Oral History of Professor Sidney Fine
By James Eliassen
On Friday, March 13, 1998 I interviewed Professor Sidney Fine about his involvement and experiences in World War II and the Japanese occupation. He is a long-time professor of history at the University of Michigan, an authority on the history of America and the New Deal, as well as a Golden Apple award winner. He was born on October 11, 1920 in Cleveland, Ohio. During the war, Professor Fine served in the Office of Naval Intelligence. His assignment was in the Seventh fleet Naval intelligence, Unit three. He began his service as an Ensign and was latter promoted to Lieutenant, Junior grade. Professor Fine was mainly responsible for Japanese translation and occasional interrogation of prisoners. The transcript of his interview follows...
Can you reflect back on the early part of the war? How did you become
I was a senior in college, at Western Missouri University. Of course because of my age, I realized I would soon be 1A for the draft. I applied for a deferment until I could get a Masters degree. I came to Michigan because at that time it had a trimester school year. I graduated in June (from Western Missouri), so I thought I could have my degree in December. They never answered me, so I didn't know if I was going to be turned down or not. Then the opportunity came to volunteer for a navy program to study Japanese. We had practically nobody in this country that could speak the language, believe it or not. You had to be Phi Beta Kappa to get in. I was reading in the Phi Beta Kappa Key reporter, one day, and it mentioned that a Lieutenant Highmarsh was coming to Ann Arbor to interview people who might want to join the program. I called him right away, the same afternoon actually. He interviewed me in the Michigan Union, and he told me I had to decide right away. I wanted to call my Mom, Dad, and my Wife. We were very close and we wanted to get married sometime. He (Highmarsh) said no, and I had to decide right on the spot.
We knew that we would have at least twelve months of training at the University of Colorado. If we were married we could live off base. It sounded like a lot better duty then being shot at in the infantry. So I made my decision. I called home, and in the interim I got married. We made off for Boulder (Colorado). We spent fourteen months there, and all we did was Japanese. We had four hours of class, five days a week, we had about eight hours of homework every day, and we had three tests every Saturday mourning. We had about two weeks of bad grades and then out you went. Mind you these are people who are used to being first, and all the grades were posted to stir competition. We had one hour of exercise a day, that was it. We did calisthenics for twenty minutes and then you played a sport. I couldn't swim so I had to take that first, but then I played football, basketball, baseball...Boulder was a great place, we just loved it.
It was a successful program. We were much better trained then the army, which incidentally was trained in Ann Arbor. They were not officers until they were finished. They were marched to class everyday. We were officers from almost the start. We didn't train (militarily) at all, but again I never did anything as concentrated in my life. I had a lot of languages, but this was very different. You couldn't apply what you learned from French, German, Spanish, or Latin. This was a whole different ball game.
If you can, try and describe the mood of the country after Pearl Harbor.
The feeling was, I think, that there was considerable support for the war. We're sorry this happened, but we're going to go out there and get rid of the bastards. There was a definite hatred. Curiously more for Japan then the Nazis because they had attacked us. Pearl Harbor was that dastardly deed. The country felt that way. I would say, although it didn't affect our outfit, there was a racial opposition to the Japanese. A lot of people hated the Germans, I certainly did, but I didn't feel any hatred to the Japanese personally. I resented them. I resented being there. I wanted to win. I felt that we were right, they were wrong. They were the enemy, that was it. I didn't have any racism, but I think if I had to generalize as a historian and from what I felt at the time there was a racial hatred of Japan. I don't think this characterized Americans, in general, about the Germans. They were Europeans, they looked like us, and they didn't attack us.
Did you enter the armed services after Pearl Harbor?
I entered the war a year after Pearl Harbor, in December of 1942.
When Pearl Harbor happened, did it make you eager to fight the Japanese?
Well, I wasn't very anxious to get killed. I mean I think we took a feeling of resignation that the war had to be fought. I never had any doubt about the necessity we had to fight the Germans or the Japanese. I dealt with intellectuals, our whole outfit, and those are the people that criticize everything. Yet, I never heard anyone of us say that the war didn't have to be fought. I would say the whole country was like that, nobody wanted to fight, or get killed, but there was a sense of resignation that it had to be done.
It was regarded as the ìgood warî for that reason. The people that survived were all better-off actually. It was a terrible tragedy, but so is war in general. However, the workers here benefited, the soldiers that survived and weren't injured benefited. I don't know if I could have gone to graduate school without the G.I. Bill of Rights, even though they gave me a fellowship.
Yeah, we knew what had to be done, but to say that we were anxious to go out there and lose our lives is carrying it a little far. But its not like Vietnam where a lot of servicemen didn't want to be where they were, or resented being there. Something had to be done and it was for a good cause.
Did you eventually get close to the war?
I guess I was overseas for seventeen months, starting in Australia. I was in something called A.T.I.S., or allied translator and interpreter service. Then I was sent to the Philippines when that was allegedly secure, but actually it wasn't. I was in the Philippines when the bombs dropped on Japan and the war ended. I was then sent to Guam for future assignment, and from Guam I was sent to Japan during the occupation for several months, and then I came home from there.
What is your personal opinion of the Atomic bomb?
I justify it, I think it had to be done. Still, I don't think it was a tough decision for President Truman. In the context of the war, it had to be done. And I think for all its horror, and of course we didn't know how horrible it was at the time, including the people who created the bomb, I think it saved Japanese lives and it saved American lives. I never had any guilt feelings about it-a lot of Americans do, I understand that, I respect that. It was a terrible thing to do to the Japanese, but you know they bombed Pearl Harbor, we didn't. And for the President of the United States to worry about how many he was going to kill in Japan in the context of that war, you've got to be kidding me. Only Historians could get involved in that kind of debate. I never met a Veteran who had any resignations. We had wild parties, actually. We knew the war was over.
Do you think the use of the bomb the second time was justified?
That's a little harder. We might have waited a little longer, but that's all we had, and they wanted to have the shock effect. I'm not prepared to criticize that, but I'm more willing to accept an argument about that. I think it probably took two to convince them. They thought it was in production. They didn't know. I'm willing to argue the second one a little bit, but the first I have no argument. I understand the argument of the other side. I dismiss the argument on the first bomb.
Was the atomic bomb's use political in any way?
Well, there is a big argument that it was designed to impress the Soviet Union, and Jimmy Byrnes, the Secretary of State, did say something about that. But that was secondary, Truman never even mentioned that. There is nothing in the Truman records, unpublished or published, suggesting that. He may have thought about that, and the like, but I don't think they knew what they had. Oppenheimer, who became the great critic of it, talked about dropping fifty of them. So they didn't know what they had. A lot of this is reading backwards, the horror of it that we now know. That was a big bomb, you could do a hell of a lot more damage with one bomb, but they didn't know how severe the radiation effects would be. So I think we're reading a lot backwards now when we realize how terrible the atomic bomb really was.
Do you think the fact that it was dropped on Japan had any racial overtones? Would they have used it on Germany?
I don't think there's any question about that. They would have used it on Germany. In fact, the whole push to build the bomb was because they were afraid Germany would get the bomb before we did. There's nothing in the record that indicated Roosevelt wouldn't have used it against Germany. I don't think there's any doubt. I don't see anything in the record. They knew Germany was the tougher enemy.
How did the citizens of America and Japan feel about the use of the atomic bombs?
Well America felt its use was justified, and still does. If you follow the reaction to the Enola Gay, the general public, quite apart from veterans, were furious when they tried to include some criticism of the bomb in the Smithsonian institute. So we don't have to argue about that.
Japan eventually began to dwell on the horror of it without ever admitting anything they did in China or to American prisoners. But, you know, they saw it first-hand, saw what had happened to some of their people. So it wasn't surprising they became critics of it. Although if you follow the record of the time closely, some of the Japanese leaders thanked God it gave them a chance to get out of the war. They knew they were doomed, but they were afraid to stop.
Do you think history has accurately portrayed the events of the Atomic bomb? Has it done justice to it?
Its one of the most controversial issues in twentieth century American history. It depends on how you come out. I would say there is an enormous record for anybody who wants to study it. I lecture on it, I have to study it, which convinces me it was justified. Other people have looked at that record and come to different conclusions. There's been no effort to conceal anything. The record is there if you want it. People look at the same set of data and come to different conclusions.
What was the occupation of Japan like?
I was there for about three months, as I recall. I was there in October and I got to come home in December. I was terrified that I would be called back because I spoke Japanese. I was terrified I would be called to Korea because they all speak Japanese. I found it a surprise. Something about the Japanese nature, they accepted their defeat. They were rather at peace. There were almost no incidents during the entire occupation. I walked the streets, talked to Japanese people in their language, questioned them, they were always trying to shower us with tickets, and they invited us to their homes. We weren't allowed to, but it was just after this brutal war with atomic bombs. We thought there'd be hatred towards us, but I would say the attitude of the Japanese people seemed to be resignation. O.K. you guys won, you proved it militarily, you've got this weapon, what ever it was, but we're just willing to live with it. It was kind of astonishing. It was an unusually peaceful occupation.
I was there two and a half months after the end of the war. We were very quickly transferred to Tokyo. I worked in something called the Washington Document Center, which was an inter-service outfit. I was right in downtown Tokyo, a few doors away from General MacArthur's headquarters. I used to see General MacArthur quite regularly. He used to come out early in the afternoon. He'd come out after lunch. He had one guard trailing behind him. The Japanese would gather and bow respectfully. He apparently loved it. He was very good at this. The joke I always tell is Hirohito thought he was God, but MacArthur convinced him that he was God. I thought he did a real good job there. I am not one of his greatest admirers, but he had the right temperament for the occupation.
What was the mood of the Japanese during the occupation?
As I say, It was resignation. Not violent, if it was bitter it was pretty much concealed from us. We felt secure in Japan, wandering the streets alone, and the like. Its not like somebody was going to take a shot at us. From my recollection and from what I read about the occupation that was generally true, and not just my unit. If your making generalizations there is little evidence of hatred in terms of the reaction to us. What went on in the privacy of their homes we don't know.
Do you think the Japanese felt apologetic for initiating the war?
They have never taken that position. They have been very reluctant to accept responsibility for the way they treated China, for example, and the Philippines. That's been a big issue, trying to get that introduced into the public schools in Japan. They don't want to do it. The Germans have done it. They've renounced their past. I give them credit for that, but the Japanese are very reluctant to do that. And we certainly saw no evidence of that immediately after the war.
How did you personally feel about the Japanese after the war?
We were not in combat, so we probably had less resentment towards them then the average service men. I can't recall anything special. The war was over. Let's try and live in peace. Make sure it doesn't happen again, we're very clear about that. Don't let them build up, but we felt the same way about the Germans, at that time.
What movies did you see during the war that standout in your memory?
While we were overseas we saw a movie every week. I don't have to tell you the kind of reactions we had when the enemy appeared on the screen, or given young men any time women appeared on the screen, hooting and whistling. I remember Casablanca as a movie that affected me a lot. We talked about that a great deal. Some of the war movies, I can't remember (their titles), but I thought they were quite effective.
I didn't see many propaganda films. The only time I really saw them was after we finished at Boulder. We were sent to New York for a month of intelligence training- that's the first time they taught us to fire a weapon. We saw propaganda films there, but that's the only time. I don't recall ever seeing them overseas. We saw Hollywood films. We saw U.S. government documentaries, O.W.I. films and the like, in New York, which would have been about April of 1944.
At the time did you realize what the propaganda films were attempting?
We were a well educated bunch. We knew the government had to do it. I think they were pretty-good films, as I recall. I don't remember sitting-around saying "boy what a bunch of propaganda that was." We were committed to the cause. The O.W.I. films we saw I think were pretty good, actually, considering it was war time and obviously you're not going to criticize the United States. They weren't crazy films that said these were monsters we were fighting.
Did you get a chance to see any captured enemy films?
No. In Boulder, we used to see a Japanese film once a week. But these were pre-war films used to get us accustomed to the language. Of course, every time they used an English word we'd cheer because we couldn't get most of it. It was to get us familiarized with the Japanese sound. As the days went on, we'd get better and better. They were strange movies---I mean the Japanese made some good movies after the war, but these were pitiable. We would laugh at them.
How did film influence your own perceptions of the enemy?
It didn't. They were formed before the war and by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and by the events of the war.
Do you think any of these films were harmful in the way they presented the Japanese?
Not That I personally recall. If you read John Dower's book, War Without Mercy, he talks about that. He may overdo it a bit, but it was there without question, but I don't remember that in terms of the films I saw. Remember its fifty years ago, so its not fresh in my mind.
Did the racial overtones of the war influence you at all?
I don't think so. I had a enormous hatred for the Nazis before the war, and I certainly didn't have any fondness for the Japanese, but not because they were Oriental. I will say, with almost no exceptions, the group which I was with, which included Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, and everything else, I can't recall them making any disparaging remarks about the Japanese as a race.
How do you think race influenced soldiers on both sides of the war?
It's based on what I've read. I didn't know how the Japanese felt about us. But after studying the war, I would say it affected American troops certainly, and it affected Japanese troops. They would shout ìdown with Babe Ruthî when they charged, and they were scared to death of us. That's why we could almost not capture them. We didn't get that many prisoners to capture. They would answer when we questioned them, once you got them. We were taught to treat them well, not like the Australians who physically abused them. We supplied them with cigarettes, asked them about their families. Once they were captured they were very different people. It was almost impossible to capture them, they would jump off the cliffs before they would get caught. We captured very few Japanese relative to the number we killed. The Germans, when they were beat, they were taught to surrender. It's futile (to fight), the same with our troops. You don't die for no reason at all. The Japanese were not that way. We knew there were cultural differences. You've got to be careful between cultural and racial differences. Some people generalize. I don't think our group did, I don't want to overpraise us, but we were a very unusual group and there was almost nothing like that in the whole service.
Do you think race played a role in the amount of violence in the war?
Yeah. I think maybe more towards the Japanese, but you know when somebody is trying to kill you you're going to react rather strongly. We were somewhat barbaric towards the Japanese. I think more so, relatively, then towards the Germans.
Do you think the countries involved in the war were overly violent?
Well, it was a brutal war. Let's face it. The technology of the weaponry, we never had air-attacks on that level before, and there was indiscriminate killing of civilians. That used to be a no-no in American military tradition. We never admitted that we actually had a policy of killing civilians, but we did. We bombed cities, and your going to kill civilians when you do that. It was an upstaging of violence in terms of wars previous. War is horrible to begin with, but this was the most horrible war of all-time.
Do you think America became desensitized to violence because of this war?
Individual service men may have. Sometimes, after the war, you get murders and the like, but the country I don't think so. A lot of people, millions, had experienced violence, but the extent to which that effected the country in terms of accepting violence, I would say no.
Looking back at this war, do you see it as the "good war?"
Well, no war is a good war. When you think of the deaths that were involved, the families, loved ones, children without parents, that's not good. But if you look at the economy, and things of that sort, we benefited from the war. We emerged as the world's greatest power, and we had a tremendous economic spurt. For the African-Americans it was a good war, their position improved. It gave them incentive, incentive to keep trying to improve. Conscientious objectors were treated better than usual, although not perfectly. You can make an argument if you forget the millions of people being killed. For the homefront it was a good war. Look at full employment. We went from unemployment to full employment.
Do you think the American government and armed forces fought the war effectively?
Yeah, I think we did about as good a job as you can expect, both on the homefront and in terms of fighting the war. There's always a lot of death in wartime. Mistakes were made by different admirals and generals, there's no doubt about that, but on the whole in the homefront and the warfront good people came to the top in both. We did a very respectable job in a very difficult war.
Looking back at the war fifty years later, how do you perceive your involvement?
Well it was very important to my life, personally. It enabled my wife and I (fiancé at the time) to get married earlier. I could not have afforded to go to graduate school, and the war made it possible for me. I was going to become a high school teacher. The war made a big difference for me. I benefited from the war. I survived. I got married. My whole career was affected by it. The war helped make that possible.
What events standout most in your mind from the war?
Pearl Harbor. The invasion of France (D-Day). The Atomic bomb. Those would be the three, and Roosevelt's death. I still remember the headline in Brisbane (Australia) when Roosevelt died, it said ìthe champ is dead.î They weren't talking about any Australian, they were talking about Roosevelt. He became the world leader of the allies verses the axis. Yeah, Roosevelt's death was a real shocker. We were scared to death. I remember we gathered around the short-wave radio to hear Harry Truman speak, and the difference between Roosevelt's voice and Truman's, you know... Those were the big events.