Total war was the product of modern, industrial society and the tremendous advances in science and technology that were applied to the development of new weapons like the machine gun, the submarine, poison gas, the airplane and the atomic bomb. To be sure, warfare had always been brutal and atrocities were commonplace long before the invention of modern weapons, but in the world wars of the 20th Centuries, all of the industrial, scientific and economic power of advanced societies were applied to warfare, while the distinctions between civilians and soldiers disappeared as cities were carpet bombed out of existence. Totalistic regimes like those in Germany and Japan also systematically murdered millions of people during the Second World War, and unlike World War I the Allies refused to negotiate with them at all but demanded unconditional surrender. Both of these world wars simply “overwhelmed all aspects of life in the countries involved as they mobilized for total war”, and also led to the elimination of all traditional moral restraints (Wiesner et al, 2012, p. 369).
The American Civil War in 1861-65 and the First World War of 1914-18 were the real harbingers of the future and showed that total war and modern weapons would bring total destructions to soldiers and civilians alike. Masses of troops charged into highly effective defensive positions against enemies armed with modern weapons, resulting in enormous casualties. Old school officers like the British commander on the Western Front, Sir Douglas Haig, kept using the same tactics that dated back to the age of the single-shot musket, and suffered millions of casualties in futile attacks. On the Western Front in France in 1914-18, the lines changed hardly at all as commanders on both sides sought to “wear down the resistance of his opponent and pin him to his position” (Wiesner et al, p. 382). As a result, the British lost nearly three million men dead, wounded and missing, the French nearly four million, and the Germans six million (Wisener et al, p. 383). This was the reason the military strategists after 1918 sought new methods of warfare using tanks and plans that would avoid such attrition in the future and result in rapid victories. Adolf Hitler, who had fought as a common solider on the Western Front for four years, was an early enthusiast for this new type of Blitzkrieg or lightning war, and put it into practice against Poland, France and Russia in 1939-41.
The United States was still very badly prepared for war against Germany and Japan in 1941, whose military organizations had far more combat experience. Almost all the troops who fought in the war were civilian volunteers or draftees given the miniscule size of the professional Army in 1920-40, and in the end the ability of the U.S. to train and equip them in a very rapid time was a remarkable accomplishment. Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall have always received their share of the credit for organizing the resources to equip this vast new and untested force, finding the best combat leadership available and setting the overall strategic goals. As Roosevelt told Congress in 1942, the entire economy would be mobilized for total war, with more than half of the budget devoted to the military, compared to fifteen percent in peacetime, and the production of civilian goods would be cut back or eliminated (Wiesner et al, p. 391). At Casablanca in 1943, he also announced that the policy of the Allies would be to demand the unconditional surrender of the Axis regimes, with no armistices or negotiations as in World War I. This war would be fought until the enemy was totally defeated, destroyed and occupied (Wiesner et al, p. 395).
After the defeat at Stalingrad in 1942 and the failure of the Blitzkrieg to bring rapid victory on the Eastern Front, Germany also mobilized for total war. Hitler’s deficiencies as a military leader, let alone his moral and psychological defects, are very well known. His orders to the Germany Army to stand and fight to the last man in Stalingrad, North Africa and Normandy aroused genuine hatred and despair among his professional military officers, allowing entire armies to be surrounded and destroyed. Hitler created anti-Semitic laws and policies in 1933-45 because his entire career in politics from 1919 until his suicide in 1945 was based on a racist and anti-Semitic worldview as well as 19th Century Social Darwinism and the belief that some individuals and races were supermen and others subhuman. Certainly he never made any secret of his ideology, which could be found in Mein Kampf and his other writings. He ordered the extermination of the handicapped and mentally ill in Germany in 1939, which continued up to the end of the war and many of the personnel involved with that T-4 program were later moved to Poland to organize the first death camps for the Jews, including Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka death camp. All of the main death camps established during the Third Reich were located in Poland, including Auschwitz, although mobile killing squads like the Einsatzgruppen also murdered two million Jews in Poland and Russia. Combined with his genocidal orders and massive atrocities against civilians (particularly on the Eastern Front), general military revulsion against his leadership culminated in the coup attempt of July 20, 1944. Needless to say, no such events ever occurred among the Western Allies.
Japan’s wars of aggression and conquest began long before the fascist takeover of the 1930s and the alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940, and the idea that the Japanese were a superior race also had a long pedigree—as indeed did the Nordic-Aryan racism of the Nazis. At Nanking in 1937, where over 100,000 Chinese soldiers and civilian were massacred, they put their own racist ideas into practice, and gave the world an early indicated of just how genocidal and brutal the Second World War would become. Rape was common during the massacre, and the entire city was looted and plundered, as the Japanese military “turned Nanking into a city of terror” (Wiesner et al, p. 388). In the Pacific war after the initial surrenders of 1941-42, very few Allied troops gave up or took prisoners, while the Japanese glorified the suicidal experience of the kamikazes and banzai charges as the highest ideal of heroism and self-sacrifice. In reality, millions of Asians died as a result of Japanese atrocities and slave labor, far more than the number of whites killed in the Pacific War. Racism on both sides was certainly a factor in the Pacific War, right up to the time the atomic bombs were used. Battles in the island hopping campaign were fought without mercy, with few prisoners taken, while the American public was also eager for revenge for Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March. Even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, over sixty Japanese cities were firebombed into oblivion, including a raid on Tokyo on March 9, 1945 that created not simply a firestorm but a lake of fire—a true hell on earth. For the U.S. and Britain, calls for the total extermination against the Japanese were routine, at both the popular and elite levels, as were depictions of the Japanese are monkey-men. German atrocities and genocide against the Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were known during the war, although they were not played up in the Western media and popular culture nearly as much as Japanese war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war, at least not until after Germany was defeated. Even publications like the New York Times and New Yorker regularly used terms like “Japs”, “Nips” and “yellow monkeys”, as did almost all civilian and military officials.
Japan was going to surrender in 1945 even if the atomic bombs were not dropped and that no invasion would ever have been necessary. It navy, air force and merchant marine were already destroyed and over sixty cities had been firebombed into ashes. Nearly nine million Japanese civilians had been displaced as the cities were destroyed, and unlike Germany its air defenses were ineffective (Wiesner et al, p. 398). Their only condition was that the Emperor not be removed, and in the end the Truman administration agreed to this rather than prosecuting Hirohito as a war criminal. At the time in the summer of 1945, all the top military and civilian officials of the administration except Secretary of State James Byrnes had already advised Truman to accept the Japanese surrender on this condition. Yet when the Potsdam Declaration was issued in July 1945, Harry Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes removed the condition that would have allowed the emperor to remain in power. Only after the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, coupled with the Soviet entry into the war did the Truman administration agree to permit the emperor to remain, but the “Allied refusal to negotiate terms of surrender may have prolonged Japanese resistance” (Wiesner et al, p. 403).
A single atomic bomb was sufficient to completely destroy two large cities in a very short time, and many military and civilian leaders recognized at the time that this new weapon was the culmination of total war in an industrial and scientific society. An atomic bomb, even one that was very small compared to those that were developed later, could completely destroy any above ground target, and no distinction between military and civilian targets was possible. Nuclear weapons meant total and instant destruction against any opponent, and mutual assured destruction if both sides used them. Harry Truman, Secretary of State James Byrnes and other civilian and military leaders also thought in 1945 that the atomic bomb would be an instrument of coercion against the Soviets. Far from making them more tractable, though, Stalin simply ordered a speedup of work on their own bomb, which was tested in 1949. Nor did the Russians withdraw from Eastern Europe or other areas that they had conquered during the war, so in this sense the Byrnes-Truman version of atomic diplomacy was a failure. Instead, the use of the atomic bombs in 1945 were one of the main causes of the Cold War and the arms race that followed, which meant that the entire world was now faced with the prospect of total and immediate destruction. A Third World War would indeed have been a total war, but it would only have lasted about an hour.
Wiesner, M.F. et al (2012). Discovering the Global Past: A Look at the Evidence. Volume II: Since 1400. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.