Civilians greet 1 Cavalry Division during its dash to

U.S. Army. Via

Civilians were all persons who were lawful noncombatants under the laws and customs of war and did not have special status as diplomats or medical personnel. These laws and customs of war sought to leave noncombatants as completely untouched by war as possible. Their persons were protected and their property was immune from seizure or destruction. Or such was the legal theory: In practice, the Second World War was a total war, in which the major belligerent powers harnessed their entire national strength to wage war. Total war blurred the distinction between soldier and civilian, since civilians carried out most of the production without which modern war could not be successfully waged. Thus civilian life was far from untouched by the war. Young male civilians were recruited into the armed forces in large numbers, while women and older men often found themselves working for long hours at new occupations needed for the war effort. All were propagandized by their governments to support the war.

Furthermore, to a degree unprecedented in modern times, civilians became military targets, since all the major powers participating in the Second World War engaged in military activities that brought harm to enemy civilians. These ranged from disruption of trade to strategic bombing of densely populated cities to outright massacre of entire populations. The result was that excess civilian deaths due to war accounted for around 70% of all excess deaths in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Civilians as Victims of War. Blockade had become an accepted strategy in warfare long before the Second World War, but the laws and customs of war sought to restrict the effects of blockade to the movement of troops and military supplies. To be legal, a blockade had to be effective, meaning that it was actually capable of intercepting most blockade runners. Various kinds of contraband were recognized, including absolute contraband (such as arms and ammunition) that could be seized unconditionally, and conditional contraband (such as food) that could be seized if it could be shown that it was intended for military use. A few items, such as medical supplies and a number of raw materials, were immune from being declared contraband. Both enemy and neutral merchant ships could be stopped and boarded if they attempted to run the blockade, and if contraband was found, a ship could be taken to a safe port for adjudication. If a prize court found that the the blockade was legal and the ship was in fact carrying contraband, the contraband cargo could be seized without payment. If the blockade was ineffective, neutral ships could not be stopped, and any contraband seized from enemy merchant ships had to be paid for. An attempt to codify these rules by treaty in 1910 collapsed; the rules of blockade were widely violated in the First World War; and they became a dead letter in the Second World War. The U-boat campaign in the Atlantic and the American and Japanese submarine campaigns in the Pacific sank enemy merchant ships without warning and in spite of the fact that none of these campaigns constituted an effective blockade in the strict legal sense.

The result was widespread disruption of trade and considerable civilian hardship. The food supplies of all the major powers except the United States were severely strained, and there was mass starvation in Russia, China, India, and much of southeast Asia. Japan was nearly to the point of mass starvation by mid-1945, which was avoided only because of the Japanese surrender and subsequent delivery of relief supplies by the occupying powers. Deaths by famine are difficult to precisely quantify, since famine occurs even in peacetime, but starvation probably claimed more civilian lives than all other causes combined.

Strategic bombing was one of the most controversial practices of the Second World War.  Early efforts to codify a ban on the bombing of cities went nowhere, and in 1941 there were no laws nor customs of war specifically addressing aerial bombardment. There was a general prohibition on wanton destruction not required by military necessity and a more specific prohibition on bombarding undefended cities, but neither was effective at restraining strategic bombing: Cities were almost never undefended and almost all had production facilities whose destruction could be regarded as  a military necessity.

By the time war broke out in the Pacific in late 1941, the Japanese, Germans, and British had all engaged in significant strategic bombing campaigns that had inflicted mass civilian casualties. The United States was slower to accept area bombing of cities, preferring costly daylight precision bombing until 1945. However, "precision" bombing using unguided bombs was far from accurate, and the lack of good intelligence on Japan; the dispersal of Japanese industry; unexpectedly poor weather over the Japanese home islands; and (in the opinion of many historians) racist attitudes towards the Japanese, inflamed by (mostly accurate) reports of Japanese atrocities, caused the Americans to abandon daylight precision bombing and engage in night firebombing raids on Japanese cities. The strategic bombing campaign culminated in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As brutal as they were, blockade and strategic bombing had plausible military justification and were directed against an enemy that was still resisting. Massacre of civilians had little or no military justification and was directed against the helpless. The most notorious massacre of the war was the Holocaust perpetrated by Germany in Europe, but the Japanese also perpetrated numerous massacres of civilians in Asia, of which the worst were probably the Rape of Nanking, the Manila Massacre, and the Sook Ching. The Allies were guilty of nothing comparable.

Internment was an ugly experience for large numbers of civilians. These ranged from Japanese-Americans in the United States, who suffered considerable material loss and were compelled to live in somewhat Spartan accommodations in internment camps, to Dutch internees living under appalling conditions in internment camps in Java.

Conscription. All the major powers conscripted large numbers of young men into the armed forces. The resulting labor shortage was made up by shutting down nonessential industries and by recruiting women and even children for war production work. In Britain and the United States, additional farm labor was released through increased mechanization of agriculture. This hastened the end of sharecropping by poor African-Americans in the American South, leading to a mass migration to the northern industrial cities with all the social consequences that followed.

In the United States, which had been relatively untouched by the war, the sense that veterans had made a disproportionate sacrifice for the war effort led to the G.I. Bill, which offered veterans loans for businesses or home mortgages and educational benefits. The result was a significant increase in home ownership and in the percentage of the population who attended college.

Labor. Manpower was harnessed for industrial production to an unprecedented degree during the war. This was a hardship for many families in most countries, but in the United States, wages were sufficiently generous that the standard of living actually increased during the war. Workers were paid around a dollar  per hour, depending on the industry, the local labor pool, and the amount of aptitude and training required for the job.

The demand for labor in the United States tended to break down racial barriers, and barriers to employment of women were lowered in almost all the warring powers. This would have significant postwar cultural consequences.

Rationing. All the major powers rationed food and other goods. This was true even in the United States, where the standard of living actually increased during the war. Rationing released farm workers for military service or war production and allowed the U.S. to provide food for the other Allies. Gasoline was also rationed, as were many manufactured goods, and automobiles and major appliances could not be purchased at all. (Most of the manufacturers had retooled for war production.)

The citizens of the other belligerent powers could, and did, wonder what the Americans had to complain about. By plundering the conquered countries of Europe, Germany maintained a fairly high standard of living for its civilians until quite late in the war, but nowhere close to that enjoyed in the United States. Britain was better off than any major powers except Germany and the United States, and was able to provide its civilians with adequate calories even in the worst months of the U-boat blockade; but the British diet was bland and monotonous, and the threat of air raid was never entirely removed.

In Japan, by 1943, the ration for male industrial workers was 2000 calories per day and for women was 1474 calories per day. By 1944, the American submarine blockade increased shortages of both food and fertilizer to the point where malnutrition was a serious concern, and there was real danger of widespread starvation by the time of the surrender, with a food ration per adult of just 1680 calories per day.

Among the industrial powers, Russia was worst off, with an economy already disrupted by Stalin's inept central planning and made much worse by the German occupation of the most productive agricultural areas of European Russia. Hard figures are hard to come by, but Collingham (2011) has characterized the Red Army of the Second World War as an army of starving soldiers. Civilians were even worse off, and the numbers who perished from actual starvation or from disease aggravated by malnutrition may never be known.

In China, India, and southeast Asia, poverty was widespread even  in peacetime, and the pressures of war made matters worse. A combination of disruption of global shipping, the loss of rice shipments from Japanese-occupied Burma, and British administrative incompetence led to the deaths of perhaps as many as three million Indians in Bengal. Japanese seizure of the rice crop likewise meant starvation for perhaps a million and a half Vietnamese. Two millions died of starvation in a famine in war-ravaged Honan.

Civil Defense. The United States was fortunate to avoid any experience of widespread bombing during the Second Wold War. The occasional shelling by an offshore I-boat and the balloon bomb campaigns were pinpricks. Civil defense in the U.S. was more an exercise for building morale than an actual military priority.

This was not true of Japan, which found itself woefully unprepared to weather  a prolonged strategic bombing campaign. Japanese defenses were pitifully inadequate and civil defense was rudimentary. Tokyo had just 18 concrete air raid shelters with a combined capacity of 5,000 persons. The coastal plains on which most of Japan's cities were built were composed of unstable soil derived from volcanic ash, which hindered excavation. The only shelter for most civilians was bokugo, small holes six to 15 feet (two to five meters) long, three feet (one meter) across, and four to six feet (1.5 to 2 meters) deep, with bamboo roofs covered with a thin layer of dirt. These were dug next to homes or along streets, and proved almost useless. Tokyo authorities had ordered the demolition of some 207,370 homes to produce 31 miles of firebreaks by March 1944, but in many cases the timber from the demolished homes had not yet been removed.

China had virtually no civil defense at all during the Japanese strategic bombing campaign, which hit the wartime capital of Chungking particularly hard. Civilians took to living in the numerous limestone caves in the area, and a widespread network of observers provided raid warning. American air units in China were forced to give high priority to defending the city, at which they had considerable success.

Military government. In areas occupied by hostile armies, or even by nominally friendly armies in a combat zone, normal civilian government was displaced by military government.

Under the laws and customs of war, occupying forces are prohibited from plunder and are required to give civilians accused of offenses against the military government a trial before a properly constituted tribunal. Japanese occupying forces showed little respect to these requirements, evading the prohibition against plunder by forcing civilians to sell to the military in exchange for worthless military scrip and denying accused civilians any due process. The Kempeitai, who were responsible for military government, dispensed with these formalities, practicing kikōsaku instead. The word can be plausibly translated as "hellcraft" and referred to summary execution of suspects, usually by beheading. The Kempeitai later blamed the Dutch for kikōsaku in the Netherlands East Indies on the grounds that it was the Dutch who instigated the activities being punished and thereby overwhelmed normal legal channels. Dutch intelligence officers later determined from captured Kempeitai documents that the Kempeitai had arrested 1918 persons on Java in 1943-1944, of whom 743 died while in their custody. 439 of these were formally executed while the remainder were listed as dying from illness or heart failure while in custody.

Many conquered territories were administered through puppet governments. These were often composed of nationalist leaders who , at least initially, hated their former Western colonial masters more than they hated the Japanese. Some, such as the Indonesian puppet government, remained nominally loyal to the Japanese to the end of the war. Others, such as many of the Burmese puppet leaders, became sufficiently disillusioned to change sides before the end of the war.

Once expelled from the Philippines, and until late 1944, American forces did not occupy any areas with sizable civilian populations. Many of the areas in which American troops were deployed were Australian or British territories whose military government was provided by representatives of those powers. These were often the same men who had previously run the civilian administration, with little distinction other than a change in uniform. This picture changed with the return to the Philippines, where American military forces had to deal with a large and needy civilian population that had suffered badly under Japanese occupation. Much of MacArthur's treatment of Filipino leaders must be understood in light of the need to keep the population in control at the least possible cost to the American Army.

The population in the Philippines was largely friendly to the Americans; the next large civilian population to come under American military rule, that of Okinawa, was not. The Okinawans were not a martial people, and their cultural predisposition was to submit to invaders rather than resist them, but most Okinawans were at least nominally loyal to Japan. The heavy bombardment the island was subject to prior to and during the battle produced heavy civilian casualties and vast numbers of displaced civilians. These were crowed into camps as far from the fighting as possible, dusted with DDT to reduce the likelihood of typhus or other epidemic diseases, and given basic food and medical care. The conduct of the Americans towards the Okinawans was usually decent, sometimes even kind, but there were also abuses of civilians that included casual destruction of property, looting, and at least a few hundred rapes. (A postwar Okinawan historian's estimate of 10,000 rapes should be taken with a grain of salt.) The worst incident was the massacre of sixty civilians in the southern tip of Okinawa in the final days of the battle.

The war ended before American troops landed in Japan, largely sparing the Americans the burden of setting up a military government in an area with an implacably hostile population. The occupation forces were helped immeasurably by the attitude of the Emperor, who found it expedient to fully cooperate with MacArthur and to influence other Japanese to do the same. The structure of civilian government was still largely in place and, for at least the first years of the occupation, amounted to a puppet government under American direction.

Refugees. Civilians fleeing from the battle zone or whose homes were destroyed by strategic bombing were a concern of most of the warring powers.

By and large, the refugees dealt with by the United States were of other nationalities, and almost all of these were in Europe rather than the Pacific. The U.S. mainland was largely immune to bombing or invasion, but native Alaskans were evacuated from the Aleutians when the island chain became a combat theater. The Aleuts were not always happy to be evacuated, blurring the distinction between refugee and internee. Many military families were evacuated from the Philippines just before war broke out, and additional military families were evacuated from Hawaii, but these were relatively few in number and were readily accommodated in the mainland.

Britain had already absorbed large numbers of Chinese refugees at Hong Kong before war broke out, and little could be done for then before the surrender of the colony. Much worse was the situation in Burma when it was invaded by the Japanese in early 1942. Thousands of civilians, primarily Indians who had emigrated to Burma as entrepreneurs or as part of the civil service, fled before the Japanese advance, and the British Army was unable to help them in any meaningful way. Casualties among the refugees were immense and they found little relief on reaching India. Willmott (1982) concludes that this catastrophe helped destroy the legitimacy of British rule in the Far East after the war.

China faced the most massive refugee problem of any of the wartime powers. The Development and Relief Committee (Zhenji weiyuanhui) was established to try to deal with the vast numbers of refugees who fled to the Kuomintang-controlled areas of southwest China, and eventually established 38 general stations and 1059 substations and registered 9.2 million refugees. This was a small fraction of the displaced population in China, but if the effort was inadequate, it was nonetheless significant, marking a basic shift in the social contract between government and citizen in China. The Japanese in turn launched a major propaganda effort to persuade Chinese civilians to return to their homes, believing this would undermine the Kuomintang and also provide intelligence on Chinese military activities.


Avalon Project (accessed 2009-6-13)

Collingham (2011)

Feifer (1992)

London Declaration (1909; accessed 2014-6-9)

Mitter (2013)

Willmott (1982)

Witt (2012)

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