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Racism in the war in the Pacific

LAURENCE REES: When American forces were involved in this island hopping, it seems that many of them didn't look on the Japanese as normal human beings did they? So to what extent was racism an element in this war?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: There’s no question that the rules of engagement were altogether different in the Pacific than they were in Europe. US GI’s treated German combatants differently from Japanese and this again had to do with the ferocity of the fighting in the Pacific. The Germans were a tough opponent but they tended to surrender when there was no way out, whereas the Japanese didn’t, and this led to the escalation of tensions and also the awareness about the Japanese atrocities and their treatment of Allied prisoners of war and their barbaric conduct in China where something like thirteen million Chinese were killed in Japanese operations against civilian areas. So there was a sense that the Japanese were beyond the pale. Clearly the Germans were as well, but remember a lot of the news about the Holocaust and the death camps didn’t trickle down to the average GI till very late in the war, when they were moving into Germany and actually liberating places like Dachau and they could see what was going on. All this was unknown to many Germans and certainly unknown to your average American. But the average American, British and Australian troops fought the Japanese every day and saw the way they fought. They saw the way they wouldn’t surrender and so there was a real hardness that developed in the relations between these two forces.

LAURENCE REES: In some of the cartoons of the time the Japanese are portrayed as like monkeys. So it’s almost like they’re considered not human?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: Remember that that had been a feature of this relationship for years. One of the reasons that Tsar Nicholas the Second light-heartedly declared war on the Japanese or responded to the Japanese declaration of war light-heartedly was because he said they’re just monkeys and we’re Slavs and we’ll roll right over these little yellow monkeys. And then of course American Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt on warned of the Yellow Peril as did European British statesmen as well. So there’s this element of racism, demeaning the Japanese, not seeing them as quite on par with Europeans or Americans which was certainly part of the whole business of Gooks and Slopes and that sort of thing that you see reprised in Vietnam. But also in the American war in the Philippines in 1899 - 1902 where the whole notion of Gooks comes up. So there was a great deal of racism and the cartoons that were drawn at the time portrayed the Japanese as being almost sub-human. But I think much of it also had to do again with the ferocity of the fighting there and the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender even when they were clearly beaten, which would generate lots more Allied casualties.

LAURENCE REES: What about the fire bombing of Tokyo in March and then in the summer of 1945 the use of nuclear weapons? Was racism an element there?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: I think that was just opportunism, I think that had nothing to do with a cultural comparison between Germans and the Japanese, it was pure opportunism. Curtis Le May looked at the situation in Japan and he said, you know, their fighter forces are depleted, they don’t have these flak towers you see in every German and Austrian city that can shoot down incoming aircraft, the air defences are abysmal, so why don’t we just put extra bombs on these B29s and fly them at low altitude because there’s really no danger, and just pound the heck out of Japan.

He also suggested using a lot of incendiaries because Japanese cities are constructed of wood and paper and they’ll burn like crazy. I’m pretty certain we would have done the same thing to the Germans had we not been deterred by a surviving Luftwaffe and very good German anti-aircraft defences which exacted a heavy price if planes came in too low over German cities. So we were sort of kept up at higher altitudes when we were more inaccurate and had to use fighter escorts and that sort of thing, whereas in Japan they could just lumber across and they could just burn them out. And so I see little difference on that level.