A War of Words: Allied Captivity and Swiss Neutrality in the Pacific, 1941-1945

Monday, January 27, 2014
12:00 PM - 1:15 PM
Philippines Conference Room
  • Sarah Kovner

This talk explores the work of Swiss diplomats and Red Cross delegates to explain the experience of Allied POWs and civilian internees in the Pacific War. As the only foreigners allowed into both POW and internee camps, and the only ones to work in Japan as well as Allied countries, they were uniquely positioned to record the flow of information between the two sides, the attempts to deliver material and financial aid, and the intensifying exchange of recrimination and threats. Washington and Tokyo made claims and counter-claims about the observance or non-observance of the Geneva Conventions. Both sides threatened and carried out reprisals and made their observance of international law conditional on the conduct of the enemy. While life was far worse for Allied captives than for their Japanese counterparts, it was not because of a deliberate policy of cruelty. Instead, senior Japanese officials never developed clear policy guidance for POWs and failed to provide adequate logistical and administrative support. The few Japanese officials who oversaw the camp system lacked any authority over individual commanders. Even so, the Swiss may well have helped prevent a bad situation from becoming even worse.

Sarah Kovner is a graduate of Princeton University (A.B.) and Columbia University (Ph.D), associate professor of history at the University of Florida, and is currently a Chauncey Fellow in International Security Studies at Yale. She works on modern Japanese history, international history, and the history of war and society. Kovner's first book, Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan, won the Southeast Conference Association for Asian Studies book prize. It is available in paperback from Stanford University Press. She is now writing a history of Allied prisoners in the Pacific War.