Was the “Greatest Generation” just a bunch of racists? Actor and producer Tom Hanks, promoting his new World War II series “The Pacific,” suggested that the war with Japan was really all about American intolerance; and by the way, so is the war on terrorism.
In several interviews, Mr. Hanks presented a version of World War II in which racism played the dominant role. The Japanese “were out to kill us because our way of living was different,” he told Time magazine. “We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different.” Forget Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March and Tokyo’s territorial expansionism. The United States was really fighting a war against human diversity, according to the former star of “Bosom Buddies.”
“It would be naive to assume that racism was not part of that quotient of World War II,” Mr. Hanks said. That is true. Racial sentiments no doubt played a role. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment order for Americans of Japanese ancestry - overseen in California by state Attorney General Earl Warren and later upheld by the liberal majority on the U.S. Supreme Court - remains a controversial episode in American history. Some government propaganda showed the Japanese in an unflattering light, but propaganda against Axis partners Germany and Italy did as well.
The idea that the United States was making war on “the yellow people” is nonsense, however. America was allied with China and fought to liberate all parts of Asia that had been overrun by the Japanese Empire, including the Philippines, which was a U.S. commonwealth. The fact that the Japanese were Asians did not make a conflict against the nation of Japan a de facto race war.
Racism did play an explicit role on the Japanese side, where ultranationalist militarists used racial philosophies to justify the conquest and exploitation of other (particularly Asian) peoples. Allied prisoners of war were denied their rights under the Geneva Conventions, used as slave labor, routinely tortured and ritually beheaded. Thousands of helpless prisoners of war and civilians were massacred by the Japanese during the course of the conflict. At the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, document No. 2726 contained more than 14,000 pages of affidavits describing separate atrocities committed in the Philippines alone.
“Does that sound familiar to what’s going on today?” Mr. Hanks asked on MSNBC, referring to the supposed racist motives for the war on terrorism. Suicide attacks and beheadings certainly sound familiar, as weapons in the terrorist arsenal that also were used by the Japanese. Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America also have a certain resonance.
But the rules of engagement in America’s current war are far removed from those of World War II. The tone of Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey’s operations order at Guadalcanal, “Kill Japs - Kill Japs - Kill more Japs,” has no place in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the recent fighting in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, American troops were forbidden to fire on any suspected Taliban fighters unless they were coming under direct, observable fire themselves and no civilians could possibly be hurt. Today, “airpower” means pinpoint targeting with unmanned drones rather than the firebombing of Japanese cities with fleets of B-29 bombers. The conduct of these wars could not be more different.
Mr. Hanks has attempted a tactical retreat from his tactless comments. “Look, I’m an actor,” he explained by way of excusing himself from the debate. But that, of course, is the point. The entertainment industry shapes images that have an important influence on public perceptions of history and contemporary issues. Mr. Hanks’ comments reflected a mindset typical of that emanating from Hollywood, a flippant, knee-jerk and knowing anti-Americanism that is long on moral judgment and short on facts. It’s a shame someone who can so dramatically capture historical details on film can’t get the big picture right.