Militarization, Propaganda, and the War in the Pacific
Having emphasized in the prior two sections of this talk the transnational, multiethnic influences on American representations of mid-nineteenth-century Japan and the ways in which American reexaminations of Meiji Japan were at the same time meditations on the state of the U.S. as it entered the twentieth century, respectively, I want to bring these threads together in this final section on the Pacific War in the 1930s and 1940s. Even though Pearl Harbor and the U.S. war effort quickly crystallized American public opinion vehemently against Japan and most anyone of Japanese descent living in the United States during the war, it’s worth remarking how late--into the late 1930s among many elites and even later in popular culture--the Hearn-London debate from the first decade of the century continued to be played out. Two representative figures here are Robert Heinlein and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Heinlein represents the London school of Japanology. Updating for his contemporaries the media-induced Japanese invasion panic of 1907, London’s own writings on Japan and China, and the 1928-1929 Philip Nowland science fiction novel Armageddon 2419 (which inspired such comic strips featuring Asian villains as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Flash Gordon), Heinlein’s 1941 science fiction novel Sixth Column posits an Asian invasion of the United States. This popularized image of a “yellow peril” threatening the United States was not just a prejudice of the masses; in 1924, in a culmination of some 40 years of anti-Asian state and federal legislation, the U.S. passed the most restrictive immigration law in its history, completely excluding emigration from Asia (except for the quasi-colony of the Philippines) and drastically reducing emigration from southern and eastern Europe. With the demographic threat contained by the Johnson-Reed Act, the “yellow peril” shifted toward suspicion of the rising regional power in Asia, Japan.
Du Bois, by contrast, is closer to Hearn. As a host of recent studies--most notably by Vijay Prashad, Marc Gallichio, and Bill Mullen--has unearthed, many prominent African-American intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s looked favorably upon both Taisho and Showa Japan. W.E.B. Du Bois, who during this period developed an innovative socialist critique of racism and colonialism, applauded the Taisho regime’s efforts to codify anti-racism and anti-colonialism in the League of Nations. Given his tendency to excuse the occupation of Korea, perhaps it should come as no surprise that even as the Showa regime leaned more and more toward militarism and expansionism--and even after the staging of the Manchurian Incident--Du Bois continued to hold out hope that the anti-colonial would outweigh the imperial in Japanese international politics. Only after 1937 did Du Bois pin his anti-colonial hopes on China and shift to a critique of Japanese depradations against Chinese civilians.
For different reasons, many U.S elites began to peg American national interests with China over the course of the 1930s, as well. Between the popularity of Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth, outrage at Japanese crimes against humanity with the bombing of Shanghai and the rape of Nanking, and the hope that Chinese nationalists would see the United States as a possible ally in their fight against European and Japanese imperialism, opinion leaders in the U.S. began to quietly agitate for war against Japan.
After years of such efforts, the U.S. public was primed for a nearly unanimous shift in representations of Japan by the U.S. government, media, and entertainment industries following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. And indeed, between documentaries like Frank Capra’s series Why We Fight, Hollywood movies like The Purple Heart that focused on Japanese atrocities against American POWs, comic books like Captain America, editorials and editorial cartoons in major newspapers and magazines, and even animated shorts featuring Bugs Bunny and Popeye, whatever debates over and ambivalence in the pre-war American images of Japan were washed away by a wave of anti-Japanese war propaganda.
John Dower has traced a fascinating shift in this propaganda over the course of the war. At first, as the Japanese military was winning battle after battle, American propagandists labored to convince the American public to take the threat from Japan seriously and to give up their stereotypes of the Japanese as small, harmless, incompetent, and even ludicrous when it came to fighting with modern weapons of war. Next, as the bloodiness of the battles and difficulty of seeing a way to victory became apparent, propagandists shifted to producing and questioning images of Japanese as super-soldiers. The sneaky, back-stabbing monkey images used to symbolize Japanese soldiers during the first year of the war were transformed into images of gigantic, powerful, rampaging apes, for instance. Then, as the tide of battle turned in the U.S.’s favor, images of Japanese as vermin to be exterminated began to appear, followed by a return to the mocking, parodic images from the first weeks of the war.
Christina Jarvis has updated and expanded Dower’s work to focus on how the image of war-time allies, such as Chinese and Filipino peoples, became rehabilitated during the war. During the 1930s, for instance, Filipino farm laborers in the American west were often bitterly discriminated against and attacked, as documented in Carlos Bulosan’s autobiography, America Is in the Heart. But once their compatriots were seen as the victims of Japanese imperialism in need of rescue by the U.S. military, attitudes toward diasporic Filipinos in the U.S. shifted, as well. The case of China is even more dramatic, as these scenes from The Battle of China, one of the last films in the Why We Fight series, demonstrate.
The work of Dower, Jarvis, and other historians of American war propaganda raise controversial questions that scholars of the aerial bombing campaigns and of the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have also considered. What role did this propaganda play in the decision to bomb civilian populations and dozens of major Japanese cities? Dower analyzes how American propagandists manipulated Japanese war propaganda, turning positives from the Showa regime’s perspective into negatives for the American public’s consumption; this suggests a degree of self-consciousness about the construction and orchestration of images of and from Japan. But did American war planners come to believe their own propaganda that the Japanese people were fanatically devoted to the Emperor, who was a tool of military elites, and needed to be shocked and awed out of their self-destructive reverence? Or after pushing for years for total and unconditional surrender of the Japanese government and sowing the seeds of racialized hatred of the Japanese people, were they constrained by the public opinion they helped cultivate? Over the past several decades, historians have debated the strategic, military, technical, scientific aspects of the American air campaign and the timing of the use of atomic weaponry, considering the full range of alternatives open to U.S. war planners. What a study of the first century of American representations of Japan can bring to the foreground is the relative role played by wartime stereotype, myth, discourse, ideology, and propaganda in the framing and sifting of alternatives. Even if we accept arguments that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to hasten the war and save American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Kyushu--the traditional view--or instead that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were meant as object lessons for the Soviet Union--the most controversial rival interpretation--it still is worth emphasizing that in either case the lives of Japanese civilians must have been construed as acceptable losses (as indeed they must during the entire incendiary bombing campaign of Japanese cities). Surely war hates and racism played a significant role in this calculation, even if (or especially if) it was done unthinkingly.
What actually took so long was setting up and analyzing my examples. Next talk: more examples!