Propaganda, Dehumanization, and World War II

Written June 2015 — The consequences of dehumanization and the emphasis upon nationalist supremacy created a war in which killing was a moral obligation.

The power and influence of propaganda is certainly formidable. According to Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, propaganda is the “dissemination of ideas and information for the purpose of inducing or intensifying specific attitudes and actions” (Funk). During World War II, propaganda accelerated the construction of racial pride and nationalist identities for the Allied and Axis powers. As populations became emboldened by the assertion of their own superiority they became complicit in the dehumanization of those that fell outside of their constructed identities. As a result of racist propaganda and dehumanization World War II became a war bereft of humanity. John W. Dower’s book, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific, discusses the role of propaganda in the intensification of poisonous myths of racial and national supremacy. Through the indoctrination of those myths whole nations willingly accepted participation in the atrocities against humanity that were committed between 1939 and 1945. By deconstructing the information within War Without Mercy a better understanding of the way in which racist propaganda affected military strategies in America and Japan can be achieved.

In the United States, racial stereotyping both prevented the United States from adequately preparing itself against a Japanese attack and ‘justified’ the mass slaughter of innocent Japanese people. Prior to that infamous day in December 1941, Americans were collectively secure in the notion that the Imperial Japanese military could never pursue an attack on the United States because of their inferior intellect, weaponry, and military experience. The pattern of bigotry began with infantilizing and diminishing Japan to a nation of subhuman creatures. It was due to such prevalent racist ideology that the United States military made no efforts to safeguard its military against an attack from Imperial Japan. Despite the Imperial Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationist sentiments prevented the American people from supporting entry into WWII. Such sentiments necessitated an ideological campaign in addition to the traditional military effort. To address this issue, George C. Marshall, the United States Army Chief of Staff enlisted Hollywood filmmakers to sway popular opinion in favor of a war against Japan. The result was seven films directed by Frank Capra titled, Why We Fight. In one of the seven films, Know Your Enemy: Japan, Capra effectively constructed the notion that America was “fundamentally peaceful, democratic, and rational” while Japan was “a thoroughly militaristic, repressive, irrational nation” (Dower, 66). As a result of Capra’s propaganda Americans soldiers could kill Japanese soldiers and civilians without the guilt of moral compromise because Japanese people were no longer afforded humanity. This juxtaposition even had harmful implications in the domestic policies of the United States. U.S. civilians had no qualms about the policy of placing Japanese Americans in internment camps. These actions were not viewed as the denial of basic human rights, but it was instead viewed as a necessary measure to ensure the safety of ‘real Americans’ from the ‘monolith of evil’ that people of Japanese ancestry came to represent. Through these harmful ideologies American military strategy could exert morally reprehensible actions against Japan, such as the mass murder of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the enthusiastic support of American civilians.

In Japan, propaganda largely mirrored the formula of bigotry employed in the United States. Japan was constructing a racial and national purity the effects of which were comparable to white supremacy. Japan’s narrative of racial supremacy facilitated its lengthy record of committing human atrocities. For example, in sustaining the war effort, Japan unapologetically exploited non-Japanese laborers, treating them as expendable. Atrocities against its Asian neighbors in Korea, China, and Indonesia were also commonplace. Justified by a fabricated racial history that integrated a narrative of a divine purpose with politically motivated propaganda, Japan was increasingly confident about its imminent triumph over the West. Much of the support for the demonization of America was derived from images of the horrors of the American South where lynchings, segregation, and hate crimes were prevalent and unconstrained. Japan also indulged in the portrayal of Occidental nations as relentless white imperialists. Japanese propaganda, like all nationalist propaganda had an overarching narrative of the Japanese as a “leading race” (Dower, 25). In addition to the leading race, the Imperial Army “divided the nationalities of Asia into “master races,” “friendly races,” and “guest races” (Dower, 25). Similar racial hierarchies were enforced by Jim Crow policies in the United States. American white supremacy provided that the further one found themselves from whiteness the closer they were to the bottom of the social order. Convinced of its identity as the leading race, drawing origins from the Yamato history, the Japan saw itself as the defender of its very existence against the oppressive imperialist forces of America and Britain. As racial stereotypes focused on preserving the internal purity of the nation, the very civilians that comprised the nation sacrificed themselves rather than become victims of the American forces. Destruction of the self was inconsequential if it facilitated greater destruction of the other.

The consequences of dehumanization and the emphasis upon nationalist supremacy created a war in which killing was a moral obligation. This phenomenon is best described by Browning in his discussion about the massacre of Jewish people by Nazi forces:

What is clear is that the men’s concern for their standing in the eyes of their comrades was not matched by any sense of human ties with their victims. The Jews stood outside their circle of human obligation and responsibility. Such a polarization between “us” and “them,” between one’s comrades and the enemy, is of course standard in war (Browning).

The failure to recognize those outside of one’s own racial and national identity sits at the heart of the merciless cruelty and brutality seen during WWII. In War Without Mercy, Dower reveals the ways in which brutality became a product of government-sponsored propaganda. In both the United States and Japan, racist stereotypes and mythological constructs of supremacy enforced by propaganda infiltrated military and civilian populations. At home and abroad for both nations, the consequences were devastating. In the United States, the public took no issue with the forced imprisonment of thousands of Japanese-Americans. Outside of the United States, Americans enthusiastically supported the slaughter and defilement of Japanese civilians and military personnel. The twisted consequences of this savage brutality included the bombing of innocents, the dismemberment of corpses, and the collection of body parts from dead Japanese soldiers. Within Imperial Japan, delusions of racial purity and the urge to protect that purity resulted in mass suicides by Japanese civilians. Japanese citizen were indoctrinated with the belief that capture by American soldiers brought fate worse than death. Outside of Japan, criminal exploitation of South Asian labor, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and relentless violence were fueled by the belief in the racial purity of the Yamato race.

Ultimately, World War II is not unique in the widespread use of propaganda to facilitate the dehumanization of marginalized groups. Human society must come to terms with its comfort with committing mass murder at the whims of propagandists. Today, American institutions continue to portray the slaughter at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the forced internment of Japanese Americans as necessary elements of war. We must acknowledge that war only facilitates the extinguishment of innocent lives. If we continue to assert that the deaths of innocent beings is a necessary sacrifice to protect the mythologies constructed by propagandists, the pillars of peace and democracy our leaders espouse will continue to be blatant lies.


Works Cited

1. Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986. iTunes, 25 Jan. 2012. iBooks.

2. “Propaganda.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2014): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 20 June 2015.