World War II was the realization of unprecedented levels of destruction. That much has long been established by witnesses and thousands of history books published in the ensuing years. Many of those history books adequately described the scale and intensity of the many battles that comprised the war in both Europe and Asia, and many of those histories devote substantial time to the role of racism and anti-Semitism in the origins of the war in the European theater, mainly the ideology of the National Socialist Party of Germany, the Nazis. Far less prevalent has been discussion of the role of racial animosity in the prosecution of the war against Imperial Japan. As John Dower illuminated in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, racism on the parts of the United States and Japan both contributed significantly to the ferocity of the battles and to the efforts on the part of both nations to defeat the other. The dehumanizing nature of racism, Dower argues, made more possible than otherwise might have been the case the willingness of each side to destroy the other.
War Without Mercy is divided into three main parts. The first part focuses on racism in a general context and the means employed by governments to dehumanize the enemy so as to better justify its destruction. Sections two and three, however, provide the heart of the narrative. Part II: “The War in Western Eyes” discusses, as the title suggests, the use of propaganda to help inspire a national war effort. Racist depictions of Japanese set against a backdrop of the destruction from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (and the concurrent Japanese invasion of the Philippines) were used to fuel anti-Japanese sentiments at home. Dehumanizing the Japanese people (while incarcerating Japanese Americans in internment camps), Dower argues, made easier the notion of annihilating Japanese with atomic weaponry.
Part III: “The War in Japanese Eyes” does for the Japanese perspective what Part II did for the American side. While American cartoons and films depicted Japanese in the most derogatory and savage manner possible, Japanese efforts similarly attempted to show Americans as racially inferior and aliens to the Asian territories over which the two nations fought. Where the two cases differed, however, was in the role played by a history of Western imperialism in Asia during which the Japanese were involuntarily exposed to European influences while there was no history of Japanese occupation of Europe or of the United States. Thus, perspectives differed, with the Japanese having been more exposed to the people with whom they were at war and consequently less able to emphasize racial advantages while at the same time imbued themselves with a sense of racial superiority over other Asians.
Dower’s main point in War Without Mercy is that perspectives of other peoples as racially inferior makes easier the scale of destruction wrought by both sides during World War II. Discussing the release the day following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki of a propaganda film titled “Know Your Enemy—Japan,” Dower notes that US General Douglas MacArthur ordered the film to be withdrawn, Japan’s surrender and the scale of destruction caused by the two atomic bombs having eliminated any notion of a Japanese threat. MacArthur understood that the war’s end meant the task of shaping a new, post-Imperial Japan as a constitutional democracy required an end to dehumanizing depictions. Dower, as he notes in the book’s earlier passages, had been drawn to this subject by his awareness of how well the United States and a now-defeated and humiliated Japan worked together to rebuild the country. His point: the racism “necessary” to the war effort was counterproductive to the peacetime goal of amicable relations.