John Dower was “Dower the Tower” during my years as a correspondent in Japan. He was a giant in his field, one of the few scholars who were required reading for anyone covering a nation notorious for its opacity, its complex history, and the ideological shroud Americans draped over it during the Cold War decades. Dower held fast against that corruption of scholarship in everything he wrote over a career that now spans five decades. I rank him with Chalmers Johnson and Herbert Bix as one of the great Asia scholars of his generation.
Dower’s first masterpiece, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, was published in 1986 and lifted the lid on the astonishingly raw racism that infused American war propaganda just as much as it did Japan’s. The book also signaled Dower’s future trajectory. He has never lost his habit of exploring popular culture, media imagery, and the like to get at history’s true core. Nor has he ever ceased insisting on the need to see from the perspectives of others. This culminated in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Another of Dower’s masterpieces, it won a Pulitzer Prize when it was published in 1999 (and was reviewed in these pages shortly before the award was announced).
Like Johnson, Dower eventually became one of those scholars who apply themselves to questions beyond their academic specialties. In Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (2010), Dower makes superb use of his many years of trans-Pacific explorations on a global scale. Last year he published The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, a title that requires no explanation.
I had wanted to interview Dower for years. When we finally met in the dining room of a Boston hotel, the occasion was even more exceptional than I had anticipated. There at the table with Dower sat Herbert Bix, whose Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2000) was another groundbreaking masterwork (and another Pulitzer winner). Anyone who knows the Asia scene will understand what an extraordinary moment this was.
Bix’s interjections during our exchange are marked. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his conscientious work transcribing the audio recording. This is the first of two parts.
Patrick Lawrence: John, I see a remarkable trajectory in your work. It’s not quite right to say you began strictly as a Japanist, in that village studies and such topics were not what you were after. You were a student of the Pacific War, primarily, and then the postwar surrender settlement. But from there your work, especially the recent books, has opened up to subjects far broader than Japan. Cultures of War seems a culmination of that. Japan was a kind of springboard, I would say. Do you agree, and if so, was this your design from the beginning?