Today I finished adding my notes on the second volume of John Toland's outstanding The Rising Sun to the U.S. War Against Asia section of this site. Re-reading the highlights of U.S. and Japanese diplomatic decision making during World War II (volume 1 covered the events leading up to the war in the Pacific), my purpose was to do more than gaze (so to speak) in horror at the scale of destruction involved.
Before the U.S. was engaged in the war President Franklin D. Roosevelt criticized the conduct of Japan (in China) and General Franco in Spain. He dispatched messages to all belligerents urging them to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism of bombing civilians.” But his preparations for war included a massive expansion of the bombing capabilities of the United States.
Roosevelt built a reputation on caring for the common man, but his record is mixed. He was an imperialist in the mold of his relative, President Theodore Roosevelt, at an early age. As President, FDR challenged Japan's incursions into China, but refused to grant independence to the U.S. colony of the Philippines. He supported French retention of Indochina and the Netherlands retention of Indonesia. Still, in his calm moments he probably understood ethics and compassion as well as the average man he claimed to represent, so his pre-war anti bombing statements were doubtless sincere, at the time.
Long before World War II broke out it had been well established, as international law, that artillery was to be used only against enemy soldiers. Bombarding civilians is a war crime. By extension aerial bombardment should only be used against soldiers, not against civilians.
In war itself, however, passion combine with the cold logic of seeking military victory to change how Roosevelt and Americans saw attacks on civilians, when it was American bombers that were doing the attacking.
For American citizens and soldiers, this is often attributed to beliefs that Japanese soldiers were merciless to civilians and POWs. There were plenty of incidents that supported this view, but for the most part Japanese officers, with a few exceptions, restrained their men as best they could. There were some cultural differences: Japanese soldiers (or at least officers) were trained to prefer to die than be captured, which leads to contempt for surrendering enemies. It is wise to remember that many if not most of the Japanese generals and admirals Americans were told to hate had received some schooling in the U.S.
But the central event of American anti-Japanese propaganda was the Bataan Death March. The problem with the propaganda is that it blamed the Japanese for the actions of President Roosevelt. American troops (including Filipinos) in the Philippines were essentially starved to death on orders by Roosevelt. He believed their resistance in Bataan would slow the Japanese advance elsewhere, giving the U.S. time to rebuild the invasion fleet that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor. While some Japanese soldiers acted cruelly during the march (they too had been fighting, had seen their comrades killed, and were tired and hungry), for the most part the Japanese failed to save many American lives, despite considerable effort, because commanding officers did not realize how seriously starved the American soldiers were before they surrendered.
Numerous witnesses have recorded the widespread killing of Japanese POWs by GI's during World War II, in particular during the campaign to recapture the Philippines (which lost their independent nation status when MacArthur reconquered them). This was not simply a matter of men gone mad. According to Toland, posters were printed urging GI's to "have no mercy on yellow bastards."
No mercy at all.
Then came General Curtis LeMay's plan to firebomb Japanese cities. President Roosevelt approved it. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly women, children and elders, died.
When Roosevelt died the atomic bomb was almost ready for testing. President Truman heard arguments about whether to use it against the Japanese or not. The Japanese were trying to negotiate a surrender, but Truman wanted an unconditional surrender.
Asked later if it was difficult to make the atomic bomb decision, Truman said it was just like deciding to use a more devastating artillery. If you have it, you use it, the objective is to win the war.
So much for international law about the use of artillery against civilians.
See also: Notes on Rising Sun by John Toland
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