This is to be my last post on what I’ve learnt from John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and it is also to be my most speculative. Did the feverish anti-Japanese propaganda of the Pacific war era influence at all the allies’ decision to engage in large scale bombing of urban areas in Japan, and/or their decision to use nuclear weapons? In this sense I’m not interested in whether these tactics were “right” or “wrong,” though I think we can all take it as read that a decision to drop a nuclear weapon on a city is definitely wrong in anything except the most extreme of circumstances. My question is more about whether our subsequent interpretation of these decisions (which remain controversial) and the decisions themselves is clouded by the propaganda that was being used at the time, and the general beliefs about Japanese and allied behavior in the war, as they existed then and exist now.

I have always accepted what for this post I will call the “standard” view of the urban bombing campaign and the nuclear attacks: that in the absence of convincing proof that they would be destroyed as a nation the Japanese were not going to surrender and were going to fight a long and protracted military campaign that would lead to the deaths of millions of Japanese and potentially hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers. In the standard view, the allies discovered on Okinawa that the invasion of the mainland was going to be a hideous affair, and decided to use terror bombing to bring the war to a close so that they didn’t have to expend many lives. This view can even take the pesky form of having been for the good of the Japanese too: I don’t think it’s hard to find examples of people saying that less civilians died in the bombing campaign than would have died if the allies had invaded the mainland.

I have also read Dresden, which contains a passionate defense of the terror bombing of German cities on strategic grounds and argues that the frantic German efforts to defend major cities represented a huge drain on their military resources and hastened the end of the war. I’m inclined to accept this view of the strategic value of the terror bombings of Germany, and against the backdrop of all the horrors of that war I can understand why Stalin was pleading with the allies to do more of the same. But just because it worked in Germany doesn’t mean it was strategically necessary in the Pacific, and my suspicion is that decisions about when to start the bombing, how intense to make it, and why it was necessary, were influenced by the extreme propaganda about Japan. We have established that there was an eliminationist sentiment to this propaganda, that it was extremely racist and that the underlying principles of the propaganda were believed by the public and war planners alike. We also know that the allies got up to all manner of nasty war crimes in the Pacific, were not particularly inclined to see the Japanese as human, and that just as their behavior towards Japanese was different to Germans, so was their propaganda. So it doesn’t seem a stretch to me to imagine that the allies were also inclined to favor brutal tactics, and that decisions about the necessity of these tactics would be colored by some genuinely held beliefs about how unreasonable, crazy, childish and brutal the Japanese were. Also underlying the allied response to the Japanese is a need to remind the other “sub-humans” of the Pacific that rising up against the accepted international order is a very bad idea, and a fear that the Japanese “lesson” might be learnt by others in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are also a few examples from Dower’s book of specific beliefs about the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender, and specific actions taken by the allies that suggest that the terror bombings weren’t embarked on reluctantly or purely for military/strategic reasons. I’ll cover these first.

Beliefs About the Chances of Surrender

The allies based their understanding of Japanese war-time thinking on a whole suite of crazy sociological theories about the Japanese psyche: that the nation was stuck in a child-like stage of development, that they were crazy, that they could not be reasoned with, and that they could not be trusted. Many allied planners seemed to think that the Japanese would use any kind of honourable or conditional surrender as a chance to regroup before attacking again, and the Japanese were generally viewed as treacherous and shifty. Dower describes the generally held view that the Japanese would need to be thoroughly defeated, possibly “to the last man” because their nation had a suicide psychology and needed a “psychological purge.” Allied planners may have expected the Japanese to behave as a nation the way they (also erroneously) believed Japanese as individuals preferred suicide to surrender. Furthermore, Japanese treachery and savagery meant that only by the complete destruction of their current order could the Japanese desire to dominate Asia be prevented. Allied propaganda also maintained that the Japanese were “patient” and sinister (common traits ascribed to Orientals) and would happily wait 100 years to launch another war of domination, as Germany had done after world war 1, and so the only way to prevent them going to war again was their complete destruction. This view is particularly interesting because there really was no historical basis for thinking that the Japanese have a long-standing interest in dominating their region – they had chosen isolation over expansion, and their first international military activity was against Russia in 1905. The allies were nonetheless willing to believe that the war represented a manifestation of some constant belief in Japanese culture.

Lack of Interest in Surrender

In addition to a general belief that Japanese did not surrender, allied soldiers and their leaders did not show much interest in obtaining surrender from their enemies. In military engagements allied soldiers would kill soldiers who did surrender, or would refuse to accept a surrender and force Japanese soldiers to fight on to their deaths. Dennis Warner reports this exchange between two high-ranking officers in Bouganville:

“But sir, they are wounded and want to surrender,” a colonel protested [to a major general] at the edge of the cleared perimeter after a massive and unsuccessful Japanese attack.

“You heard me, Colonel,” replied [the major general], who was only yards away from upstretched Japanese hands. “I want no prisoners. Shoot them all.”

They were shot.

Accounts from Marines in Okinawa also suggest the same behavior in Okinawa, and not just towards soldiers: marines also killed civilians. This account from a war correspondent summarizes the battlefield philosophy of the Americans:

What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? … We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.

This was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1946, when the memories and philosophies of the war were still clear in people’s minds and admitting such atrocities was still acceptable. By now, of course, we look back on our soldiers as having fought for a noble cause, and no longer discuss the barbarity of the time. It’s clear from these accounts that the mistreatment of prisoners and refusal to accept surrender crossed military types (navy, air force and army) and was held at all levels of command. It’s also clear that the blood-letting on Okinawa was not entirely the fault of Japanese unwillingness to surrender, and suggests that whatever judgments military planners were making about a battle on the mainland, to some extent at least the numbers of dead they were expecting to see were being partly brought about by their own soldiers’ misconduct. With such a disinterest in either surrender or treating the enemy population kindly, perhaps they were inclined to see a protracted campaign of urban destruction as a good thing on its own terms?

Destruction for its Own Sake

The saddest example of this interest in destruction as an end in itself is the final air raid on Tokyo. This happened on the night of August 14th, just hours before the Japanese officially surrendered, and when everyone on both sides knew the surrender was going to happen. The raid was the biggest of the war, consisting of 1014 planes, and suffered not a single loss. The planes had not yet returned to their bases when Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced. There is no chance that this raid was necessary, or that even a single death it caused could possibly have advanced the end of the war by even a heartbeat. It is perhaps the clearest example of simple cruelty on the part of the allies, in which a city was destroyed merely for the sake of it. From this act we can see that the allies valued destruction for its own sake, and were acting on Churchill’s demand to lay all the cities of Japan to ash, even where they didn’t need to.

The Question of the Bombings

This leads us to the question at the heart of this post: could the allies have negotiated an end to the war in some other way, without the use of terror bombing and atomic weapons; could they have used less terror bombing and no atomic attacks? Were their decisions driven by a desire to destroy as much of Japan as possible, rather than purely strategic concerns? And if their decisions were based on a genuine belief that the Japanese would not surrender and would fight to the last, to what extent was that belief correct, and was it at least partially clouded by their own stereotypes of and fantastic notions about the Japanese psyche? What portion of the decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was strategic, what portion was cruel, and what portion was based on misconceptions about the Japanese psyche that were, ultimately, founded in racism?

The decision to end the war in this way may also have been driven by the desire to assert colonial power over Asia – a conditional surrender would probably have meant allowing the Japanese to retain some colonial possessions, and the implication from this would be that Asia could control its own destiny. Furthermore, they needed to end the war before the Soviets invaded Japan. But it seems to me that there are other approaches they could have taken: for example, after Okinawa they could have ceased all aggressive action targeting civilians, used their overwhelming naval power to enforce Japan’s isolation, and just waited them out. I don’t know, but I have never heard from any source that the allies genuinely attempted to negotiate surrender before the bitter end. One doesn’t hear stories of attempts to subvert the military clique in charge, to foment civil disorder, or to use captured Japanese soldiers as propaganda tools – it’s as if they just all assumed such actions would be impossible, and I think these assumptions may have been wrong.

In essence then, I strongly suspect that much of the barbarity of the final year of the war, and especially the terror-bombing campaign, was unnecessary and was driven by a complex mix of racist and colonialist beliefs. I think the allies may have been able to negotiate a different end to the war, but they didn’t believe it was possible due to racist assumptions about “orientals,” and they didn’t want to because they wanted to punish the Japanese and inflict a defeat on them that would send a signal throughout Asia. I think this means that, while in retrospect the bombing of Japan has been painted as a necessary tactic, it can only be portrayed as such if we accept the racist premises of the propaganda of the time, and overlook the wanton cruelty of the allied forces. Is a more realistic historical interpretation that allied thinking about Japan and the Japanese was deeply flawed, and the policy of mass destruction that “won” the war was both unnecessary and heavily influenced by this same racist worldview?