“Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying”: War and Racism in the Pacific

American planes dropped firebombs on Tokyo 75 years ago, on the night of March 9-10, 1945, killing an estimated 80,000-100,000 people.[1] The firebombing began a six-month-long American bombing campaign against 66 Japanese cities that culminated in the two atomic bombings and killed roughly 400,000 people in total.[2] This killing campaign was the climax of a war between the United States and Japan characterized by the most extreme racism imaginable.

The Pacific War brought together two major threats to life: racism and war. While the Pacific War was hardly unique in this regard, it does offer a vivid example of how war, especially wartime propaganda, encourages racist perceptions of others to make it easier to kill them. Propaganda often draws on existing prejudice and stereotypes about a racial, ethnic, or national group and pushes them to an extreme. Consistent life ethic advocates working against both racism and war would do well to remember this historical instance of how the two merged.  

Demonizing the Enemy

Before 1941, Japan and the United States had never fought a full-scale war, but each had negative attitudes toward the other that wartime leaders could exploit. Japanese hostility toward Americans was fostered partly by resentment over western colonialism: for example, a 1943 Japanese propaganda paper declared the war “the counteroffensive of the Oriental races against Occidental aggression” and rehearsed Japan’s many grievances against American foreign policy. The paper condemned western nations’ behavior, saying that “The arrogant Anglo-Saxons, ever covetous of securing world hegemony according to the principle of the white man’s burden, thus dared to take recourse to measures designed to stifle Nippon [Japan] to death.”[3]

Another source of Japanese hatred of the United States was a nationalist ideology that elevated Japanese over others as the “Yamato race,” a spiritually privileged people. As a 1937 Ministry of Education publication explained, the Japanese were “intrinsically quite different from the so-called citizens of Occidental countries,” possessing a “national character that is cloudless, pure, and honest.” This national character made the Japanese superior to westerners and also other Asians. The industrialist and political leader Chikuhei Nakajima commented in 1940 that “it is the sacred duty of the leading race to lead and enlighten the inferior ones.”[4]

In the United States, long-running negative American attitudes toward the Japanese existed in a larger context of racism toward Asians and other non-whites. Such attitudes had prompted, almost 20 years before the war, restrictions on Japanese immigration and state laws against Japanese Americans owning land.[5]

Once war began, racial hatred went into overdrive. Historian John Dower, in his book War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and elsewhere, has analyzed the language and imagery used. Japanese propaganda vilified the Americans and British, characterizing the western enemy as “brute,” “wild beast,” “demons,” “devils,” “fiends,” and “monsters.”[6] “Devilish Americans and English” and “American devils” became stock phrases in wartime Japan.[7]

A characteristic expression of anti-western sentiments was a 1944 Japanese magazine article entitled “Devilish Americans and English,” featuring monstrous caricatures of Roosevelt and Churchill threatening Japan, along with the exhortation, “Beat and kill these animals that have lost their human nature! That is the great mission that Heaven has given to the Yamato race, for the eternal peace of the world!” Another article in the same magazine declared that “the barbaric tribe of Americans are devils in human skin.”[8]

From such dehumanization, Japanese wartime propaganda drew the inevitable conclusions. A Japanese magazine article commented that the more Americans “are sent to hell, the cleaner the world will be.” Official newsreels referred to Iwo Jima as “a suitable place to slaughter the American devils.” Posters in Japanese schools called on students to “kill the American devils.”[9]

American propaganda and popular sentiment were equally extreme. The official 1945 propaganda film Know Your Enemy—Japan characterized the Japanese as masses without individuality: “an obedient mass with but a single mind” and “photographic prints off the same negative.”[10] The Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck ran a cartoon in 1942 featuring a caricature of a Japanese soldier in a gun’s cross-hairs with the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying.”[11]

A 1944 edition of Leatherneck referred to an insect called “Louseous Japanicasand foreshadowed future events by saying that “before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.”[12] A 1942 parade in New York similarly predicted future American actions by featuring a float that showed “a big American eagle leading a flight of bombers down on a herd of yellow rats.” The float bore the slogan “Tokyo: We Are Coming.”[13]

Anti-Japan propaganda differed significantly from US propaganda about Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Posters, cartoons, and the like about Germany generally focused on the Nazi regime, with caricatures of Hitler. By contrast, the Japanese people as such were targets of American propaganda. A popular song’s title reflected the contrast: “There’ll Be No Adolph Hitler Nor Yellow Japs to Fear.”[14] One wartime lapel button featured a picture of Hitler with the slogan “Wanted for Murder” while another button bore the words “Jap Hunting Season – Open Season – No Limit.”[15] Wartime attitudes did not leave room for “good Japanese” as it did for “good Germans.” Leatherneck ran a photo of Japanese killed in the battle of Guadalcanal with the caption: “GOOD JAPS.”[16]

Anti-Japanese sentiment also drew on familiar racist tropes. Propaganda art featured monstrous Japanese soldiers menacing white women, echoing racist fears about black American men.[17] Simian imagery, frequently applied to black Americans (and sometimes others, such as Irish Americans) in the United States, was also applied to the Japanese.[18]

As in Japan, many drew lethal lessons from this portrayal of the enemy. Admiral William Halsey, the commander of the US South Pacific Force offered this mission statement: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs.”[19]

Halsey was unusually crude, but other American and Allied officials provided their own share of extreme rhetoric. Addressing a joint session of the US Congress in 1943, Churchill spoke of “the process, so necessary and desirable, of laying the cities and other munitions centers of Japan in ashes, for in ashes they must surely lie before peace comes back to the world.”[20] General Joseph Stilwell, assigned to China during the war, wrote to his wife that “When I think of how these bowlegged cockroaches have ruined our calm lives it makes me want to wrap Jap guts around every lamppost in Asia.”[21]

A US Navy official involved in postwar planning argued at one point for “the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race,” emphasizing that “white civilization was at stake” (the official later backed away from this position). Paul V. McNutt, the chairman of the War Manpower Commission, gave a speech in April 1945, during the US bombing of Japan, calling for “the extermination of the Japanese in toto.” McNutt later clarified that he was expressing his personal view, not official policy.[22] Official view or not, a significant minority of Americans seemed to agree: a December 1944 public opinion poll found 13 percent of respondents’ favored post-war policy was to “kill all Japanese.”[23]

Consequences of Racial Hatred

The Pacific war pushed existing racism to new extremes. How did such extreme racism in turn shape the conduct of the war?

The US-Japanese War was marked by horrifying violence, not only battlefield violence and the bombing of Japanese cities, but also the torture and killing of prisoners, the wounded, and other helpless troops by both sides. The extreme racism on both sides presumably contributed to this brutality, although the contribution should not be overstated. The war in Europe was also horrifically violent, while the atomic bombs ultimately used against Japan had been originally developed in response to fears of Germany obtaining such weapons.

Nevertheless, the war against Japan differed from the war in Europe in ways that seem explicable chiefly by pervasive racism toward the Japanese. The US wartime approach to domestic civil liberties provides a clear example of racism shaping policy. In 1942, more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese heritage were forcibly taken from their homes on the west coast and confined to concentration camps because of suspicions by the US military, echoed in the media, that they were disloyal.[24] This policy’s racist character was clear from the contrast in how Americans descended from European enemy nations were treated: while some imprisonment and persecution of German-Americans and Italian-Americans took place during the war, it was never on the same scale as with Japanese-Americans.[25]

The policy’s racism was also clear from statements made by General John DeWitt, the military official in charge of the imprisonment. At one point, he explained “In the war in which we are now engaged racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”[26] DeWitt also said, more concisely, “A Jap’s a Jap. You can’t change him by giving him a piece of paper.”[27]

Another significant way the war against Japan differed from that against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was in a grisly aspect of the Pacific War. Some US service personnel fighting the Japanese in the Pacific adopted the practice of taking what were euphemistically called “battlefield trophies”: ears, teeth, or other body parts of Japanese soldiers killed in battle. One seaman, in a diary entry from July 1944, mentions a Marine who had collected 17 gold teeth from Japanese. A 1943 Leatherneck article refers to a Marine taking 11 ears as souvenirs. Probably the most infamous record of a battlefield trophy is a photo from the May 22, 1944, issue of Life in which a young American woman contemplates the skull of a Japanese—a memento sent from her fiancé.[28]

As John Dower comments, “It is virtually inconceivable…that teeth, ears, and skulls could have been collected from German or Italian war dead and publicized in the Anglo-American countries without provoking an uproar.”[29]       

Some of US policymakers’ own statements hint at a connection between pervasive racism and the Pacific War’s conduct. Secretary of War Henry Stimson thought ignorance contributed to the uncompromising American attitude toward Japan, lamenting “a good deal of uninformed agitation against the [Japanese] Emperor in this country mostly by people who know no more about Japan than has been given them by Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado,’” and commenting that such views “had gotten deeply embedded in the minds of influential people in the State Department.”[30]

In a letter, Truman defended the atomic bombings with a telling choice of words: “The only language they seem to understand is the one that we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but true.”[31] Meanwhile, many Americans supported Truman’s decision to use the bombs while not sharing his regrets: a Fortune poll from December 1945 found over a fifth of those surveyed wished that the United States had been able to use “many more of them [atomic bombs] before Japan had a chance to surrender.”[32]

Postwar Change?

Following Japan’s surrender and the American occupation, violently racist propaganda faded on both sides. While the occupation was deeply violent and unjust in crucial respects, the United States did not pursue “the extermination of the Japanese in toto” and no longer used such extreme dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery toward their former opponents.[33] Paternalism toward Japan replaced hatred, and the United States and Japan have remained allies in the decades since the occupation.[34] The change in attitudes has both hopeful and ominous lessons.

The hopeful lesson is that racist attitudes are not fixed or unchangeable and that even the most toxic racism can dissipate if the political context encouraging it changes. The ominous lesson is that those in power can promote extreme racism that might not otherwise exist if they deem political needs—such as fighting a war—require it. Consistent life ethic advocates should remember these lessons. We must be on guard against the racist demonization of people our governments designate as “enemies” and insist on recognizing our common humanity. The Pacific War provides a horrifying example of what can happen when such recognition is lost.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999), 17-18, 367 (endnote).

[2] Ibid., 334-335, 435 (endnote); John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 40-41.

[3] Dower, War without Mercy, 59-60.

[4] Ibid., 217, 221.

[5] Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, “Before Pearl Harbor,” in Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, DC: GPO, 1983), 28-36, available at https://bit.ly/2GYriGj; US Department of State, Office of the Historian, “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” accessed September 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/2FhEd5O. See also Ronald Takaki, Hiroshima: Why American Dropped the Atomic Bomb (Boston: Little Brown, 1995), 78-86, for an overview of anti-Japanese racism in the United States.

[6] Dower, War without Mercy, 242, 244. Dower also covers the same topic in brief in his essay “Race, Language, and War in Two Cultures: World War II in Asia,” in Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World (New York: New Press, 2012), 28-64

[7] Ibid., 248.

[8] Ibid., 247-248.

[9] Ibid., 248-249.

[10] Ibid., 19-20.

[11] Dower, “Race, Language, and War in Two Cultures,” 34.

[12] Dower, War without Mercy, 91.

[13] Ibid., 92.

[14] Ibid., 78-79, 81, 182.

[15] Takaki, Hiroshima, 73-74.

[16] Dower, War without Mercy, 79.

[17] Ibid., 189. Imagery of Japanese soldiers threatening white women turned up in posters in the “This Is the Enemy” series, as well the poster titled “Keep This Horror from Your Home.” Images of these posters are readily available online and some are also reprinted in David E. Scherman, ed., Life Goes to War: A Picture History of World War II (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), 126-127.

[18] Dower, War without Mercy, 84-88, 183-187.

[19] Ibid., 36.

[20] Ibid., 55.

[21] Takaki, Hiroshima, 70.

[22] Dower, War without Mercy, 55, 328 (endnote).

[23] Ibid., 53-54.

[24] Takaki, Hiroshima, 86-93.

[25] See CBS News, “WWII: U.S. Germans Were ‘Enemy Aliens,’” June 9, 2007, https://cbsn.ws/3hwD2MB; David A. Taylor, “During World War II, the U.S. Saw Italian-Americans as a Threat to Homeland Security,” Smithsonian, February 2, 2017, https://bit.ly/2FysXC0.

[26] Takaki, Hiroshima, 91.

[27] Dower, War without Mercy, 81.

[28] Ibid., 64-66, 330 (endnote).

[29] Ibid., 66.

[30] Takaki, Hiroshima, 128.

[31] Ibid., 100.

[32] Dower, War without Mercy, 54.

[33] For a discussion of the violent consequences of the post-war American occupation of Japan, see “The Wages of War: How Abortion Came to Japan” and “The Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan.”

[34] Dower, War without Mercy, 301-305.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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