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War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

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WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD • AN AMERICAN BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A monumental history that has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most original and important books to be written about the war between Japan and the United States.”

In this monumental history, Professor John Dower reveals a hidden, explosive dimension of the Pacific War—race—while writing what John Toland has called “a landmark book ... a powerful, moving, and evenhanded history that is sorely needed in both America and Japan.”
Drawing on American and Japanese songs, slogans, cartoons, propaganda films, secret reports, and a wealth of other documents of the time, Dower opens up a whole new way of looking at that bitter struggle of four and a half decades ago and its ramifications in our lives today. As Edwin O. Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan, has pointed out, this book offers “a lesson that the postwar generations need most ... with eloquence, crushing detail, and power.”

399 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

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About the author

John W. Dower

35 books112 followers
John W. Dower is the author of Embracing Defeat, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; War without Mercy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Cultures of War. He is professor emeritus of history at MIT. In addition to authoring many books and articles about Japan and the United States in war and peace, he is a founder and codirector of the online “Visualizing Cultures” project established at MIT in 2002 and dedicated to the presentation of image-driven scholarship on East Asia in the modern world. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 125 reviews
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
May 24, 2020
This book looks at both sides of the intense hatred that existed between Japan and the United States in the Second World War. The fighting was extremely vicious on both sides – with neither, at times surrendering or taking prisoners. It was probably much more akin to the fighting on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union.

The subliminal race hatred of the Japanese by the United States that existed prior to Pearl Harbor, became manifested after with a total disregard for the humanity of the enemy who became “The Other”. This led to acts of barbarism by American soldiers towards the Japanese (also on the American mainland thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin were totally disenfranchised – rounded up, moved out of their homes, and sent to camps in the mid-west).

Page 64 (my book) war correspondent Edgar L. Jones

“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…”

What also aided in constructing “The Other” was the Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners of war who were severely treated (by contrast, overall, the Allied prisoners of war of the Germans had a much easier time; I exclude from this the entire Eastern Front).

There was a racist underestimation of the capabilities of the Japanese soldiers and pilots which lead to the disaster in the Philippines and Singapore.

The Japanese also created “The Other”. Their “Other” was sometimes aimed at the opposing leadership – namely Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek. The Japanese viewed the democracies as being weak and decadent and their soldiers lacking sustained motivation. They promoted their own version of Japanese racial purity. Their Co-Prosperity Sphere for Asia sounded good on paper calling for the end of European imperialism and the establishment of Asian self-rule.

Page 285

Certainly, the Koreans could have told the new members of the Co-Prosperity Sphere what to expect. Their out-spoken nationalist leaders had been tortured and executed in 1919. Their government, commerce, industry and agriculture had been totally taken over by the Japanese.

So, in practise the Japanese became even more ruthless then the imperial Western powers that they replaced. Civilians had to bow down to Japanese soldiers on the street or risk being slapped. There is continuing hatred to this day of the Japanese in the countries they brutalized – China, Korea, Philippines, Indonesia…

The Japanese pursued a “Holy War”, a crusade to dominate Asia.

The author barely mentions the use of what the Japanese called “comfort women” who were sex slaves to the Japanese soldiers. There were thousands of these women rounded up from all the countries they occupied.

For my taste the author goes too far back in Japanese historical mythology and traditions to explain their behavior – it made for tedious reading.

He does not explain why the Japanese in each of the battles in the last year of the war such as Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa – were to be the decisive battle – that if they won or held back the Americans, it would lead to the ultimate destruction of their adversary.

The Japanese had a concept of “proper place” which aided them to adapt and accept their new position at war’s end. The author should have given more credit to the United States for its magnanimity to the Japanese country after the war’s conclusion. General MacArthur’s speech on the U.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945 was most eloquent. Here is an excerpt.

“We are gathered here, representatives of the major warring powers—to conclude a solemn agreement whereby peace may be restored. The issues involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate. Nor is it for us here to meet, representing as we do a majority of the people of the earth, in a spirit of distrust, malice or hatred. But rather it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone befits the sacred purposes we are about to serve, committing all our people unreservedly to faithful compliance with the obligation they are here formally to assume.

It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
Profile Image for Hotavio.
192 reviews8 followers
October 28, 2012
It is easy to underestimate the role of emotion in foreign policy. Books such as Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism by Reginald Horsman and Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964 by Andrew J. Rotter, make a strong argument that emotionalism fueled by racial and cultural anxieties influence America’s role in the world. In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, Dower argues that race not only colored America’s actions in the Pacific theater of World War II, but that the Japanese harbored a similar preoccupation with their own racial superiority that motivated them to engage in martial pursuits. This sense of superiority fueled emotions which would bring both sides to act inhumanely to one another.
Dower examines how hatreds influenced the actions of the Americans and Japanese in war by examining cultural influences. He makes use of cartoons, films, propaganda, books, and other cultural sources to identify themes perpetuated on both countries’ citizens and the public perceptions these sources created. Through media like Frank Capra’s Know your Enemy-Japan and An Investigation of Global Policy with the Yamato Race as the Nucleus, impressionable audiences not only validated war, but ignored ghastly behaviors on the battlefield. Beyond mutual feelings of supremacy contributing to war motivation, the resulting rapprochement after Japan’s surrender September 2, 1945 fascinates Dower. Thus, his book aims to outline the visceral distain these nations had for one another during the war and then how both nations twisted this for their benefits during peace.

Dower makes his argument by first examining the American perspective on Japan. Dower states that, already endowed with a sense of racial superiority, Americans fixated on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of treachery. Aside from the Caucasian belief that Asians were inferior, this treachery demonstrated that Japanese were particularly inhuman. War Without Mercy illustrates a variety of subhuman creatures that began to symbolize the “Jap” but no creature was utilized more than the monkey or ape. Dower provides many examples of how Americans utilized this connection as he includes several cartoons within the book. Dehumanizing the enemy justified the murder of prisoners on the battlefield and a public assertion that the Japanese should be “annihilated as a people.” Beyond this diminutive image, Americans also refashioned the simian according to the stage of war. Contributors to the cultural image also portrayed the Japanese as a hulking ape-man after Japanese victories and as harmless pets during the Japanese’s Allied occupation.
The second component of War Without Mercy explains the Japanese racialist role in the war. Japan insisted in its superiority as well. Japan focused less on skin color and more on their 2,600 year old history under the Emperor. While Japan detested Western colonialism for its arrogance and subjugation of Asians, Japan also had its own colonial scheme called the Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was very similar. The Co-Prosperity Sphere emphasized what Dower notes as Japan’s “proper place,” the center of the world. Japan also provided a host of cultural references contributing to Dower’s argument. Among these, Dower gets the most leverage out of the children’s tale of Momotarō. The tale of a youth battling an ogre surfaced as an analogy for the Japanese fighting off America and its capitalist trappings. What makes this cultural piece outstanding is the image of Japan as a youth battling off the Western “ogre” can later be reinterpreted in the era of Japanese occupation. During the occupation, Japanese anxieties ebbed as they recognized that this ogre had “a human face.” While the Americans exhibited differences from the Japanese, the Japanese felt that the Americans were not evil as originally thought. This made loss of the war more bearable.
Dower’s epilogue examines the how both parties diverted racial tension and, in some cases, assisted the post war relationship between the United States and Japan. Dower’s inclusion of this twist in the use of racism, pushes his examination further than many historians. Unfortunately, Dower does not examine this fascinating observation with the intensity he devotes to racisms contribution to war violence. Still, War without Mercy ties the many horrific instances of known racial violence during World War II together in a way which makes race seem like the single most determining factor for the war.

Profile Image for Mosca.
86 reviews12 followers
July 4, 2015

Written in the 1980’s, this book bears the perspective of an American obsession with the then-evident emerging Japanese global economic leadership.

At this time, on a planet witnessing a bloated Chinese economic dominance, a jaundiced Western economic malaise of austerity, a deteriorating global “War on Terror”, and an emerging class-conscious understanding of climate change and plutocracy---a book like this can seem very narrow and dated.

Why should any of us be concerned about apparently-permanent mutually-racist misunderstandings between two nations—both now wallowing in each-their-own self induced, decadent delusions and cultural irrelevances at a time of gigantic, ongoing, unresolved, and terrifyingly-current global threats?

Good question.

But what this book does offer in a disturbingly thorough manner is an investigation into two nations revoltingly self-perpetuating racist myths about one another. And what is truly frightening is how important these national chauvinisms were in creating, justifying, and sustaining one of the more awful bloodbaths of the 20th century...and how essential they were to the propaganda machines of both countries.

For me, the racist images produced for those purposes (and reproduced in some quantity in this book) are truly staggering and revolting. And both nations sustained minor industries whose sole purposes were to create and maintain these racist “cartoons” and propaganda.

What is relevant, however is the essential nature of such propaganda in the maintenance of the public will necessary to sustain the nation’s commitment to the horrors of modern warfare.

It is this thorough investigation into the propaganda machines of two nations, each seriously and pathologically committed to industrial scale slaughter that is so compelling. And it is the intentional and deliberate restructuring of the two nations’ public's perceptions of reality that is most staggering to me--as well as the naked willingness to spin the lies in dramatically new directions as the national, military, and international situations shifted. And how these national machineries of lies and bigotries, of delusions and illusions determined the mass perceptions of “reality”

And these national machineries of deliberate spin maintained their mendacity regardless of their tragic effects. And today we still live with “perceptions” generated by these decades-old, intentional racisms—shifted with time to accommodate new national “enemies”

We should all be concerned about that.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
July 19, 2019
As the title suggests, this book is about racial attitudes on both sides during the Pacific War between the United States and Japan. This war was fought much more brutally than the American war in Europe. It was a war of extermination that did not differentiate between Japanese soldiers, civilians or different political trends among their people. It was a war against the "Japs" unlike in Europe where the war was against "Nazis" more than Germans per se. Having read Dower's other book about Japan and the United States I found some of this to be a retread. Having said that it was still stunning to read frank admissions of horrible war crimes by U.S. officials, including expressing pleasure over the deaths of 80K-100K civilians in the firebombing of Tokyo. The Japanese were of course just as brutal in Asia and their atrocities left a legacy of hatred in places like China that continues to this day. Having said that this was not a war with obvious good and bad sides. Only victors and defeated.

While the Americans had a rich store of negative racial stereotypes to draw upon when fighting an inferior Other, the Japanese were in the strange position of going to war against the Westerners who taught them modern civilization. As a result, their racial attitudes were more about their own purity and exaltedness rather than depictions of Westerners as simian for example. They called the Americans demons and the Americans called them monkey-men. Contrary to appearances the latter was a more developed and powerful insult, even buttressed by the racial pseudo-science of the time. Japan liked to discuss itself as a liberator of the darker peoples of the world but clearly also saw themselves in a hierarchy standing above them. This led to its contemptuous and brutal behavior in its Asian empire.

The prejudices about the Japanese expressed at the time sound very familiar. They were irrational, fanatic, the products of a sexually repressed and superstitious culture and damaged psychological specimens. There were a widely expressed fears that they represented a "Rising Tide of Color" that would displace global white supremacy. After Pearl Harbor the level of sheer hatred in the United States towards the Japanese was at such a fever pitch that it seemed entirely possible that victory would end with a genocide. As much was said and proposed openly. Japanese skulls and stationery made out of their bones became common household accessories for a time. But after the fighting stopped, temperatures cooled quite quickly. It shows how the public can be worked up into a fervor and how suggestible they are. Dower's other book was a good history of the ultimately benevolent, if paternalistic, role the U.S. took towards japan after the war.

This book was good though a little but disjointed. Dower's other one is the real masterpiece of the two in my opinion, although I might be biased since I found a lot in this familiar.

Profile Image for Stuart.
718 reviews267 followers
April 1, 2014
A very unique and disturbing look at the uses of racist ideology by both the Western Powers and Japan to fuel their pursuit of military, political and cultural dominance in the early 20th century leading up through the brutal "war without mercy" known as the Pacific War. It's fascinating to see the perceptions that the Americans and British had of "Asiatics" starting in the colonialist period, and how these perceptions of the Japanese changed as their relative economic and political power grew. Initially looking at all non-whites as physically and mentally inferior, barbaric, infantile, inscrutable, and inhuman, the West was forced to take Japan more seriously as it grew in power in Asia. And the Japanese, for their part, started to recreate a myth of their superiority among the Asian nations in their drive to create their own imperial empire, the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", closely modeled after the colonial empires of the Western powers, particularly the British. In their view, they were a pure race descended directly from the divine Emperor Jinmu 2600 years previously, and had a duty to rule and dominate the other Asian races in a patriarchal hierarchy.

Driven by their desire to be recognized on equal footing with the other Western Powers, the Japan military and political apparatus also utilized the image of the Emperor as a father figure to unite the Japanese people into the "100 million" and realize their destiny to rule over all of Asia and eventually the world. Ostensibly their rule would be benign and uplifting, but the reality as their armies occupied more and more of Asia was one of unrestrained brutality and contempt for other Asian peoples. And as the tides of war turned against them, this cruelty was further exacerbated as it became clear that Japan was losing the war.

Meanwhile, the US was at first shocked by the Japanese military prowess in its defeat of Russia at the turn of the century and then its invasions of Manchukuo, Korea, its easy ousting of the British from Hong Kong and Singapore, the Dutch from Indonesia, the French from Indochina, the occupation of the Philippines, and then the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese went from "little yellow people" into unstoppable super-soldiers. But the resources needed to maintain the Japanese war machine could not be sustained, and the greater military strength of the US forces slowly but surely defeated the Japanese forces in battle after battle throughout the Pacific. However, even when the outcome was clear, the Japanese refused to surrender, and the American military decided to extent their bombing raids to targeting civilians in urban centers, killing hundreds of thousands in an effort to crush the Japanese spirit. Finally, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to devastating effect, and the Japanese military and the Emperor capitulated.

This book focuses very closely on the perceptions of race on both sides of the war, and it is quite shocking in its unearthing of the depths of racism that ran throughout both the US (and other Western powers) and the Japanese in their myth of racial purity and superiority. The research is in-depth and takes a unique perspective not seen in most books about the Pacific War. In fact, the book was written while author John Dower was in the process of researching his book about the post-war occupation and reconstruction of Japan by US authorities, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II . That book is even more impressive in its scope, depth of research, and insight into the forces that transformed Japan from a blood-thirsty imperialistic aggressor into a peaceful, hard-working, anti-Communist ally of the US in the emerging Cold War struggle against Communist China and Russia. It is well worth reading for any serious student of Japan's role in the modern world.
Profile Image for AC.
1,691 reviews
October 17, 2010
Much of this book I did not like. In fact, it is not really a book. It is two articles expanded and cribbed together (one on American racist perceptions of Japan; one on Japanese racist perceptions of the West) --to meet (I suspect) tenure requirements. Yet the two chapters on "The Pure Self" (ch. 8) and on Japanese War aims ("Global Policy with the Yamato Race as Nucleus" = ch. 10) are the clearest and most moving account of Japanese fascism I have found. They are brilliant. My suggestion: get the book, scan chapters 1-7 and 9, and read 8, 10, 11 with great care.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,007 reviews1,117 followers
September 14, 2016
Father served as an army cryptanalyst attached to the navy for such things as ship-to-shore communications during landings in such places as Sicily and, later, the Philippines. Being in the bowels of the ship, usually in its sole airconditioned room, his only sightings of 'the enemy' were of planes, including kamikazes, or of prisoners. He hated it, but as he grew older his mind (he died some months ago, just short of his 95th year) turned more and more to those distant memories.

Dad's dad was active in the Socialist Party of America, Dad himself having voted for Norman Thomas in '48. The family was Norwegian, both sides of it, and most of our relatives endured German occupation during the war. There was some residual dislike of Germans on their part, but when I was growing up our closest family friends included a number of Germans and Japanese. American Socialists, whatever their visceral feelings, are internationalists.

Still, I grew up indoctrinated by family, family friends (almost everyone's dad was a veteran) and the public schools to believe WWII to have been, unlike WWI, a 'just' and necessary war, a war against the evils of Nazism, Fascism and Japanese militarism. My perspective, given the Norwegian connection, was perhaps a little broader and emotionally deeper than the suburban norm, but it was still pretty one-sided. I was an American patriot, proud of our defense of democracy and individual liberties. Indeed, one of the first adult books I ever read was William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, an account hardly sympathetic to the Axis.

Years have passed, decades of study, and, while my concern for defending democracy and liberty has continued, I no longer see the U.S.A. as essentially allied with such values--indeed, I see it as all too often as an hypocritical opponent of them. Some of this I simply noticed by following the mainstream media as a child (The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia etc.), then explored by reading histories by Anglo-American historians from their Anglo-American perspectives. Most recently I've favored books written by non-English speaking historians or books by historians attempting to represent the views of other peoples.

This study of Japanese and American attitudes does a fair job in giving the racists on both sides a voice. Beginning with their respective histories, author Dower focuses on WWII and its immediate aftermath, with an epilogue about the recurrence of earlier prejudices during the Japanese economic boom (an American decline) in the late seventies and early eighties. In addition to being a meditation on nationalism in general this book also serves as reminder of the ubiquity of propagandistic misinformation and manipulation.

Profile Image for Jim.
677 reviews
November 3, 2016
When I was a boy our mail was delivered by a pleasant mailman named John (as far as I know his last name was "the Mailman") who was always smiling and whistling, and he was a Marine Corps Pacific War Vet. He gave me a huge plastic wall sheild with the Marine Corps Emblem on it, which I placed among all the car parts adverts on my wall. So the only person I knew who fought in that war was sunny as the day is long, and the idea that he had been part of the force which fought inch for inch on otherwise useless volcanic islands just seemed part of the american heroic dream. I was more interested in ww1 western front, so I was surprise when as a young teen in capecod summer vacation i found popular science from another long ago summer,1945, barely prehiroshima, with the prominent question splashed on the cover: Should we Gas the Japs?" WW1 I thought was the war to end all chemical weapons, but a study of this article showed the nature of what the pacific war was like. This book was a similar eye opener that dealt with our propaganda and what those nice young heroic men, or at least some of them, did as their duty, which thanks to the interwebs is much easier to find: http://www.duffelblog.com/2012/06/man... or more objectively http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American.... Illusions of youth are there to be shattered.
Profile Image for Joseph R. Howard.
45 reviews5 followers
January 31, 2013
This book seemed to be hell-bent and determined to paint the United States, white America specifically, as racist warmongerers who were out to wipe non-whites in the Pacific off the face of the Earth. I had trouble staying focused on the material because it was so saturated with a racial setting. I'm not too surprised by Dower's sentiment, considering his wife is Japanese. But, this is the typical style of book that is being pushed in academia. Sigh.
Profile Image for Andre.
1,320 reviews85 followers
November 2, 2014
In my eyes this is undeniably a very good book. But I must say right away that while it is a good introduction (and nothing more, I have to be honest there) into the topic of racism in the Pazific War during World War II, I would not recommend it for casual readers. The book is good in debunking the, apparently not so rare, notion that racism is equal to white supremacism, but the quotes it often has (which you can't blame the author for) were done by people who for all their efforts still seemed to be trapped into the "White vs. Coloured" dichotomy, which in my mind often leads to many people to e.g. ignore the leopard in this picture:

Or the "samurai" in this one (I know it's supposed to be Emperor Meiji but he doesn't seem to look like him at all):

And act as though pictures like this had nothing to work with:

(I am looking at you Off the Great Wall and China Uncensored).

But either way, this is a completely recommendable book. It doesn't shy away from showing the racist propaganda images and attitudes of both sides at the time. And to be honest considered this, it is astounding how far we have actually come, after all today even in war you cannot any longer just make stuff like this:

Or even this:

And just in case you think this is specific to the Pazific War. Consider this picture about the Japanese in WW II:

And this how Germans were perceived in WW I:

(In WWII the Germans were not usually shown like this but rather propaganda was targeted towards "the Nazis" respectively Hitler).

I like the information on the, somewhat ambiguous, role of the Japanese as they inspired countless millions of Asians with their audacity, even as they inspired hatred by their own overweening arrogance. For the Japanese were as racist as their Anglo-American adversaries. And that although the Japanese government frequently admonished its officials and citizens to avoid all manifestations of racial discrimination, the operative language of the new sphere was in fact premised on the belief that the Japanese were destined to preside over a fixed hierarchy of peoples and races.
As you can probably guess by now, you get insights into Japan's own colorism and racism of the time and its "savior" mentality which I think is not exactly gone today: Like pallid copies of the old Sino-Japanese War prints, Japanese cartoons during World War Two frequently depicted the people of southern and southeastern Asia as dark-skinned, while the Japanese standing among them were light.
Note: This is has nothing to do with them wanting to be "white," as many still believe today, but rather their own cultural colorism that links whiteness with purity, as the book makes perfectly clear.
Also you clearly see how similar both sides of the war actually were despite old and new claims to the contrary, e.g. both sides elevated dying on the battle field to nearly divine actions when it concerned their own soldiers but the very same actions by the enemies was seen as signs of their inherent inferiority. And when you read how the Kyoto school dealt with such broad and amorphic concepts as "perpetual war" and "total war"; "living space" and "historical space" you tend to be reminded of other people who also used and still use such concepts.
As examples the book shows how the Anglo-Americans were described as demons (oni), devils (kichiku), fiends (akki and akuma), and monsters (kaibutsu). More elaborate variations were offered on occasion, such as "hobgoblins" and "hairy, twisted-nosed savages," but the basic image remained intact - as did the natural response to being confronted by such forces of evil. And how the Anglo-Americans consistently emphasized the "subhuman" nature of the Japanese, routinely turning to images of apes and vermin to convey this. With more tempered disdain, they portrayed the Japanese as inherently inferior men and women who had to be understood in terms of primitivism, childishness, and collective mental and emotional deficiency. Cartoonists, songwriters, filmmakers, war correspondents, and the mass media in general all seized on these images-and so did the social scientists and Asia experts who ventured to analyze the Japanese "national character" during the war.
Another example of similarities is "proper place" and the author shows how "proper place" had a long pedigree in the history of Asian thought going back to early Confucianism in China. While the concept flourished for centuries as a pure product of the Confucian tradition, however, and later came to assume the coloration of Japanese family-system ideologies as well, it is misleading to see it as peculiarly Asian. For practical purposes, "proper place" was the functional equivalent of the Great Chain of Being in Western thought, and like that potent concept served in the mundane world to rationalize and reinforce disparate status and power relationships among people, races and countries.
And let's face it such information is not actually known to the general public. So I agree with the author when he says at the end:
To return to that terrible conflict of four decades ago is thus inevitable and essential - and fraught with peril. It can teach us many things, but can also fan the fires of contemporary anger and self-righteousness. In whatever way, World War Two in Asia has become central to our understanding not only of the past, but of the present as well.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews700 followers
November 7, 2018
A beautifully well-researched piece of cultural and social history that provides a great source of grisly anecdotes you can use to horrify friends, family, and colleagues. Whether it's a redneck who can't wait to get his mitts on a pair of Jap ears, or a Japanese propaganda piece suggesting that US Marines have to kill their parents to get into the Corps, or the hilariously mortifying 19th Century racist skull science employed by both sides, this is a one-stop shop for the worst of humanity (something I first saw in my tweens, watching Bugs Bunny proceed to fuck with a gang of bucktoothed and dimwitted Asiatics representing General Tojo et al). As a historian, Dower's ironic distance works wonders. If you a want a more serious account of the horrors of World War II in the Pacific, read Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking." If you want stories about weirdos, their weirdo delusions, and a few lulz, read this.
Profile Image for Coltrane Bodbyl-Mast.
121 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2022
An excellent overview which ties well its sort of spiritual continuation, Browning’s Ordinary Men. The continued revitalization of racial hatreds or general bigotry for the drumming up of martial sentiment is shown well here on both sides of the pacific front. Other books, including perlstein’s series on conservatism, but most especially Reaganland, have discussed this well for less discussed and not as outright violent situations, notably the Iranian hostage crisis. However one can see the echoes of Dower’s War without Mercy, as he himself notes in the Cold War, with descriptions of Russian Soviets as ‘asiatic.’ One sees it still today, as ‘enemies-‘ of the American state, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Palestine etc. are turned into monolithic stereotypes pedaled from the highest peaks of ivory towers at universities to the lowest sewers of outwardly racist or otherwise bigoted B-movies.
20 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2020
I cannot imagine the amount of time it must have taken for John Dower to piece together this intensely detailed account of the Pacific War, with such minutiae of information as the words and images used in American and Japanese magazines published in the days and months leading up the major confrontations. Dower outlines the use of propaganda in both Japan and America and how each was made to view the other so as to serve the purpose of all-out war.
This is by no means an attempt at a summary, but John Dower's book is in its own way a witness to the maddening instrumental rationality of warfare and how it sacrifices human (and non-human life) for misplaced ideals.
154 reviews
September 28, 2020
Very interesting ways to look at the Pacific War. Goes to show how deeply extremely racist views have been part of America from the beginning. Racial misunderstandings influenced the behavior of both sides and led to millions of deaths. A different and significant way to look at how WW2 came about. It did get a little tiring to feel that Americans were more to blame.
Profile Image for Stephen Rowland.
1,162 reviews48 followers
December 12, 2018
With this astonishing, original history, Dower has given us two of the most illuminating and important books ever written on the subject of Japan and the Pacific War (the other being his postwar tome "Embracing Defeat"). Both are absolutely essential to anyone interested in the topic.
Profile Image for Ushan.
801 reviews67 followers
December 26, 2010
During the 1941-1945 war between the United States and Japan, the Americans were unabashedly racist. American cartoons, newspaper and magazine stories depicted the Japanese (and the Japanese Americans) as apes, rats or lice. Admiral William Halsey was especially fond of comparing the Japanese with monkeys; when the Japanese were told about this, a zookeeper in Tokyo declared that he had reserved a cage for the admiral in the monkey house. Ordinary Americans, both soldiers and civilians, were full of hatred towards the Japs aka the Nips; no such hatred existed towards the Germans as a people (as opposed to the Nazis as a political movement): war with Germany did not have a racial angle to it because the Gemans were of the same race as the (white) Americans, and German Americans were an important part of the American society and the American military, from General Eisenhower down to Private Vonnegut. This of course influenced the conduct of the war; Americans collected Japanese skulls as souvenirs, boiling the flesh off, which would have been unthinkable in Germany or Italy; an American soldier sent President Roosevelt a present of a letter opener carved from a bone of a dead Japanese, which the President rejected. A typical American wartime cartoon showed Hitler stomping on Czech villages and an apelike Jap imitating him, stomping on an island in the Philippines. Of course, the Chinese, America's wartime allies, were just as yellow-skinned as the Japanese; if the latter were the Yellow Peril, why not the former? American academics opined on the causes of aggressiveness and cruelty in the Japanese national character; an anthropologist suggested that this was caused by the overly harsh toilet training of Japanese children. Obviously, this took place before the Shimajiro videos.

The Japanese were no less racist, but in a different way: they considered themselves to be a unique people in the whole world, the pure Yamato Race, destined to rule the other races, dirty and mixed. Some Japanese academics provided support for this theory, too. The two major Axis powers regarded each other as being racially inferior to themselves. Although Japanese propaganda proclaimed the liberation of South-East Asia from European colonialism, and Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia declared (puppet) independence under Japanese auspices, this was atypical. Typically, the Japanese behaved like the worst colonial masters, killing and torturing natives to take control over their labor and their countries' natural resources, and justifying it by their right as a superior race. In a typical magazine illustration, a dark-skinned half-naked Indonesian farmer shakes a much bigger fair-skinned hand with the Rising Sun flag on the sleeve; in the background, a Dutchwoman in national dress is running away. Japanese often compared themselves fighting the Allied Powers with folktale character Momotarō fighting demons. Katakana seems to have been written right-to-left in those years; cartoons showed トルベズール (Roosevelt) and ルチーャチ (Churchill) as demons with claws, horns, fangs, a horse's behind or a badger's tail.

After the war, relations between the two nations have been more or less amicable, but their racist prejudice towards each other did not disappear altogether. In 1950 John Foster Dulles suggested that the Japanese could export shirts, pajamas and perhaps cocktail napkins to the United States, not anticipating superior-quality Japanese cars, motorcycles and consumer electronics, which conquered the American market in the next half-century. There is a Honda factory in Ohio that produces Goldwing and VTX motorcycles; Honda is closing it in 2009; I was reading some motorcycle-related blog, and a commenter said that this decision was made because of poor quality of American workers. Can someone please remind me, who won the last war between the United States and Japan?
Profile Image for Alessandra.
91 reviews
March 5, 2013
Historian John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986), is largely concerned with how race fueled the Pacific War machine. This comparative study argues that Japanese and American racisms fomented violence and atrocity in the Pacific. What remains difficult for Dower (and for all who attempt to make connections between ideas and actions), is his ability to draw distinct causal relationships between racism and war-related violence. This quibble, however, should not detract from the work’s contributions.

Historiographically, War Without Mercy decenters a field that focuses largely on race in the European theatre. While much work has been done on racism and the Holocaust, less is known about the role of race in the Pacific—let alone from both the American and Japanese encampments. Methodologically, the comparative framework highlights not only the malleability of popular metaphors and idioms, but also the fluidity of racism. By focusing on Japan and the U.S., Dower reminds us that racism can adopt many guises.

II wonder, however, if Dower could’ve spent more time charting the transnational comparisons in racist thought between Japan and the U.S. In particular, when reading about Japan’s emphasis on purification, I kept thinking of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence—which posits that violence has long been associated with renewing qualities throughout American history. Is there not an interesting connection to be made here? And perhaps at other moments? I suspect that part of his inability to thoroughly engage connections/disparities is due to the book’s structure. By handling each nation separately in the last two sections, some moments for comparison were likely lost.

According to Dower, racism accounts for the unique degree of violence and brutality that characterized the Pacific War. Exploring how racism operated in the U.S. and Japan, however, also answers another question Dower rightly posed: how was peace attained so quickly in the wake of such a brutal contest? The answer, Dower explains, lies in the malleability of the symbols and idioms that embodied the “other” during the war. “The abrupt transition from a merciless racist war to an amicable postwar relationship was” Dower claims, “facilitated by the fact that the same stereotypes that fed superpatriotism and outright race hatred were adaptable to cooperation" (302). For example, the apian image employed by the U.S. to dehumanize the Japanese people morphs, in the postwar period, into a docile pet. In another instance, the image of the Japanese as child-like others made room for the “maturation” of Japan in the postwar years.

The symbols and idioms Dower discusses, however, were by no means products of the war alone. Instead War Without Mercy elaborates on how, in both America and Japan, many common propagandistic tools were unearthed from previous contexts. For example, the Japanese notion of the stranger—or the demonic other—emerged from folk traditions in the countryside and was reinvented to underscore the polluting, demonic nature of the Allied powers. Likewise, American imagery had portrayed Filipinos as apes decades before the resurgence of apian imagery in Pacific War cartoons.

Dower does the important work of demonstrating how certain symbols and idioms were loaded with racist ideologies and representations, which in turn fueled the escalation of violence in the Pacific. His emphasis on symbols, phrases, idioms, and ideas points to the structural nature of racism. By using mass-produced material and political documents, Dower highlights that racism and racist acts are not simply products of individual action, but are also embedded into the operating apparatuses of many—perhaps all—nation-states.
Profile Image for David Bates.
181 reviews9 followers
March 24, 2013
John Dower’s 1986 work War Without Mercy delves into the devastating racial hatred which the Pacific War had devolved toward in its last and bloodiest year. “Probably in all our history, no foe has been so detested as were the Japanese” recalled historian Allan Nevins of his wartime service. Dower catalogues the fury with which both American and Japanese soldiers fought, exploring the racial ideologies that underlay their attitudes toward each other. While the Japanese belief in the purity of the Yamato bloodline underwrote colonialist domination, American caricatures of the Japanese as inherently deceptive, brutishly apish and unthinkingly fanatical drew on the nation’s own racial symbols. Indeed, many of the American attitudes toward the Japanese echoed earlier views regarding Native Americans, and Dower traces the American military presence in Asia to the occupation of the Philippines by men who had earlier fought against western tribes, such as the father of General MacArthur. The main thrust of War Without Mercy is not, however, the depths or details of the hatred unleashed during the war, but in the manner it evaporated into a harmonious occupation and alliance after the war. What had happened?

“In a world that continues to experience so much violence and racial hatred, such a dramatic transformation from bitter enmity to genuine cooperation is heartening . . . it is fortunate that people on all sides can put such a terrible conflict behind them, but dangerous to forget how easily war came about between Japan and the Western Allies, and how extraordinarily fierce and Manichaean it was.” The key, Dower suggests, to the shift to an “inequitable but harmonious relationship between victors and vanquished lies in appreciating the malleability of political language and imagery in general.” Once defeated, images of the Japanese in the American press shifted, portraying a nation of friendly mimics – inferior but welcoming of guidance. The more threatening traits attributed to them quickly resurfaced in depictions of treacherous and ruthless communists, suggesting a flexible but coherent American tradition of symbols around “otherness.” This approach to racism, based in Geertzian ideology, has some merit, but Dower’s study would have been more rounded had it taken Asian-Americans more fully into the picture. While he does note the many discriminatory anti-Asian laws still on the books at the start of the war (to the chagrin of Americans and the delight of Japanese propagandists), a consideration of the connection between international standing and domestic prejudice, and the structural aspects of discrimination, would have been profitable. While Dower’s expertise is in foreign affairs, observations on American racism abroad will inevitably find domestic significance.
Profile Image for Chi Pham.
120 reviews21 followers
August 31, 2013
This book should have won John Dower the Pulitzer Prize, instead of the other one ("Embracing Defeat"). "War without Mercy" touches upon one of the most important aspects of the Second World War, but one often forgotten in retrospect: the Second World War was also a Race war, the ultimate triumph of the Social Darwinism doctrine. The cultural history prevails in this book. Taking the comparative approach, John Dower discusses wartime images and ideologies about the Other on both side , describing how one side often demonized the other without realizing its own atrocity, and without realizing the reverberating similarity. John Dower also stresses the way those images were mallable to the purposes of wartime as well as peacetime leadership. The concept of racism made the war all the more brutal, because the US just could not ignore the myth (or fact?) that the black race and other yellow races were secretly hoping for the demise of the White supremacy, at the same time when the Japanese could not ignore the idea that the White was there to exterminate them all - the way the Holocaust visited upon the Jews. First World War - it was "the war to end all wars", but Second Word War - it was only "the war without mercy".

Of course, as this book was published more than 20 years ago, some new issues have emerged out of the study of Race War, notably T.Fujitani's "Race for Empire" - addressing the similarity between the US treatment of Japanese Americans and the Japanese treatment of the Korean nationals during the war. However, I think anyone who follows American or Japanese foreign policy (or both) today should take a look at this book - it is seriously worth reading.
Profile Image for Dylan.
2 reviews
June 24, 2019
The Pacific theater was home to some of the most brutal rhetoric of World War II. American politicians and generals called for the extermination of the Japanese people, and their Japanese counterparts fought to establish a new world order with their own race superior to all others. Both sides were willing to commit atrocities against the other, justifying torture and murder with propaganda that portrayed the victims as less than human. But in the post-war world Japan and the US are close allies. What happened to the hatred between the two sides? How did we go from an environment where Japanese civilians would kill themselves and their families rather than live under American rule, to one where the nations are friends?

Dower explores the racial attitudes in the war that made the atrocities and dramatic shift in relations possible. Racism was used as a weapon by both sides to motivate their citizens, but it also led to fatal tactical errors as generals bought the propaganda (the Japanese for instance weren’t prepared for submarine attacks, because they believed the Americans did not have the fortitude to pilot them effectively) The first half of the book focuses more on the Americans, and the second half deals with the Japanese attitudes and the post war years. The book is readable enough for anyone, but has enough meat on the bones to be interesting to students of the pacific war. This book is an excellent read and belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in World War II or in how racial stereotypes influence public policy.
Profile Image for David Haws.
778 reviews13 followers
April 23, 2013
Early in the War, a US Congressman could baldly state that if God had intended the Japanese to rule Asia, he would have made them white. By the end of the War, many saw their racism as not just ridicules, but evil. It had been called “pride of race,” but it was really just the attempt to claim arbitrary privilege—enforced by whatever collective violence groups of people could manage.

Hobbes tells us that we all consider ourselves better than most of those around us: because we see our own accomplishments up close, and the accomplishments of others at a distance. Demagogues, to co-opt our efforts, give us a rationale to support our innate sense of superiority—pointing to something obvious that we share with the demagogue. The Japanese could point to 2600 years of shared polity in the grace of 天照大神; but Americans come from such diverse cultures, the only visual thing the majority of us had in common was our pale skins.

Our material orientation is so strong, it’s hard for us to give place to mere ideas; yet it’s the idea that binds us together: that everyone has a right to work toward their own moderate, achievable degree of happiness. Anyone who believes this is part of our American family; should be honored and welcomed. Those who don’t believe this—especially if they fail to believe from such a privileged position as we enjoy here—should be someplace else.
Profile Image for Brad Wheeler.
174 reviews9 followers
September 28, 2011
I haven't read a lot of books on World War II. Like most Americans, my education on the war comes largely from History Channel documentaries and the occasional magazine or Wikipedia article. This book makes one thing really clear: all of those sources are embarrassingly incomplete. Just reading the back cover copy, you'd think this was just a book on racism, and in a sense it is, but it's really more broadly about prejudice, tunnel vision, and the inability to see beyond one's cultural upbringing. So much of the Pacific War arose directly out of these incompatible worldviews, and Dower is able to tie much of the war together into the theme of race and culture.

Oh, and it's not just a "white men are evil" story. The entire second half of the book focuses on racism and prejudice from the Japanese side. Dower makes it clear that it was mutual misunderstanding that led to a tragic war, not the oppression by powerful white men.

If you think you know about World War II, you need to read this book. I don't say this about many things, but it opened my eyes.
Profile Image for Justin Michael James Dell.
88 reviews11 followers
March 25, 2015
I’m not sure how I feel about War without Mercy. It comes across as somewhat banal, if only in the sense that it merely expatiates on a subject I already knew about. In other words, it does not present anything shocking or that I wasn’t expecting. Everyone knows the basic sketch that the Pacific War was racially charged; Dower just adds the colouring. Moreover, the paradigm of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ throughout the book has, from a 2014 perspective, become humdrum. It is simply too overused now. I think the most impressive aspect of the book is that Dower walks the tightrope of equally treating both the American and Japanese with almost mathematical precision. This is an impressive achievement, especially considering that some scholars who set out to treat two sides equally in a subject often fail to do so.

One pet criticism I would make of the book is that it is almost interminable!
12 reviews31 followers
July 25, 2010
Great book that I need to read for a World War II History class this fall, but even though it was very thick, I was fascinated by the information and skated through the 300+ pages easily. Dower's thesis is that the Pacific War was so brutal because of inherent racism on both sides (United States & Japan) and explores how this racism came about and how it manifested itself in cruelty and inhumane treatment of civilians and POWs. Cartoons and illustrations produced during the war are referenced and included for a more vivid understanding of the Japanese and American psyche. Dower does a great job analyzing propaganda of the time and also presenting his material in a relatively objective manner.
Profile Image for John.
226 reviews104 followers
February 27, 2014
So much for the "greatest generation" - east and west.
5,240 reviews23 followers
February 28, 2016
This is a remarkable book filled with information about the impact of race in World War II as far as it related to Japan. There is a wealth of information in this book, among which are the following items.

While the US condemned what the Nazi's were doing as far as their Aryan supremacy concept goes, at the same time the US was highly segregated, with blacks still subject to the Jim Crow laws. They were kept in separate military groups; white and black blood was kept separate, and the US put around 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 2/3rds of which were American citizens, into internment camps without charges, trials or legal representation.

First-generation Japanese could not become citizens, nor could Chinese nor Indians. So while the US condemned the idea of the Germans being a superior people, the country held on to its concepts that whites were superior people and all others were second-class citizens, if even that much.

The Japanese capitalized on this racial discrimination in their own propaganda for the Asian area.

The US also overlooked its own history of racial hatred, conveniently forgetting the white takeover of Indian lands and the forcing of Indians onto reservations; the entire issue of slavery, and the history of anti-Chinese hatred in the country.

Apparently many people in the South thought there was a possibility of a black-Japanese alliance developing.

When Japan invaded countries in the Pacific area, they were not, generally, invading actual independent countries. Most of the countries were under colonial rule by other, white, countries. India, for example, was still under English rule. There was French Indo-china, the Dutch East Indies, etc., so when the Japanese attacked these countries they appeared, at least at first, to be liberators for the people in the countries.

It was later when the countries found out that Japan was itself going to become a colonial power, replacing white rule with Japanese rule.

The Japanese considered it a holy mission of theirs to stabilize Asia and emancipate its people.

War in Europe vs. war in Asia

The Hearst newspapers declared that the two wars were different, saying that Japan was a racial menace, and also a cultural and a religious menace.

Japanese view of race

A document from the Imperial Army, from the summer of 1942, discussed the races in Asia. It said there were master races, friendly races, and guest races, with the Japanese race at the very top of the ladder. The Japanese were considered to be the world's leading race.

Pre-war hatreds

There was no actual massive pre-war hatred of the Germans or the Italians. Although Germans in the US in World War I faced some discrimination, that had ended during the inter-war years. What had not ended was a racial hatred for the Chinese and the Japanese that had been going on for decades before the first World War, and had continued unabated since then. In effect, many in the US hated the Japanese even before the second world war started.

The Japanese were seen to be a subhuman group. They were pictured as inherently inferior, and compared to rodents and monkeys. This did a massive change, though, after the sweeping Japanese victories early in the war, leading to the Japanese to be considered some sort of supermen, although they were still pictured in a negative way in the media.

An Australian general said that the Japanese were a cross between the human being and the ape.

Results of the hatred

When a group of people is hated as much as the Japanese were, it makes it easier for the military to use extreme measures against them, since the civilian population will, in all likelihood, support the measures, so the firebombing of the cities, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, was accepted by the US civilians as necessary, as was the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Wartime atrocities by the Japanese (unit 731, the Bataan death march, the Nanking massacre, the murder of US prisoners-of-war) made it easier for soldiers in the US army to commit atrocities themselves, and thus the fighting in the Pacific became more and more brutal as the war continued.

Pearl Harbor, of course, was perhaps the main source of hatred against Japanese during the war. A Marine saying was Remember Pearl Harbor-keep 'em dying. One admiral told his troops to Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.

After the atomic bombs were dropped, a poll was conducted of Americans, and over 20% wanted more atomic bombs to be used before the Japanese had a chance to surrender. The President's son, Elliott Roosevelt, said that the allies should continue bombing Japan until we have destroyed about half the Japanese civilian population.
Atrocities and Things beyond understanding

Note: some of the things talked about in the book in relation to atrocities are rather upsetting, to say the least.

The Japanese treatment of civilians in China, and the Japanese murder of Allied Prisoners-of-War were viewed as proof of the barbarity of the Japanese. On the other hand, the fact that some American soldiers too skulls of Japanese soldiers, gold teeth, and ears from them and made decorations and sent them back home proved to the Japanese just how barbaric the American soldiers were. Some Japanese skulls apparently were used as hood ornaments on jeeps.

The book compares reactions to German and Japanese activities. The Germans themselves attacked without warning (Poland, for example); they killed millions of civilians (in Russia and in the death camps), they used slave labor), and they killed civilians in retaliation for the deaths of German officers, and they killed prisoners of war.

(The book says some 670,000 Koreans were brought to Japan for slave labor, and about 60,000 of them died in the work places, and another 10,000 died in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

The Japanese attacked without warning (Pearl Harbor being the most famous example;) they killed millions of civilians (the Rape of Nanking and other areas in China), they used slave labor (both prisoners of war and Koreans, for example), and they also killed civilians in retaliation; their propaganda even caused many civilians to commit suicide rather than be freed by American troops, because they had been led to believe the American troops would rape the women and kill the men, and the Americans at times killed prisoners of war.

So both sides basically were doing the same kind of things, yet the Japanese were hated as a people, but the German leadership was hated and not all the German people in general.

One of the things that got Americans mad was the bombing of Chinese civilians by the Japanese, starting in 1937, but as the second world war went on the Americans did exactly the same thing, firebombing cities and killing tens of thousands of civilians, culminating in the two atomic bombs which were not aimed at major military targets.

The Japanese civilians did not find out about many of the Japanese atrocities until later because of the effectiveness of the censorship of Japanese media by the government and the Japanese secret police. Even some Japanese officials did not fight out what had been done until after the war.

Radio Tokyo referred to the attacks on cities as slaughter bombing.

Also, as the war neared its end, many Americans became outraged by the Japanese doggedly hanging on, trying to resist the American advance, and causing so many American deaths and injuries.

One of the incomprehensible things that got Americans mad were the banzai charges by Japanese troops late in the war, where they would charge fortified Allied positions using regular soldiers and even wounded soldiers, sometimes with little armament, only to be mowed down and killed to the last man.

Something like this happened in the batle of Attu in the Aleutians in May, 1943. 2500 Japanese were outnumbered five to one and they fought to the last man, yet they would still charge American positions. This battle definitely caused people to think of the Japanese as fanatic.

Gyokusai became a word to be known; it meant choosing to die heroically in battle rather than surrendering, and this led to the deaths of numerous Japanese in suicidal banzai charges, and even in committing suicide rather than surrender.

Then, of course, there were the kamikaze, which were considered another incomprehensible thing and a sign of the madness of the Japanese. Unlike the banzai charges, though, the kamikazes proved, at times, somewhat effective fighting forces and their attacks killed many American sailors and sank a fairly good number of ships.

Internment Camps

The book does have a small amount of material on the internment camps on p. 79 and 80, and 82. There is a little more later in the book around page 113-114.

Characterization of Japanese

The Japanese were pictured as monkeys and apes. One term used was monkeynips. They were also compared to rats.

These are quite interesting rumors.

The Chinese roasted their captives and cut out their hearts.

American men qualified to become Marines by killing their parents.

Marines routinely raped and killed Asian women.

The Americans killed prisoners by putting them on the ground and running them over with tanks. (If I remember correctly from what else I've read, this has some ring of truth to it; it wasn't prisoners, though, it was Japanese soldiers who were still fighting who were sometimes run over.)

The Allies planned to kill all Japanese but 5,000 attractive women and then turn the entire country into an international park.

There was a 70 page book called Read This and the War is Won that was given to Japanese troops. It covered how to fight in a tropical war zone, and why they were fighting there.

One of the effects of Japanese propaganda was to convince civilians that Japan had to go to war to defend herself from being strangled by white imperialists who were trying to control the riches of Asia themselves.

Office of War Information

This government office determined that the Japanese home-front morale was falling rapidly, and that an intense psychological campaign used against Japan, along with assurances that the Emperor would not be killed, could turn the people against the militarist leaders and quicken the surrender. None of the findings were read by any US official in a policy-making position.
Profile Image for Austin Barselau.
109 reviews4 followers
December 28, 2016
The Second World War is uniquely characterized by the sheer magnitude of conflict and casualties, making it the most widespread war in world history. It was a war of national rivalries, radical political upheavals, and brutal militaristic aggression. The war was also defined by racial and ethnic animosities, most prominently in the Western theater of warfare. Everyone knows Adolf Hitler’s maniacal quest to exterminate what he considered the inferior populations of Eastern Europe. Lesser known is the pervasive racial antagonism in the Pacific war. American historian John Dower, author of the tour de force War without Mercy, argues that the conflict between Japan and the United States was fundamentally rooted in the mutual racial hatred of both warring nations. The scale of death and destruction, Dower argues, could be attributed to the simmering resentments which lurked beneath the surface. The Pacific War was plainly a war of racial subjugation and demonization, fueling some of the most destructive battlefield strategies in the modern history of warfare.

War without Mercy is a painstakingly researched, assiduously argued glimpse into the ways in which race motivated conflict. Dower argues that certain words, images, tropes, and idioms were repeatedly used by both sides to stereotype the “natural character” of the enemy. Such appraisals were not only culturally-bound or peculiar to the offending nation’s mores. Moreover, the war “exposed raw prejudices” and was fueled, Dower writes, “by racial pride, arrogance, and rage on many sides.” While the author provides evidence for a race war for both sides of the conflict, his portrayal of the Western perception of the Japanese is especially critical. Plain racial hatred, he argues, bubbles up from a vast reservoir of “racial and racist ways of thinking” which had only “sublimated and transformed” throughout the course of the war and in its aftermath. Dower strongly believes that these streaks of racial and ethnic enmity are deeply ingrained in our national psyches, revealed only when the circumstances call for lashing out against a foreign foe.

Appeals to race were often par for the course in propaganda efforts. Certain unflattering stereotypes were often considered proof of the enemy’s moral decrepitude, and were thus used in wartime cinematic propaganda and cartoons to typecast the enemy while generating support for the war. Written by Hollywood film director Frank Capra, Prelude to War depicted a Manichean struggle between “two worlds”: one free, the other slave; one civilized, the other barbarous; one free and democratic, the other oppressive. The depraved Japanese, who represented the latter world, were represented by scenes of debauchery and destruction, and were easily distinguishable from the gallantry and heroic action of the Allies. Other propaganda films, like Capra’s Know Your Enemy-Japan, elaborated on this same mode of contrast. Dower writes that this film amounted to “a potpourri of most of the English-speaking world’s most dominant clichés about the Japanese enemy, excluding the crudest, most vulgar, and most blatantly racist.” In the film, Japanese leaders lusted for military adventure and conquest; the population, portrayed as mindless tools of their leaders, were cogs in the raging war machine. The country was described as primitive and medieval, whereas the great Western powers were harnessing their great democratic and industrial revolutions to spread peace and prosperity on earth. In both wartime films, which used racial themes and imagery for maximal effect, the Japanese were characterized as a dark and primitive people prone to savagery, while the Western powers were upheld as beacons of freedom and enlightened thinking.

Japanese propagandists also made critical assessments of Western values. A booklet written by Colonel Tsuji Masanobu entitled Read This and the War is Won was considered the Japanese counterpart to Capra’s cinematographic illustrations. Western history and culture, it argued, were historically bound by an itch for world domination. This outlook, Dower writes, was underscored by what propagandists saw as the decadence, materialism, and acquisitiveness of modern Western mores. Like Westerners reading Japanese history in the attempt to discern a misguided and malicious national character, the Japanese read Western history to be “a chronicle of destructive values, exploitative practices, and brutal wars.” The incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties, was considered proof of brutish nature of the enemy. Like Americans, the Japanese formed images of the national psyche and character of the enemy through wartime propaganda films, and their suspicions were confirmed after actual events during the war.

Dower also finds further evidence of a race war in the different ways Allied critics treated the Japanese and the Germans. Western powers tended to treat German crimes as “Nazi” crimes rather than atrocities committed on behalf of a reprobate German culture or collective psychology, he argues. Whatever atrocities were committed could be cleaved off from the German populace and ascribed directly to the faults of Hitler. Thus, there was still space for the “good German,” who through no fault of his own, was merely following the malicious machinations of the German leadership. Meanwhile, all Japanese, being referred to without distinction as “Japs,” were considered permanently bound to the faults of their race and culture. Thus, there was no room for a “good Japanese.” One admiral even considered a “good Jap,” insofar as it was possible, to be one “who’s been dead six months.” The sheer animosity by Anglo-Americans of the Japanese, Dower writes, could only be explained by deep-seated racial animus. Many in the ranks of the military were convinced that as many possible Japanese needed to be killed for the war to be successful.

The Japanese also directed racial epithets towards the enemy, albeit to a lesser extent than the Anglo-Americans. Ideas about “Self and Other,” the author writes, contributed to Japanese perceptions about themselves and foreign aggressors. The English and Americas were frequently portrayed in Japanese propaganda to be demons and devils, their imperialist ambitions symbolic of their bestial nature. In newspapers, Americans were referred to as “misguided dogs,” and the British were lampooned as “dark-stupid-foolish,” with their navy characterized as a “once-bitten stray dog.” Americans, Dower writes, were stereotyped as being “mercenary, immoral, unscrupulous, vainglorious, arrogant, luxury-loving, soft, nauseating, superficial, decadent, intolerant, uncivilized, and barbarous.” These character traits lent themselves to the perception of American culture as being tainted and impure, unlike Japanese culture which prized itself on the eternal struggle to pure itself of sins. War became a way to achieve this historical purification, requiring the exhibition of the nation’s “unique racial power.” For the Japanese, conflict became a cleansing ritual, a process by which the “Yamato race” elevated themselves among the other races and cultures of the world. Thus, the country would create a “new world order,” where each nation and race was to “assume their proper place in the world.” Japan, vis-à-vis the West, was more concerned with exercising its racial purity, Dower writes, rather than operating under any cohesive rubric of “yellow supremacy.” Theirs, like the West, was motivated by race, but their hostility was expressed through different channels.

Ideas about Self and Other originated from earlier historical periods and popular culture, says Dower, affecting the understanding of race during the war. He notes the persistency and predictability of certain racial characterizations, stifled under times of peace and harmony, only to prevail when tensions flare up. Often, such animus, drawn from a deep reservoir of categories describing the Other, is repurposed to be used against the enemy of the moment. “In these various ways,” Dower writes, “the ‘patterns of a race war’ become like a palimpsest that continually reveals unexpected and hitherto obscured layers of experience.” Shopworn stereotypes and racial images are drawn to the surface and passed off as “empirical observation,” only to be discovered as “myth, prejudice, and wishful thinking.” Such racial and racist modes of thinking, Dower writes, contributed to American attitudes toward Soviet and Chinese Communists, Koreans during the early 1950s, and the Vietnamese during the 1960s and 1970s. In every case, Dower maintains, “code words and formulaic metaphors of race and power were evoked to distinguish between the good Self and heinous, alien Other.” Likewise, the Japanese, albeit in a much less systematic way, applied such discriminations between Self and Other to European and American foreigners, from mid-sixteenth century Portuguese and Spanish seafarers and clergy, who were called the “southern barbarians,” to the “barbarian sect” of Christian missionaries and “red haired” Dutch merchants who followed afterwards. Such stereotypes were naturally applied to the Allied Powers who battered the Japanese in the Pacific during the 1940s.

Overall, War without Mercy is a gripping history of the prowling racial animus that saturated both warring powers during the war. However, it has some significant limitations and distortions of history. First, Dower is too quick to defend Japanese aggression in the Pacific, writing that Japan was justified because its invasions of southern Asia “challenged not just the Western presence,” but the more amorphous bogeyman of “white supremacism on which centuries of European and American expansion had rested.” Whether in its invasion and occupation of Manchuria, and later the occupation of the Chinese hinterlands, including the brutal massacre of Nanjing; its extractive rule in the Dutch West Indies; or its eventual surprise assault on Pearl Harbor, Japanese action, following Dower’s reasoning, was not as reprehensible because it went about stripping the Pacific of white supremacism.
Second, Dower dwells only briefly on domestic events in the United States that impacted the scope of the race war. First, the author devotes merely a few lines to the landmark court case Ozawa v. United States, which excluded the “Japanese race” from the category of the “white” race. This case confirmed racial difference into law, branding Japanese persons as not white. This ruling undoubtedly contributed to racial tensions during the war, where race was used as a means of differentiating oneself between ally and adversary. Also, Dower devotes barely any space to the notorious Oriental exclusion laws, which restricted Asian immigration to the United States, and the incarceration and internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans during the height of the war. These restrictions were unfortunate extensions of the race war, to which Dower provides only a passing thought.

Dower should have elaborated on how such a grueling race war, typified by unsparing racial epithets, stereotypes, and imagery, could dissipate overnight after the Japanese surrender. After the war, the United States sought to rebuild Japan from the ground up, the acquiescent Japanese eager to work with their overlords. In fact, the Japanese quickly repurposed the core racial metaphors and images used against their former foe. For example, racial purity and purification took on whole new meanings. Gone was the struggle to cleanse the country of “decadent, bourgeoisie Western influences.” After the surrender, “the goal became instead to cleanse Japan of corrupt traditional, feudalistic, militaristic elements.” The malleability of such descriptions says more about the dichotomy between Self and Other, rather than the supposed faults of any peculiar nationality or culture. As Americans adapted characterizations about the national character of the Japanese to other Asian adversaries during the twentieth century, the Japanese likewise modified their racial animus in the years after the war. Dower would have been best to probe further how racial perceptions wax and wane over time.

War without Mercy is a compelling and convincing history that attentively interprets the racial tensions that motivated conflict in the Pacific. The war between Japan and the United States, the author argues, was racially-tinged, and replete with racial subjugation and demonization on both sides. Racial animosity, as Dower shows, can combust with the crack of gunfire. What’s more, it is infinitely malleable and eternally present, lingering beneath the surface until needed. The Pacific war is just one of many other examples of how race can be used to divide, rather than unify and uplift.
Profile Image for Jon Harris.
116 reviews96 followers
November 30, 2018
World War II was a conflict that included many wide and divergent motivations among those who participated. However, one aspect of the war has not received the scholarly attention it deserves according to John Dower. “Apart from the genocide of the Jews, racism remains one of the great neglected subjects of World War Two." In War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War, Dower presents his thesis stating that, “To scores of millions of participants, the war was also a race war." To substantiate this claim, Dower attempts to leave no rock unturned. Wartime propaganda, popular media, cartoons, and direct quotes from scientific, military, and political leaders in Japan, the United States, and to a lesser degree Great Britain are all examined. The book is comprised of three neatly organized sections. The first, entitled “Enemies,” offers a first hand look at how racial animosity affected the conduct of the war. The second two sections, “The War in Western Eyes” and “The War in Japanese Eyes,” serve to give the reader a deeper account of the psychology and philosophy undergirding racially superior attitudes on both sides.

In the first chapter Dower states, “The propagandistic deception often lies, not in the false claims of enemy atrocities, but in the pious depiction of such behavior as peculiar to the other side." Both the Japanese and the Americans were guilty, according to Dower, of appealing to counterfeit virtue on the part of themselves while maintaining outrage in regard to the atrocities of the enemy. Films like Frank Capra’s “Know Your Enemy - Japan” in the United States, and the Japanese books such as “Read this and the War is Won” or “The Way of the Subject,” all helped shaped public consciousness regarding the other side. Dower notes, “The Japanese thus read Western history in much the same way that Westerners were reading the history of Japan: as a chronicle of destructive values, exploitative practices, and brutal wars." Racial mistreatment of blacks in the United States and abusive colonial practice on the part of Great Britain became favorite tools in the hands of Japanese propagandists, while Japan’s cruelty toward Chinese civilians was a pawn in the hands of the British and Americans.

Both sides to some extent attributed animalistic tendencies to their enemy upon evolutionary grounds. This was more so the case among the Allied powers, and Dower is quick to point out that the Nazis may have influenced the Japanese in this direction. Japan saved most of her racial prejudice for the other “darker people of Asia" while simultaneously claiming to be their liberator from the West. “From at least the Heian period (794–1185) on, the pale patrician has been idealized in Japan . . .” Therefore, wartime propaganda and newspaper cartoons rather portrayed Western powers as devils, while equivalent American publications painted the Japanese as primates.

Perhaps Dower’s most powerful pieces of evidence come from the illustrations contained in his book. Political cartoons featured in prominent British, American, and Japanese newspapers show what appears to be an obvious racial component. The Japanese are often demeaned as insane and undeveloped in American cartoons, however, after Pearl Harbor, the advent of a menacing Japanese superman makes its way into cartoons as well.

Dower certainly provides some useful research. He shows that race was a component in World War II. There are, however, a few weaknesses worth mentioning. The first weakness is that at certain points Dower seems to overstate his case. For instance, Winston Churchill referring to his Asian allies as “little yellow men” is assumed to be derogatory. It could be, but it may not be. Descriptive language is not always an indication of racism. Dower seems to assume that it is. Even describing a group of people in animalistic terms is not always a clear indication that racial animus was behind the characterization. Since motivations are in play, these are hard waters to navigate, and therefore the benefit of the doubt should be extended whenever possible. Another issue the author has is that he extends his main thesis out to include the relationships the United States had with Japan and the Soviet Union up through the 1980s. “Ultimately, [the race war] brought about a revolution in racial consciousness throughout the world that continues to the present day." The only problem is, if the Americans were able to transfer their disdain for the Japanese to the Russians it is doubtful that the conflict existed on the basis of race in the first place. Similarly, if the British and Americans thought of their Asian allies in racially inferior terms, as they did the Japanese, then how could race have played a decisive role? It obviously was not decisive enough to keep the Allies from forming alliances with other Asian nations. Perhaps race became an occasion for conflict rather than a cause for conflict. It was perhaps a war than included racial animosity, but not a “race war” in the proper sense.
Profile Image for Michael.
265 reviews13 followers
January 16, 2018
When thinking of "The Greatest Generation," as the veterans of WWII have been cast of late in the popular media (largely due to Tom Brocaw's prize-winning book by this title), I too wax a bit nostalgic. I think of the watercolor portrait of my Uncle Art in his Naval uniform and remember the pictures my mother showed me as a child of him going off to war. Like the war babies described by Tuttle in his Daddy's Gone to War, she watched him leave and worried about him while he was in combat. When he came back, there were the tensions over being re-united with loved ones which Tuttle captures so well. In one episode which has entered family legend, he unceremoniously placed the plaster bust of General Douglas MacArthur in the fireplace of my grandparents' home. He was a navy man, my mother explained, and the navy hated MacArthur. Ironically, Art survived combat in the Pacific to die 30 years later of lung cancer. As the last of this generation passes, we are all reminded that these veterans did sacrifice a great deal to preserve American liberty. As we wage a war on terrorism today, we have something of a kinship with that generation in that America had indeed been attacked. Peal Harbor and the World Trade Center stand as markers in the public memory. Can history serve as a guide in this new war?

When thinking of the veterans of WWII I am also haunted by the image one of my staff members painted for me at the time of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center of a veteran of the Pacific Theater who had recently passed. He told me how much he admired this dear old man because he "hated everything that was not American, especially the Japanese." In fact, he had kept a huge Japanese flag in a chest in his bedroom for 50 years after the war. The flag, as I was told by this reverent admirer, was soaked in the blood of "Japs" he had killed fighting in the Pacific. The much loved veteran had even showed him the flag once, and explained how he had cut the "Japs'" throats and soaked the flag in their blood. The most amazing thing about the story to me then, as it is now, was that the person relating the story was of middle eastern descent. One wonders how soon it will be before he will fall victim to the same racial biases in our current war on terrorism as the Japanese felt in the wake of Pearl Harbor. But that was a long time ago, and we have come a long way since then ... or have we? Good old fashioned race hatred is as American as apple pie.

To the racist wars against Native Americans portrayed by Francis Jennings in The Invasion of America and Richard Drinnon in Facing Westward, John Dower has added the racial warfare of the American War in the Pacific against the Japanese. Unlike the dynamic of the white American conflict with the American native populations, Dower's conflict is fueled by racial hatreds on both sides. The Americans characterized their yellow enemies at times as animalistic and racially inferior, at times characterizing them as superman and at other times infantilizing them. The Japanese for their part drew upon traditions of xenophobia and hatred for outsiders to cast the Americans as devils and racial enemies of the Yamato Race. On both sides, the racial hatreds lead to intelligence failures and to atrocities in a "war without mercy." Less than four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the firebombing of Dresden was certainly atrocious, we reserved the atomic bomb for our race enemies.

Dower certainly does us a service by cataloging these mutual racially-inspired hatreds. Unfortunately, like David Stannard's American Holocaust, which drew upon Jennings and added further considerations of Christian moralism, this work tends to be repetitive and can be a rather depressing read (as Alvin Coox of San Diego State pointed out in his review for the AHR). In terms reminiscent both of both the German war against the Jews (see Robert Proctor's Racial Hygiene) and that on the Eastern Front against the Bolshevist Reds (on the Eastern Front see O. Bartov's Hitler's Army), the exterrninationist violence is more than merely a bland reminder of man's inhumanity to man. It is a testimony to the ways in which pre-existing racial prejudices were transformed in WWII into exterminationist rage in many quarters.

If history serves as any kind of guide to the challenges that lay ahead, we have a great deal to be concerned about as troops mobilize again headed for the Persian Gulf. Arab Americans will likely be the target of racial hatreds at home if major conflict occurs over Iraqi possession of NBC arms. A war waged under UN auspices holds out the possibility of avoiding a war without mercy ...
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