By Edward Cline
Actor/Producer Tom Hanks made some unconventional, controversial remarks about the Pacific campaign during World War II. He more or less claimed that the conflict between American and Japanese forces was motivated by racism, not by ideas. Let me rephrase that: It was more a matter of American racism than it was stopping Imperial Japan’s version of Nazi’s Germany’s Lebensraum, a policy that could just as well have included the annexation of the West Coast if the U.S. had not recovered from Pearl Harbor.
“Back in World War II,” he says, “we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?”
One really is at a loss to task Hanks on this matter. He is a fine actor and heir to the mantle of also gregarious actor Jimmy Stewart (who actually piloted bombers over Germany). One is reluctant to slap his face silly, saying, “Wake up and smell the history!” but instead put a encouraging hand on his shoulder and say, “Read a few more books, son, before you make a fool of yourself.” But he did speak the words, and must take the slapping.
True, the Japanese were out to kill us. Just as they were out to kill the Chinese, the Koreans, the Filipinos, the Burmese, the Indians and any Europeans who were unlucky enough to be in the way of the Japanese march to “co-prosperity” at the point of a gun. Aside from race, just how “different” was our “way of living” from the Japanese “way of living”? Even with its nascent welfare state, America was still a relatively free country. Shinto and emperor worship, allied with bushido-driven fascist militarism, governed Japan. Also, the hubris of racial superiority.
True, many American soldiers went to war as racists. Much of the war propaganda was themed on race. But while Japanese war and political policy was racially motivated, American war and political policy was not. Its policy was: Defeat the aggressor. There was no trace of “moral equivalence” in those days. Victor David Hanson noted in his fine article, “Is Tom Hanks Unhinged?”:
Despite Hanks’ efforts at moral equivalence in making the U.S. and Japan kindred in their hatreds, America was attacked first, and its democratic system was both antithetical to the Japan of 1941, and capable of continual moral evolution in a way impossible under Gen. Tojo and his cadre.
Was our military out to “annihilate” the Japanese? No, not as a race, not even as a culture. Just its rank-and-file soldiers, who were indoctrinated to fight to the death in the realm of physical force. They owed their lives to the emperor, to their ancestors, and to die was to honor them. For our forces, it was a matter of killing them, or being killed by them. The stories of the suicidal combat and behavior of the Japanese brought back by soldiers, seamen, and Marines who fought them are legion.
So, it makes one wonder what interpretation Hanks would put on the European campaign. Was that fought from racist motives? He would be hard put to make such an argument, unless he claimed that “we” just didn’t like their cuisine, beer-drinking habits, folk-dances, and guys in funny uniforms who shouted speeches in a guttural language to mass rallies of true believers.
And, what did Hanks mean by “Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?” Frankly, no, it isn’t familiar with anything that’s going on today. It is difficult to construe any meaning in this statement, unless he was referring to Islam’s ongoing war against the West, or perhaps to Iraq and Afghanistan, or to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He did not qualify or clarify his remark. Neither did he shed any light on his meaning during an interview. He didn’t back-pedal. He stuck to his original remark and said that “America overcoming racism is taking an awfully long time.” Really? America boasts a black president, blacks on the Supreme Court, blacks in Congress, senior officers in the military, intellectuals and writers of many races, doctors, scientists, Japanese and Indian financiers, innovators, CEO’s…have I left anyone out? Perhaps Muslims and Patagonians.