worry for US policy makers was that the Japanese might provide black Americans with inspiration in their own struggle. With Japanese defeat looming, a large number of Americans would be returning from the front armed with the certain knowledge that “inferior” races could defeat “superior” races, and that the racial policy of the past 50 years was hollow; but at the same time they were exhorting white men to exterminate Japanese men with the same underlying logic of white supremacy that was being used to hold black people down in the US. Would this not make US blacks extremely uncomfortable? By using this language, the government had basically shown itself to be of a piece, ideologically, with the supremacists who still murdered black men in the South.

The US response to this appears to have been weak, with no real effort made to amend domestic laws or to move towards the end of segregation and Jim Crow. The only efforts they made were security efforts, to arrest domestic activists and look harder for evidence of connections between Japanese and militant black movements. They showed a little more foresight in dealing with the problem of the “coloured races” rising up abroad, but even there they were complacent and had great difficulty shaking off basic racism, as is shown in the case of the allies’ dealings with China.

The Collapse of China and World War Three

The allied war planners’ biggest fear was that China would collapse or surrender, freeing up 2 million Japanese soldiers to advance into Asia and lending all of China’s economic, industrial and manpower resources to the Japanese. Almost as devastating would be a peace treaty between China and Japan, and the most likely cause of such a treaty – besides China’s exhaustion after 7 years of war – would be their treatment by their allies. Churchill had made it clear he intended to maintain British colonies in the Far East, and the allies refused to rescind a special treaty which prevented China from trying foreigners in local courts. But worst of all was US racism toward Chinese migrants in the US, who were placed in a special category of undesirables and refused both admission and naturalization rights. The catalogue of racist laws applying to the Chinese in the 1940s is quite horrifying, and saddening, and shows an intense and abiding anti-Oriental racism in the west at that time. It was impossible for Chinese to become US citizens at the start of the war, and almost impossible for them to enter the country at all, or only at a very high price and often with extreme difficulty. These laws were a big issue to Chinese in China, and it was obvious that the threefold combination of British imperialism, US racism, and allied special privileges in Asia could turn Chinese attitudes against their western allies. But it was extremely difficult for the US to give up its anti-Chinese laws, and in 1944 as a comprise it allowed a quota of just 105 Chinese a year to become citizens, provided they were new migrants. This was the WW2-era Americans’ idea of a compromise to a lower race. Even though they were fighting a huge and terrifying war in the Pacific, whose outcome at least partly depended upon their treatment of their local allies, they couldn’t properly give up their racist ideals. Similarly Britain, which was highly dependent on its colonial armies as a bulwark against Japan and knew that at least some of the countries it relied on were shaky, refused to give up its colonialist policies in Asia. By this time India was beginning to rebel against white rule, the Burmese had at one point showed allegiance to Japan, and the Japanese were using the language of the East Asia co-prosperity Sphere to claim that they were liberating Asia from white imperialism. Had they behaved less like colonialists themselves this propaganda might even have been successful.

This toxic mix of rebellion by the “inferior” Japanese, activism in colonial provinces, black activism at home, and fears of Chinese collapse, led many commentators in the West to fear that the world was on the brink of a new war that might explode from the ashes of WW2 – a war between the races, with the Eastern “coloureds” rising up against the “superior” whites. The fear of Americans was that the Chinese would fall behind this rebellion and the west would be both outnumbered and outgunned. They spoke of Japan “winning the war by losing” and of the “rising wind” becoming a hurricane.

The Pacific War as a Missed Opportunity

Very few western commentators and politicians saw either the logic or the principle of the obvious measures required to prevent this hurricane – rescinding racist laws, voluntarily withdrawing from their colonies, and ushering in a newer, fairer world order – even though many of Japan’s reasons for entering the war were connected to its racist and unequal treatment between 1905 and 1937. So it was that the war came to its end with the West still convinced of its superiority – perhaps even reassured, after putting Japan “in her place” – and unwilling to consider the wholesale changes that would be required to restore peace to half the world. So it was that over the next 20 years we saw colonial territories throw out their masters, often violently and with huge death tolls in India, Indonesia and Malaysia, the establishment of new and fucked up Juntas in Burma and Africa, and the collapse of economies through war and the scorched earth policy of the colonial masters. Following this was the civil rights movement in America and the sad and terrible disgrace that is the US invasion of Vietnam. Instead of seeing Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour as a wake up call and the ensuing war as the final battle over racist ideology, that they must inevitably lose, the colonial powers mistook it as a chance to reassert their grip, and in tightening the screws they just increased the pain that those countries were willing to bear in order to gain their freedom. As the universe’s most famous freedom fighter once said – the more you tighten your grip, the more they slip through your fingers. This means that the Pacific War was not just a catastrophic and avoidable mistake at the time it happened, but the one useful lesson that could have been gained from it was missed, and a teaching moment for Western Imperialism was overlooked. The ensuing history of Asia was written largely in blood, much of it probably avoidable if the allies had not cleaved so strongly to the racist ideals that underlay their ideology in both war and peace at that time.

(Note: Illustrations are from the text).

fn1: As an interesting aside, our approach seems to have become much, much more mature in recent years – descriptions of Afghani and Iraqi enemies are generally much less dehumanizing than those used in World War 2, even though al Qaeda’s treachery on September 11th was comparable with – or worse than – Pearl Harbour.

fn2: I’m taking this information from an ABC documentary on segregation in Australia, not from Power’s book.

fn3: Note here a subtle effect of the racist tone of war propaganda. The western European enemies (Italy and Germany) are identified with their leaders; the Pacific enemy are identified as a race