In March 1942 the redoubtable Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, soon to be Chief of Naval Operations as well, sent President Roosevelt a memo on the need to keep open the line of communications through the South Pacific to Australia. Australia and New Zealand were of vital importance, King explained, not only strategically but because they were "white men's countries" and their fall could well lead to adverse repercussions "among the non-white races of the world." When Samuel Eliot Morison came to write his History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, he changed King's words to read "They are our brothers and we must not allow them to be overrun by the Japanese."
Morison's changed wording, in a sense, symbolizes a change in the American way of remembering the war with Japan. Over the four decades since 1945, interest in the Pacific war remained high, memories vivid, but the sharp edges, the intense anger, the racist rhetoric, the raw hatred and fear, the undisguised contempt and malice with which the two antagonists viewed each other have faded or blurred.
One of the many virtues of John Dower's War Without Mercy is that it serves as a valuable corrective to what might be called the progressive mellowing of writing about the War with Japan. In recent years books about that conflict have tended to stress the common humanity of the belligerents, their shared hopes and fears, and the tragedy of the bloody clash between the two Pacific neighbors. This is true os scholarly works such as Akira Iriye's Power and Culture, but it is even more characteristic of popular works. One need only compare Walter Lord's two best sellers about the Pacific War, Day of Infamy and Incredible Victory to see this process at work. Day of Infamy, published in 1957, devotes only about 15% of its 218 pages to accounts of what the Japanese protagonists were doing, whereas Incredible Victory, published ten years later, devotes over a third of its pages to telling the story from the Japanese side. Three years later, in John Toland's The Rising Sun, an American author successfully presented the entire war from the Japanese viewpoint. By 1980 Gordon Prange's At Dawn We Slept presented the Pear Harbor operation so exhaustively from both sides that the frequent shifts from events in Hawaii to events in Tokyo to events in Washington and back again occassionally make the reader dizzy.
All this is a welcome improvement on the raw wartime stereotypes of the 1940s. Yet so successful have recent writers been in correcting wartime prejudices and hatreds, that the very existance of these hatreds has almost been lost sight of. Dower's book is a needed reminder that, to the participants, the Pacific War was not just an unfortunate misunderstanding but, in fact, a "war without mercy." It was a war in which the Japanese killed, or directly caused the death of, at least nine million Chinese, 300,000 Indonesians, over 120,000 Filipinos, 180,000 Indians and 70,000 Koreans. All this in addition to the direct battle casualties and thousands who died in Japanese prison camps.
In the end of course, the Japanese also killed their fellow countrymen, as in the grim tragedies of Saipan and Okinawa. It was a war in which, as Dower shows, Japanese readiness to die was more than matched by American readiness to kill them. In May 1943 Life "published a full page photo of an attractive blonde woman posing with a Japanese skull she had been sent by her fiance in the Pacific." (p. 60) American G.I.s received "Japanese Hunting Licenses" from friends and well wishers, and collected gold teeth, hands, and ears from the dead as souvenirs. American ships and planes routinely strafed Japanese survivors in life rafts or parachutes and not infrequently shot down the minority of Japanese who did try to surrender. At home, Congressmen and journalists compared Japan to Carthage as an enemy who had to be utterly destroyed. A 1945 public opinion poll revealed that 13% of the respondents favored "killing all Japanese" while 23% regretted that the U. S. "had not dropped more atomic bombs on Japan."
Yet War Without Mercy is far more than a reminder of the grim, remorseless nature of the Pacific conflict. Drawing on his expertise as one of the leading American students of modern Japan, Dower demonstrates how racial and cultural stereotypes, some stretching back centuries, helped to color and distort Japanese and American perceptions of each other. In a brilliant chapter on "Lesser Men and Supermen," he shows how western views of the Japanese altered drastically in the aftermath of Japan's stunning military successes of 1941-42. From the earlier stereotype of a second class marginally competent, if exceptionally imitative, Asian nation to the later stereotype of an "invincible foe, capable of undreamed of military feats. The Japanese were soon being called a more formidable adversary than the Germans:" (p.90) Yet as Dower points out there was a basic common denominater "in that the Japanese were rarely perceived as human beings of a generally comparable and equal sort." (p. 90) (anthropologists report that the Japanese superman, last seen in aviator's gear piolting Pacific, has recently been spotted again, dressed in a three piece suit and carrying a set of computer printouts, on his way to a lecture at the Harvard Business School.)
In addition to the archetypes of lesser man or superman, wartime America also viewed the Japanese as savages and near lunatics suffering from severe collective psychological disorders. In another illuminating chapter, Dower examines the wartime studies of Japanese national character by social scientists like Ruth Benedict, Geoffery Gorer, Margaret Meade and Talcott Parsons. Psychologists and anthropologists have since claimed that the insights provided by their disciplines contributed materially to Allied success in the war. Dower puts these studies in their proper perspective by observing "it is difficult to point to a single area where the wartime studies brought about a major change in public opinion or government policy" (p. 125). To the contrary, many of them "actually reinforced popular prejudices concerning the Japanese: it can be argued that they even bore like the mark of Cain, the sign of incipient racism." (p. 125)
The Japanese in turn had their own set of stereotypes and racist assumptions about the British and Americans. These included the familiar stereotype of the Westerners as decadent, flabby, selfish and undisciplined, emotionally and culturally unsuited for the demands of prolonged total war. They also included the adaptation of the familiar mythological figure of the oni or demon to wartime use. As one Japanese magazine put it, "the barbaric tribe of Americans are devils in human skin." (p. 209)
Yet, as Dower points out, these stereotypes have far outlived the war. Given a positive twist, they served well as symbolic underpining for the American occupation. If the Japanese were childlike and neurotic, this made them all the more in need of the civilizing influence of the American administration, educator or therapist. To Americans, the Japanese "formerly all bad, now became all, or almost allwhat? Diligent, peace-loving, pro-American and anti- Communist." (p. 267) Likewise, the negative wartime stereotypes about herdlike Asians, savage, devious, almost subhuman, indifferent to death, proved remarkably adaptable to America's new Cold War foes in East Asia.
Some analysts of American decision-making during the Vietnam War have criticized President Johnson and his advisors for failing to seek a declaration of war and taking other measures to fully engage public opinion in the conflict. Public opinion was fully mobilized for the War with Japan; and Dower's honest and unsparing book is a salutary reminder of the results.