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?

We continue our series on Tim Power’s War Without Mercy with a discussion of the role of social scientists in the construction of propaganda. We have already seen that Japan’s social scientists were working on the question of how to construct a new social order for the pacific under a Japanese empire, but their role by no means ended there, and nor was this kind of distasteful theorizing limited to Japanese scholars. In fact the work we saw in our previous post was largely conducted in secret,and served less to construct propaganda as it drew on existing racial ideology to develop practical plans. And in this we see the nub of a fascinating problem. By the time Japan had spent 10 or more years at war in the Pacific her propaganda had become so entrenched that the social scientists’ work had itself been infected by the kind of foolish ideologies that so much effort had previously been put into convincing the population to believe.

The same can be observed of allied war planers before the war. Based on the theories of racial and social scientists, Britain’s military planners really believed that Japanese would make bad pilots and couldn’t win aerial warfare – they had been told by their scientists that the way Japanese women carry their infants affects their inner ear and makes them unsuited for aerial manoeuvres. Also they believed the Japanese to be short-sighted and timid, and had been told that their lack of initiative would make them predictable and uncreative war planners. Even at Iwo Jima, when the Japanese defence used coordinated heavy artillery, they decided the Japanese must have German support; they assumed this after initial victories in the Pacific as well, because their racial theories didn’t allow non-white races to win.

These fallacies in the support of propaganda were not accidental, either. Sometimes considerable effort would be put into research and justifications for certain political views. Social scientists played a key role here, presenting both academic and popularized descriptions of Japanese culture that supported the views being presented by government propagandists. Extensive effort was put into proving that the Japanese as a race were trapped in a childlike mental state, with the preferred theory appearing to be that Japanese toilet training techniques were so horrific that they arrested the development of the Japanese psyche, rendering them also vicious-tempered and subservient to authority figures. That’s right, a whole race’s psychology traced to it’s choice of toilet paper, and entire theories of wartime conduct developed on this basis.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a whole bunch of social scientists spent a large amount of time working on a complex set of theories that ultimately ended up agreeing very closely with the base propaganda of the US government and Leatherneck magazine, any more than that a previous generation of scientists labored to prove that blacks were inferior to whites; or archaeologists managed to prove that the white race settled India. It’s a salient lesson to all of us – especially those of us in or near academia – that the much-vaunted intellectual freedom and independence of academia always ends up telling us what we want to hear. This shouldn’t seem so surprising, given human nature and the way society works, but the history of academia’s service to unpleasant ideas should stop us being too self congratulatory about how free-thinking we really are in our ivory towers. My own field of statistics prides itself, I think, on being quite independent and free-thinking[1], but it’s worth remembering the somewhat unpleasant eugenics of Fisher, and the role of demographers and population planners in the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe – all very good examples of academics supporting the status quo when, in retrospect, the status quo was obviously wrong and in many ways evil.

Maybe things have improved since world war 2, but maybe also they have just become more sophisticated, or the stakes have been lowered. We’ve seen plenty of social science in support of foreign intervention (e.g. The domino effect) and dictatorship (some of our more morally bankrupt economists on Chile, and a wide smattering of pre-70s leftists on Eastern Europe), and the history of population planning hasn’t been free of controversy in the post-war era. So it’s worth remembering that quite often scientists are working as hard to reflect perceived wisdom as they are to uncover genuinely new ideas. Where the propaganda is needed the academics seem to be able to find a basis for it; and where it has already taken hold they are as likely to perpetuate it (or just lend it a little nuanced sophistication) as they are to challenge it. And you certainly can’t rely on us to bear the load of intellectual honesty when the stakes are high. So next time a scientist tells you they have stunning proof of a commonly-held prejudice, you should probably just smile and back away politely. Who knows where their work will end – it could be a population planning document whose contents have long since passed into preposterous fantasy; or it could be a firestorm in Tokyo. But like as not, their work isn’t going to get you to any profound truths – or at least, that is the lesson we can learn from the involvement of academics in the development of the theory underlying propaganda and race hate in world war 2.

fn1: though maybe this field is better characterized as a bunch of ratbag leftists, at least in my experience

Japan's light puts all in their place...Continuing my series on War Without Mercy, Professor Dower’s analysis of race propaganda and its role in World War 2, we get to the last main section, on Japanese racist propaganda. This is a very different section to that on US propaganda, because the Japanese approached the problem of how to portray their enemies very differently to the Americans, and had a very different historical perspective on the bad guy. The section also includes a dissection of a fascinating piece of wartime Japanese research, a massive document setting out a vision for Asia and ultimately the world if Japan won the war. This document was written by an obscure section of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, was almost 4000 pages long, and was only discovered in 1981. It essentially sets out the racial policy of the future East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, so gives a meticulous insight into not only how the wartime authorities viewed race, but how they intended to enact their race policy in the future.

Dower portrays the Japanese as having their own race trap, deriving from their admiration of America and Britain during the Meiji era, and the fact that many of their achievements in the 50 years since the restoration were based on western industry, technology and ideas. So they couldn’t dismiss the source of these ideas as necessarily inherently inferior, and instead had to find an ideology which would enable them to strip the best out of the western way of life, while making it somehow appear undesirable. They did this through the application of ancient folklore and imagery that had a strong social acceptance in Japan: establishment of the Emperor as direct descendant of god; exaltation of the concept of purity, and its links to race, emperor and war (and death); and depiction of the enemy as demons and outsiders.

The Emperor

I don’t want to talk about this in too much detail, because it’s not the focus of the book and the Emperor remains a much-revered part of Japanese life; a lot of western interpretations of the Emperor’s role in world war 2 are wont to cast the institution as eternally bad, when it’s more a case of the position being forced into service to a militarized state. I have mentioned before that Basil Chamberlain identified the exaltation of Emperor to religion, and the uses this religion was going to be put to, in a famous essay in 1905, and Power’s book reiterates this point. To quote Chamberlain:

Mikado-worship and Japan-worship—for that is the new Japanese religion—is, of course, no spontaneously generated phenomenon. Every manufacture presupposes a material out of which it is made, every present a past on which it rests. But the twentieth-century Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism is quite new, for in it pre-existing ideas have been sifted, altered, freshly compounded, turned to new uses, and have found a new centre of gravity. Not only is it new, it is not yet completed; it is still in process of being consciously or semi-consciously put together by the official class, in order to serve the interests of that class, and, incidentally, the interests of the nation at large.

The purpose, of course, and “the interests of the nation at large” was war, military dictatorship, and the subjugation of the individual to the state. Indeed, in some ways Japanese racist propaganda served not so much to make the Japanese hate the enemy, as to bind them together against the enemy. As Chamberlain put it, in his foresightful essay:

On the one hand, it must make good to the outer world the new claim that Japan differs in no essential way from the nations of the West, unless, indeed, it be by way of superiority. On the other hand, it has to manage restive steeds at home, where ancestral ideas and habits clash with new dangers arising from an alien material civilisation hastily absorbed.

Professor Power observes too that Japanese wartime propaganda didn’t aim to make the Americans look lesser so much as it aimed to make the Japanese look better. And it did this through the Emperor and the notion of the Japanese as unique, of divine descent, and pure. These concepts were all embodied in the emperor, and the propaganda had it that they could be preserved through filial service to the emperor; indeed, the entire vision for the future was of the Emperor as father of the nation, and by extension as the guiding hand over all the races of the world, set into their proper place according to a theory of racial superiority that had Japanese as the only “pure” blooded people on earth, pre-destined to lead all the others.


Purity is an important and enduring concept in Shintoism, and was reconceived in political and nationalist terms by Japan’s propagandists. Foreign social ideas – especially those of individualism, freedom, and the self – were portrayed as impurities in the Japanese body politic, and Japan’s citizens encouraged to purge themselves of such filth. War, of course, would be the purifying fire into which this slag would be melted down. One powerful image in Power’s book shows a woman brushing the dandruff out of her hair, and the dandruff as it falls turns into American and British political ideals – selfishness, liberalism, etc.

Japanese racial theory also had Japan as the only “pure” race, untouched by significant immigration or miscegenation and thus retaining a unique set of characteristics. Maybe such an ideal doesn’t have to be prima facie racist, but the pretty clear understanding in racial theory in Japan was that this purity of heritage (which was almost certainly fictitious anyway) made them superior, and the picture in this post shows pretty clearly how they viewed the “impure” south East Asian races – as dark-skinned labourers beneath the light of Japan’s sun. And the report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare makes this goal clear, in the section entitled An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus. The Japanese, pure through divine right and selective isolation, were best placed to “lead” the other races of Asia into the future, and the other races would have their future direction and role decided according to a racist doctrine based on foolish 1940s conceptions of what each race was good at. Largely, they were to be consigned to the role of labourers and suppliers of resources to the advanced Japanese economy.

There’s nothing of exterminationism in this propaganda, but a lot of material that skirts close to advocating slavery and colonialism. It doesn’t really differ from the views of many colonialists in Europe at that time, I suppose – I’ve even heard defenses of slavery on the “it’s for their own good” line – but this is the nature of the grubby racial politics of the west in the interwar era. A newcomer to the global scene could make up a fanciful political theory based on a silly superstition and a fabricated history, and elaborate a systematic process of enslavement and exploitation for half a hemisphere, and in their defense they would be able to say “it’s no different to what everyone else is doing!” And in fact a lot of Japanese propaganda presented the “purifying” light of the Japanese sun either driving out the colonialist westerners, or revealing their true form as demons, necromancers and evil interlopers.

Demons and Strangers

This brings us to the third and most prevalent part of Japanese propaganda, the representation of Americans, British and Dutch as demons and outsiders. Power describes the role these creatures play in Japanese folklore as two-sided: they can be forces for evil, or they can be helpful. This makes them the perfect double-sided image for the western powers, whose technology the Japanese imported (and in many cases improved), but whose ideals they wanted to cast out, along with their physical presence in Asia. In propaganda aimed at their Asian colonies they could portray the west as colonialist and outdated powers being driven out; but to their own people they portrayed them as demons with two faces, presenting a human or pure image to Japan while hiding an evil face. They could also present them as outsiders, a powerful concept in Japanese that can be both liberating and terrifying. Thus they can (literally) demonize their enemy without reverting to any of the forms of scientific racism that infected western depictions other nations, while at the same time excusing their enemies’ former teaching role. In some ways this image hasn’t changed – the ideas outsiders bring to Japan are often seen as simultaneously threatening and empowering, and Japanese people’s fascination with foreigners is often mixed with fear and trepidation. After the war ended, Power observes that this propaganda proved remarkably malleable – the demons and outsiders just changed their face, and went from being the terrible demonic other to the helpful, inspiring, slightly strange other – just as American propaganda turned the Japanese from petulant children who couldn’t be reasoned with to a young democracy in need of tutelage and guidance.

This demonization of the other also shows that you don’t need to construct directly exterminationist, vile racist propaganda to convince a people to fight bitterly to the very end. A complex synergism of religious imagery, faux history and carefully-adapted folklore ideals will do the job just fine, if you tune it correctly. In fact, I think this has many elements in common with a lot of the propaganda we see in support of the global war on terror. The better stuff (I am referring here to that which our more reasonable supporters of the war give us, not the loony American right) doesn’t tell us that muslims are animals who need to be put down; the village doesn’t have to be destroyed to be saved. Rather, we are presented with a (mythical) ideal of western liberal democracy as pure and perfect, built up through long trial and testing, yet fragile and vulnerable to the influence and impact of the other. If we attack them and overcome them in the correct way we can guide them to a society like ours, and lead them forward to a better tomorrow – which is what we’re trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and failing at in both cases (probably). On the way, of course, just as the Japanese did, we reveal ourselves to not be the pure and ideal society we pretend – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and regular wedding party slaughters in Afghanistan prove that our society is not quite what we say it is – but our propagandists overlook these small inconsistencies and the faux history (divorced of the native genocide, colonialism and extermination that made our societies rich in the first place) in order to present the greater myth. And, just as at some times and some places in Japan’s 15 year war in the Pacific, these images really did seem to present a better future, so too the simple story of liberal democracy shining a light into the darkness can present the same hope for a better world. But the Japanese experience perhaps shows us that better worlds aren’t made through war, or if they are it probably isn’t worth the suffering, and certainly isn’t the only way.

The Japanese propaganda of the war liked to present them as purer than Americans, driven by greater ideals and united by stronger bonds, and also depicted the Japanese as liberators casting colonialism out of the Pacific. Power points out that they really did serve this role in some ways, showing the people of the Pacific that the colonial powers weren’t invincible and that sufficiently energized Asians could turn the colonialists’ own tools and technology against them. At the same time their scorn for the moral inferiority of Americans led the Japanese to completely misunderstand America’s willingness to fight – just as American propaganda overestimated Japanese obstinacy in the last year of the war. Both sides’ propaganda may have worked against Japan, leading to a situation of frenzied violence where both sides refused to believe what the other side really wanted. But there’s a lesson in this that is particularly compelling – the propagandist really does believe their own work. Propaganda goals are set on high, and propagandists listen to a lot of material being written in their own and other countries about the enemy – they don’t form their opinions in a vacuum. In the pre-war era, and during the war, this material was facile, shallow and wrong, but it was incorporated into the propaganda and really seems to have been believed by the planners and policy-makers of the era. American and British military planners really did believe that Japanese pilots were inferior due to Japanese child-rearing practices; Japanese war planners really did believe that the Americans would give up after 6 months because they were morally weak and lazy. For my next post on this book, I’ll look at how propaganda serves to reinforce rather than reflect prevailing views, and can be a negative form of information in a war. Certainly in world war 2, it appears to have served the role of reinforcing a vicious spiral that was circling in towards genocide, and although fortunately for the Japanese cooler heads prevailed, the experience of that war shows that propaganda of this kind isn’t just a tool of war, but can become a driving force and, at its worst, a self-fulfilling prophecy. What does this tell us about the decision-making that led to the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and ultimately the use of nuclear weapons? What would the Japanese have done with nuclear weapons if they had them, given their use of images of purification through fire and death? This is also something I want to explore in a future post about this book.