Propaganda During World War II
During World War II, the American government reached its peak usage of propaganda against the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. Consequently, the lasting impact of propaganda on racial attitudes of Americans towards the Japanese during World War II can inform historians about the vital importance that this information played in emboldening the population to fight against “the enemy.”
John Dower’s book War Without Mercy showed the great possibilities of propaganda and the bifurcated roles that played out for the American military throughout the war. At the same time, common prejudices of everyday people also contributed to the general acceptance of these racialized perceptions amidst the general American populace. These pivotal cultural elements developed both originally and artificially through mediums such as films, cartoons, and newsreels. These distinct sources articulate how both the government and everyday people saw themselves in the world around them, which impacted vital socio-cultural issues during the 1940s. Nations use propaganda to inform its citizens of what to believe in/against and also to encourage them to take up arms against existential threats to the country. Likewise, normal people can also influence the creation of propaganda and are usually the most impacted by these specific ideas. Thus, by looking at John Dower’s War Without Mercy and several historians’ seminal articles about the effects of propaganda during World War II, the analysis of American propaganda towards the Japanese Empire during the Second World War can help historians understand the societal and cultural aspects of these particular ideas, which can help give new and unique angles about topics such as American racial relations of the 1940s.
John Dower’s monograph examined the role of propaganda and its influence on the Americans and the Japanese during World War II. Throughout his entire monograph, Dower analyzed previously unexamined American and Japanese propaganda, which played a pivotal role in creating the impetus to fight the Japanese and stoked racial animosities that led to brutal atrocities on both sides of the conflict. Similar to War Without Mercy, historian James Kimble’s article “Spectral Soldiers” evaluated how the United States government used photographic images of dead soldiers to show their valiant sacrifices in an effort to drum up support for the war effort on the front lines and at home during World War II. Comparing these two theses, propaganda is now becoming an increasingly analyzed part of the American war effort during the war in the general World War II historiography. Dower’s methodology was extensive in dissecting the nuances of American Propaganda during the 1940s. The author extensively uses political cartoons, war films, and newspaper depictions of the Japanese in order to prove how Americans’ racial perceptions of the Japanese people as inferior and sub-human contributed to the brutal and unforgiving nature of the Pacific War. In this manner, through Dower’s impressive monograph and Kimble’s intriguing article, these important ideas can give historians a unique and unconventional view of the Pacific Theater of World War II and how this war’s propaganda impacted everyday people on the home front and soldiers fighting abroad.
Given the methodology and the general context surrounding War Without Mercy, the United States Government and the disparate media outlets at the time set the framework for the extensive propaganda machine in years leading up to World War II. Wartime propaganda has been an integral part of the United States since its establishment. According to Nick Fischer, propaganda existed from the beginning of the United States with cartoons such as “Join or Die” influencing colonists to join the fledgling American colonists in the American Revolution. It was not until the early twentieth century that the federal government first issued true state propaganda directly.
Censorship and Racism
Through the creation of organizations such as the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the Wilson Administration was able to control the narrative through a savvy campaign of written literature, visual cartoons, and motion pictures that influenced the American public tremendously during the First World War. Likewise, the CPI also vigorously suppressed any dissenting opinions about the war and acted as “an abettor of government censorship” during the entirety of the United States’ involvement in this brutal conflict. With the state propaganda machine’s framework established through this successful rhetorical campaign, the Federal Government readied itself to create a complicated information campaign to sway the general public in the next major conflict. Thus, the Pacific Theater is best understood through an acknowledgment of the extensive propaganda network already in place by the time hostilities erupted between the Japanese and Americans in 1941. Taking it a step forward, Dower’s monograph aptly focused on the control of information during the war and how the Federal Government propagated racial stereotypes and prejudices in order to play on many Americans’ views on the racial inferiority of the Japanese people at that time. Filmmaker Frank Capra’s famous propaganda films commissioned by the U.S.
Army, the Why We Fight Series, articulated the common and crude racial prejudices of the time and can show some of the perceptions of the American government towards their enemy. For instance, his film portrayed the emerging Japanese Empire as a country lustful for conquest and oppressive of its citizenry through a distinct historical documentary of the nation. Millions of American soldiers had to watch these films, which contributed significantly to how American soldiers perceived their Japanese enemies in explicitly racialized terms. Capra’s film was a paramount keystone of the American propaganda effort and helped create the racial animosity to encourage American soldiers to view the Japanese as non-human entities. Accordingly, Dower’s pivotal explanation of the importance of Frank Capra’s historical propaganda films about the Japanese Empire shows the importance of governmental control of the narrative through wartime and how the higher-ups in the American Government can effectively otherize the enemy though cultural mediums such as film. Likewise, the words of these propaganda films influenced the way in which the State Department viewed the Japanese people and their actions during the war. Government officials were conscious and vocal over the atrocities of how the Japanese military treated Allied prisoners of wars (POWs) during the entirety of the hostilities.
For instance, the execution of three of the famous Doolittle Raiders in 1943 prompted the White House and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to voice its displeasure over these servicemen’s deaths and call the Japanese military “uncivilized” and “barbaric” for this action. As the Japanese’s other battlefield misdeeds became known such as the Bataan Death March, the Siege of Manilla, and the Rape of Nanjing, American military officials brought more racialized views of their enemy to the forefront, which resulted in rather brutal war aims. For instance, former admiral Thomas Hart articulated that the Japanese were “savages” who would never seek a true peace due to their bloodlust to dominate all of Asia. Likewise, Admiral William Leahy, President Roosevelt’s chief of staff, believed that the Allies should completely annihilate the Japanese people because they were the United States’ “Carthage.” Subtly embedded in these comments from top-level commanders in the United States Armed Forces, there is a singular attitude that pushed for the annihilation of the Japanese nation due to their “barbaric” atrocities and treatment of Allied POWs. Consequently, these opinions permeated down to the massively influential American news media, who contributed to the cultural representations of the Japanese people at this time. Propaganda’s enduring effects on the American cultural and societal landscape found itself best represented in the news media’s representations of the Japanese people. Newspapers were one of the most prevalent forms of information for Americans during the war and many preexisting racial prejudices sept into these papers.
For example, a Los Angeles Times article compared Japanese Americans living in the United States to vipers, which supported the notion that “a Jap is a Jap” and not an American citizen due to their ancestry. Likewise, newspapers, both conservative and liberal, like the New York Times picked up cartoons that displayed Japanese soldiers as simple apes trying to destroy “civilized” Americans. These bestial metaphors from these newspapers reflected and fed into the official propaganda from the government in regards to the American war effort against the Japanese Empire. These unofficial depictions of the Japanese contributed to the official views of the Federal Government and military that viewed the Japanese as less than human. One of the most virulently racist commanders, Admiral Halsey made frequent racial epitaphs for the Japanese by comparing them to “monkeymen” and “yellow bastards” and claiming that the Japanese people descended from the worst Chinese criminals and female apes.
Likewise, General DeWitt reiterated before a congressional committee that the wholesale genocide of the Japanese people was the only way of destroying the Japanese menace and winning the war. These comments over genocide and referring to the Japanese in animal terms show the long-enduring effects of propaganda in stoking the racial prejudices of normal Americans by the top strata of the American government and the armed forces. Just like that, Dower’s book further shows the interconnectedness between the Federal Government, the United States Armed Forces, and the civilian news media in propagating the prevailing racial attitudes towards the Japanese people in order to galvanize both the soldiery and the home front to continue fighting against the enemy in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Concurrently, propaganda evolved to depict the Japanese as superhuman and nearly unbeatable fighters in the Pacific Theater. Before Pearl Harbor, most Westerners did not take the Japanese threat seriously and many high-ranking American generals believed the Japanese could not attack the nation due to their “military incompetence.”
After this event, Americans leaders were flabbergasted and sought a logical reason to understand why the Japanese military could have possibly surprise attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 on their own. For instance, President Roosevelt attempted to understand the psyche of the Japanese military through consultation with the director of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian. This directed believed that the Japanese had a “small brain,” which biologically cursed them to commit their deleterious actions towards the Americans. This racialized approach to understanding the complexities of the Japanese mindset was one of the few different ideas that percolated amongst many Western leaders hoping to understand their new foe. Some of these governmental elites believed that the Japanese military apparatus was an almost invincible Goliath that would require much force and tenacity in order to defeat in combat. That is why Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned Americans that the Japanese were a well-equipped foe who would take a lot time to defeat in a widely reported speech. Propaganda mills of the American military establishment propagated the myths of a Japanese soldier who was part “superman-superdevil, in ability, ferocity, and training.”
Notwithstanding, this myth slowly lost much of its credibility amidst the State Department and the military as the Americans slowly beat back the Japanese, destroyed much of their shipping, and pushed their foe to the brink of total collapse. Consequently, the Japanese’s myth of invincibility became another one of the plethora of racialized characterizations that influenced the diverse propaganda that was spreading throughout the United States.