A Rose by any Other Name

Recently, Iva Toguri, the woman known to the world as 'Tokyo Rose' passed away at the age of 90. C.B.Liddell takes a look at how an unwilling announcer unwittingly created a wartime radio legend.

Late 1943 – after a few successes, the war in the Pacific is now going well for the Americans, but casualties are mounting. Following landings on the tiny Pacific island of Tarawa, in which over 1,000 US Marines had been killed by 2,600 heavily outnumbered Japanese, it is starting to sink in just how long and drawn out this war is going to be.

From the very beginning, this was the Japanese plan – to grab a vast defensive perimeter, then doggedly defend each and every inch of it in the hope of breaking America's will to attack. This war is not just about firepower. It is also about which side can take the most punishment, and, here, the Japanese think they have detected a key American weakness, a weakness they aim to exploit to the utmost.

Their key weapon in this struggle is a 27-year-old native of Los Angeles, a Japanese American stranded in Japan on the outbreak of WWII while visiting relatives and interned. The Zero Hour starring Iva Toguri as Tokyo Rose is about to take to the airwaves.

The Zero Hour had actually been running since March 1943. It was a typical by-the-book propaganda radio show, featuring popular music, punctuated by messages from POWs, snippets of genuine news censored by the Allies, and occasional calls to surrender or sabotage the war effort. Just like the broadcasts of Lord Haw-Haw from Nazi Germany to Britain during the London Blitz, it provoked a mixture of disdain and amusement.

Nevertheless, there were good reasons why the Japanese decided to continue with the program and develop it. Unlike the situation in Britain, where the nation's contempt for Lord Haw-Haw’s sneering tone had been steeled by the threat of imminent invasion, the Americans in the Pacific were fighting a long way from home. With the war turning into a grueling, island-hopping campaign of attrition, there was every reason to expect American morale to erode. This reflected the opinion of the Japanese military caste that US troops were basically selfish individualists unwilling to risk their lives in a long-term, high-risk war that didn't directly concern them. The key was to simply speed up this process of demoralization through the skillful use of propaganda.

The decision taken in November 1943 to use a female announcer was in line with Japanese propaganda objectives. The basic message being sent out to the average grunt was that he was a long way from home, and putting his neck on the line in a war from which he personally had nothing to gain and plenty to lose. Major Shigetsugu Tsuneishi, who had devised the program, rightly guessed that US troops would find it harder to ignore this message if it was 'sugar-coated' in a female voice.

Iva Toguri, who had been surviving by working as a typist at Radio Tokyo, agreed to do the broadcasts. She had already struck up friendships with several POWs working on the program, like Major Charles H. Cousens of the Australian Army, who had been threatened with execution if he did not cooperate. Toguri's motivation seems to have been a feeling of sympathy for these prisoners. Perhaps, like them, she managed to convince herself that the program would have little impact on the war.

Ironically, the sympathetic tone that Toguri imparted helped ensure the program's popularity and thus made it more effective as propaganda. Although it was still seen as a hopeless attempt to undermine Allied morale, the mere fact that it was listened to ensured that its message got through. The romantic tone of the music played made it easy for the program's controllers to foment feelings of homesickness, separation from loved ones, and even jealousy, as the scripted messages reminded GIs that many of their wives and girlfriends back home were probably feeling just as lonely as they were, and in a position to do much more about it. This, clearly, would have engendered feelings of cynicism and have made many GIs think twice about risking their lives.

Whatever the show's direct effect on the war, Tokyo Rose's voice became something of an aural pinup, a soundtrack to go with the posters of Betty Grable or Ginger Rogers posted on barrack lockers or stowed away in kitbags. This star quality, however, was to backfire badly following the Occupation. In September 1945, Toguri was arrested, but quickly released as there was no more evidence against her than there was against people like Major Cousens, who had written many of her propaganda segments. Believing that she was now safe, Toguri began to trade on her name as 'Tokyo Rose,' selling stories to the media and declaring that she was the one and only Tokyo Rose, although several other female announced had also filled the role.

When it was announced that she was returning to the States, the broadcaster Walter Winchell, the Rush Limbaugh of his day, denounced her as a traitor cashing in on her infamy, stirring up a media storm that even President Truman couldn't ignore, leading to a trial on charges of treason. Although concrete evidence was hard to come by, Toguri was finally convicted on one lame count of mentioning American shipping losses on her program, receiving 10 years in a US prison. Learning the lesson that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down even in America, Toguri spent the rest of her life living quietly in Chicago, helping out in the family store. She was pardoned in 1977.

While some still see her as a traitor who willingly collaborated, others take the opposite view that she was in fact a patriot and a heroine, who only worked on the show to help the POWs and did everything in her power to subvert the broadcasts by using odd pauses and ironic intonation. Even if the show did reduce American fighting spirit, it is still hard to blame Iva Toguri for what she did. The only crime she was really guilty of was becoming too famous, and this had as much to do with lonely GIs separated from the wives and girlfriends as it did with the odd circumstances that placed Iva Toguri in front of a microphone.

22nd of October, 2006

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