A New Perspective on World War II POW Camps

Sarah Kovner ’91, Ph.D., Senior Research Scholar in the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, recently published Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps (Harvard University Press 2020). Her book provides new perspective about World War II POW camps, countering the long-held belief that the Japanese Empire systematically mistreated Allied prisoners.

In the space of five months, from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 until May 1942, the Japanese Empire took prisoner over 140,000 Allied servicemen and 130,000 civilians from twelve different countries. The Japanese quickly formed over seven hundred hastily made camps across China and Southeast Asia and, in the chaos that ensued, forty percent of American POWs perished. Kovner presents the first account of imprisonment in the Pacific theater and explains why so many suffered.

Some of the worst treatment was the result of a lack of planning and poor training, rather than a specific policy of tormenting prisoners. Her book is an important document that contributes to ongoing debates over POW treatment through to today’s conflicts.

Kovner was interviewed by Jeannie SUK Gersen ’91, D.Phil, J.D., Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, in October 2020. To see the interview, log onto the HCHSAA events page at h≈https://www.hchsaa.org/alumni2020..