“Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying”: War and Racism in the Pacific

Posted on March 10, 2020 By

by John Whitehead

American planes dropped firebombs on Tokyo 75 years ago, on the night of March 9-10, 1945, killing an estimated 80,000-100,000 people. The firebombing began a six-month-long American bombing campaign against 66 Japanese cities that culminated in the two atomic bombings and killed roughly 400,000 people in total. This killing campaign was the climax of a war between the United States and Japan characterized by the most extreme racism imaginable.

The Pacific War brought together two of the major threats to life identified in the Consistent Life Network’s mission statement: racism and war. While the Pacific War was hardly unique in this regard, it does offer a vivid example of how war, especially wartime propaganda, encourages racist perceptions of others to make it easier to kill them. Propaganda often draws on existing prejudice and stereotypes about a racial, ethnic, or national group and pushes them to an extreme. Consistent life ethic advocates working against both racism and war would do well to remember this historical instance of how the two merged.

Demonizing the Enemy

Before 1941, Japan and the United States had never fought a full-scale war, but each had negative attitudes toward the other that wartime leaders could exploit. Japanese hostility toward Americans was fostered partly by resentment over western colonialism (a 1943 Japanese propaganda paper declared the war “the counteroffensive of the Oriental races against Occidental aggression”) combined with nationalist ideology that elevated Japanese over others as the “Yamato race,” a spiritually privileged people. Long-running negative American attitudes toward the Japanese existed in a larger context of racism toward Asians and other non-whites and had prompted, almost 20 years before the war, restrictions on Japanese immigration and state laws against Japanese Americans owning land.

Once war began, racial hatred went into overdrive. Historian John Dower, in his book War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and elsewhere, has analyzed the language and imagery used. Japanese propaganda literally demonized the Americans and British: “Devilish Anglo-Americans” became a stock phrase. In 1944, a Japanese magazine published demonic caricatures of Roosevelt and Churchill threatening Japan, along with the exhortation, “Beat and kill these animals that have lost their human nature! That is the great mission that Heaven has given to the Yamato race, for the eternal peace of the world.” Another magazine commented that the more Americans “are sent to hell, the cleaner the world will be.” Official newsreels referred to Iwo Jima as “a suitable place to slaughter the American devils.”

American propaganda and popular sentiment were equally extreme. The official 1945 propaganda film Know Your Enemy—Japan characterized the Japanese as masses without individuality: “photographic prints off the same negative.” The Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck ran a cartoon in 1942 featuring a caricature of a Japanese soldier in a gun’s cross-hairs with the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying.” A 1944 edition of Leatherneck referred to an insect called “Louseous Japanicasand foreshadowed future events by saying that “before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.” A 1942 parade in New York similarly predicted future American actions by featuring a float that showed bombs falling on yellow rats and bore the slogan “Tokyo: We Are Coming.”

Anti-Japan propaganda differed significantly from US propaganda about Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Posters, cartoons, and the like generally focused on the European countries’ leaders, with caricatures of Hitler and Mussolini. By contrast, the Japanese people as such were targets of American propaganda. A popular song’s title reflected the contrast: “There’ll Be No Adolph Hitler Nor Yellow Japs to Fear.” Wartime attitudes did not leave room for “good Japanese” as it did for “good Germans.” Leatherneck ran a photo of Japanese killed in the battle of Guadalcanal with the caption: “GOOD JAPS.”

Anti-Japanese sentiment also drew on familiar racist tropes. Propaganda posters featured monstrous Japanese soldiers menacing white women, echoing racist fears about black American men. Simian imagery, frequently applied to black Americans (and sometimes others, such as Irish Americans) in the United States, was also applied to the Japanese. Admiral William Halsey, the commander of US South Pacific naval forces, referred to “yellow monkeys.” Halsey also offered this mission statement: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.”

Halsey was unusually crude, but other leading American and Allied officials provided their own share of extreme rhetoric. Addressing a joint session of the US Congress in 1943, Churchill spoke of “laying the cities and other munitions centers of Japan in ashes…before peace comes back to the world.” A US naval official involved in postwar planning argued at one point for “the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race,” emphasizing that “white civilization was at stake.” Government official Paul McNutt gave a speech in April 1945, during the US bombing of Japan, calling for “the extermination of the Japanese in toto.” A significant minority of Americans seemed to agree: a December 1944 public opinion poll found 13 percent of respondents’ favored post-war policy was “kill all Japanese.”

Effects of Racism

The Pacific war pushed existing racism to new extremes. How did such extreme racism in turn shape the conduct of the war?

The US-Japanese War was marked by horrifying violence, not only the bombing of Japanese cities and battlefield violence but also the torture and killing of prisoners, the wounded, and other helpless troops by both sides. Extreme racism presumably contributed to this brutality, although the contribution should not be overstated. The war in Europe was also horrifically violent: German cities were firebombed. Also, while Japanese propaganda did not demonize other Asian nationalities, that did not protect those nationalities from massive Japanese violence.

Nevertheless, one can recognize both other wartime violence as comparable to that between the United States and Japan and other causes of violence apart from racism while still identifying pervasive racism as a factor in the Pacific War’s brutality. US policymakers’ own statements point to such a connection. Secretary of War Henry Stimson thought ignorance contributed to the uncompromising American attitude toward Japan and lamented the “complacency, the indifference, and the silence with which we greeted the mass bombings in Europe, and, above all, Japan.”

Justifying the atomic bombings, Truman made the revealing statement “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

Moreover, the US wartime approach to domestic civil liberties provides a clear example of racism shaping policy. The imprisonment of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese heritage in concentration camps, on suspicion of disloyalty to the United States, was unambiguously the result of racism. General John DeWitt, the official in charge of the imprisonment, summed up the underlying attitude by saying “A Jap’s a Jap. You can’t change him by giving him a piece of paper.” While some imprisonment and persecution of German-Americans and Italian-Americans took place during the war, it was never on the same scale as with Japanese-Americans.

Postwar Change?

Following Japan’s surrender and the American occupation, violently racist propaganda faded on both sides. While the occupation was deeply violent and unjust in crucial respects, the United States did not pursue “the extermination of the Japanese in toto” and no longer used such extreme dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery toward their former opponents. Paternalism toward Japan replaced hatred, and the United States and Japan have remained allies in the decades since the occupation. The change in attitudes has both hopeful and ominous lessons.

The hopeful lesson is that racist attitudes are not fixed or unchangeable and that even the most toxic racism can dissipate if the political context encouraging it changes. The ominous lesson is that those in power can promote extreme racism that might not otherwise exist if they deem political needs—such as fighting a war—require it.

Consistent life ethic advocates should remember these lessons. We must be on guard against the racist demonization of people our governments designate as “enemies” and insist on recognizing our common humanity. The Pacific War provides a horrifying example of what can happen when such recognition is lost.

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For more of John Whitehead’s posts on World War II and its aftermath, see:

The Wages of War, Part 1: How Abortion Came to Japan 

Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan 

Rejecting Mass Murder: Looking Back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Finding Common Ground on and Learning from World War II  

Nuclear Disarmament as a Social Justice Issue

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  1. Tom H. says:

    Back around 1980, I had a job with a museum, and was helping to catalogue its artifacts. Some of these were posters from the Second World War era, and their text and imagery (including the racist overtones of posters referring to the war in the Pacific) was unsettling- although I think I understand how and why it happened. The Allied nations were fighting for their lives, and could have lost.

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